US Green Berets from the 19th Special Forces group sweep into this desolate northern village of adobe buildings and dusty alleyways. Afghan militiamen under American command, some lugging heavy machine guns, take up positions inside a mud-walled compound. A Special Forces sniper perches atop an outbuilding, its walls cracked by the sun.
They've come here at a late-summer dawn to confront a local strongman suspected of harboring Al Qaeda militants. According to Sergeant Jerry, a Green Beret intelligence specialist, the warlord is not a suspected Al Qaeda sympathizer. Rather, as a Northern Alliance subcommander, he is Al Qaeda's sworn enemy.
But US commanders say he may nevertheless be peddling one of the most valuable commodities to result from their presence in Afghanistan: former Taliban and Al Qaeda soldiers. Since the early months of the war, stories have been circulating that Al Qaeda is paying locals tens of thousands of dollars to spirit its people out of Afghanistan. Now, some in the US military say this cash trade is flourishing with the help of Afghan Militia Forces (AMF) Afghan soldiers supposedly under the control of the central government in Kabul.
"Foreigners are being held and ransomed," Jerry explains (Special Forces troops prefer to be identified by rank and first name only). "People are paying money for people."
In July, a subcommander in Konduz was forced to turn over Uzbek militants he was holding for ransom; they were with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which fought beside Al Qaeda in the Shah-e Kot Valley in March. Since then, three separate informants have accused the AMF subcommander in Daste Arche of doing the same thing unusually solid sourcing in a war where hard facts are as elusive as Osama bin Laden.
Yet for Green Berets, the task of rooting out Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants isn't any easier now that their targets have become valuable hostages.
Northern Afghanistan, particularly the provinces of Konduz, Takhar, and Badakhshan, is a wild hinterland. After the Taliban fell, its fighters surrendered in large numbers; others fled south to Kabul and east into Pakistan. But an indeterminate number of combatants stayed behind, disappearing into sympathetic villages.
"The area has never been cleared, ever," says Captain Don Ray, who commands the Special Forces A-team based in Konduz. "After the Taliban fled, no one went back to check the villages, and we continue to get spot intelligence about Al Qaeda out here."
Special Forces soldiers in Konduz say that the old Russian airstrip in the city, a massive, derelict complex, has been given over to American control. It will be used as a staging area for a fine-toothed combing of the area to the east, toward the border with Pakistan.
The AMF is, theoretically, a key ally in this department. In Konduz, US Special Forces troops have cultivated a relationship with their Afghan counterparts, letting the Afghans tool around on their four-wheel ATVs in return for a spin in a Russian T-55 tank.
In spite of that, local AMF forces are suspected of aiding the enemy. "What's really frustrating is that you can't trust AMF to turn them over, because you don't know what side they're on," Jerry says. "Even my security officials are protecting Al Qaeda. How can I expect civilians to turn them in?"
Afghan President Hamid Karzai brushes aside suggestions that soldiers nominally under his command are ransoming fugitives. "It's not possible," he says. "My 6th Corps commander would never let that happen."
Karzai's 6th Corps commander in Konduz is General Daud Khan, who directed AMF forces against the Taliban in November, and has since presided over a stable and peaceful province. General Daud, too, dismisses the notion that his men are ransoming fugitives.
"I trust my men," he says. "We have some people in country who care about their country, and they won't think about the money. I am sure about my soldiers."
Still, Green Berets such as Jerry and Don insist that former Taliban soldiers are being ransomed and that the AMF is involved.
"All we can do is try to convince and influence our local counterparts to take ownership of the problem," Don says. "They think the Americans will leave and yeah, eventually we will. So they're waiting us out, for sure, and playing for the cash in the short term."
In addition to stories of Al Qaeda operatives offering large sums for its soldiers, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group that has ties to both Al Qaeda and major opium smuggling operations in the north, is also said to pay big bucks to free its fighters.
On the other hand, Pakistani-born Taliban foot soldiers, many of them educated at religious schools, or madrassahs, just across the border, are not known to fetch high fees. According to Sergeant Steve, a Special Forces engineer, Pakistanis languish in Afghan prisons, hoping their families can scrounge together enough cash to get them out.
"It seems like everyone's got a Pakistani they're keeping locked up at home," says Steve. "I call it the Pakistani giveaway. They know no one's paying anything for Pakistanis, so to placate the Americans, sometimes they'll hand some over to us."
The mission to Daste Arche comes up empty-handed. In six months of operations in northern Afghanistan, Jerry's 12-man Special Forces A-Team has only captured six foreign-born militants.
"We keep hearing reports they're here," says Jerry. "Somalis, Chechens, Arabs can't find them."
But a few days after the raid, a dependable informant visits the Special Forces' safe house in Konduz. The portly, bearded man, swathed in a white turban, confirms that the Americans had their man, but that the foreigners in his control moved just before dawn.
"They knew you were coming," he tells Don. "In these areas, if someone is Al Qaeda, they will be protected."