Just after midnight March 13, Janad Gul was awakened by a sound that every Afghan border security soldier dreads. It was the battle cry of Islamic fighters against non-Muslims.
The 28 Afghan guards at the Spin Khaware checkpoint knew instantly who their enemy was - the Taliban - and that this would be a battle to the death.
Three hours later, Mr. Gul and a fellow Afghan fighter named Alif Jan were kidnapped, the Afghan border checkpoint had burned to the ground, and two of the nearly 80 Taliban attackers were killed, say witnesses, including top Afghan military officials in Khost. But the tragedy for Gul and Mr. Jan's family - and the terror felt by Afghan forces in this border province - was just beginning.
"During the attack, our men had killed their leader, Maulvi Karim Shafi, who was a top leader in Al Qaeda," says Gen. Almargul Mangal, commander of the Afghan Border Security Force for Khost Province, which includes this checkpoint. "Then after three days, we got the bodies of our two soldiers, [Gul and Jan]. They had been killed in a cruel way. The attackers sent us word that this was for revenge."
In the ongoing war against terrorism, the death of two Afghan soldiers is a sad but normal occurrence. According to US military officials at Bagram Air Base, near Kabul, Afghans are the frontline soldiers fighting with US forces against Al Qaeda, and they are usually the first to be killed. While US deaths in this low-intensity conflict are rare, dozens of Afghan soldiers are killed each month.
But it's the cruel manner in which Gul and Jan were killed - their noses and ears chopped off, their bones crushed, their throats ceremonially cut - that has taken Afghan military officials aback. Even Afghans who have become inured to brutality and death after two decades of fighting found these two deaths shocking.
Top Afghan officials believe these killings are no aberration, but rather part of a campaign to intimidate Afghan soldiers and families - and to carry out promises in Taliban propaganda to torture and kill those who support the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Across the southern portions of Afghanistan, handwritten leaflets have been appearing in local villages for months, urging Afghans to join the fight against US forces. A growing number of these "night letters" make direct threats against those who work with Americans or coalition forces, threatening murder by shooting, bombing, land mines, torture, and decapitation.
Gul used to spend month after month at his checkpoint along the Pakistani border, much of it without any pay from the central government, according to his cousin, Haji Zera Gul. But despite the danger and the chance that Gul's two sons and two daughters would be left fatherless, he never gave a second thought to the threats in those letters.
"He loved his country," says Haji Zera, a shopkeeper in the provincial capital of Khost. "His commander suggested that he take a job and work in the city, to make more money for his family. But [Gul] said, 'No, I want to go to the mountains and kill Al Qaeda.' "
Two days after the attack, the Khost government told Gul's family that he was missing. Haji Zera says he cannot imagine what must have gone through his cousin's mind in his last hours. And when Gul's body was finally returned, with obvious signs of torture, his family had him buried quietly so as not to frighten other Afghan soldiers.
"We didn't tell anybody that he had been killed by Al Qaeda, because we didn't want to show that our Afghan forces are weak, and we didn't want the other soldiers to be scared," says Haji Zera. "Whoever did this, they were not Afghans, because no Afghan could do this to another human. And they are not real Muslims either." To this day. locals are aware of the two murders - but remain uninformed about how brutal Gul and Jan's deaths were.
Jan's father, Gulmar, remembers the pain he felt when he saw his son's body. "I was beating my chest, wondering what can I do," says Gulmar, a farmer from Khost.
Then that pain turned to anger. "I am very poor, I am an illiterate person, I have no idea who is an Al Qaeda supporter and who is not," he says. "I just know that whoever fights me, I will fight with him, no matter how long it takes."
In Pakistan's tribal areas, meanwhile, local Pashtuns and Islamic radicals have greeted the attack on the Spin Khaware checkpoint as yet another heroic victory in the jihad, or religious struggle against the Afghan government and its American supporters.
Mir Dost, an Afghan national who lives in Miram Shah, Pakistan, says that the vast majority of local Pashtuns turned out for the funeral of the slain leader, Maulvi Karim Shafi, who led the attack on Janad Gul's checkpoint.
"People say anyone who dies [fighting] against Afghan soldiers he will be a martyr, so they celebrated Maulvi Karim's death as martyrdom," says Mr. Dost, a businessman who has family on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. "Everyone says Afghans have become Americans, so it is the duty of Muslims to kill them."