Driving their Toyota pickups into an open area between high mud-walled homes in the village of Ghar-e Kale, Captain Beau Baggett and his men settle down with local elders under the shade of a mulberry tree to shoot the breeze.
The meeting feels like a neighborhood association. The villagers tell of their concerns: Russian land mines on a local mountaintop and earthshaking explosions at the nearby US military base, where soldiers are destroying confiscated weapons.
The Americans then tell of their concerns. Somebody fired rockets from a nearby hilltop a few months ago. The village elder, Abdul Malik, promises to capture and throttle anybody who fires on the Americans.
"During the holy war with Russia, our village was destroyed," Mr. Malik says. "We don't want any trouble. We just want to build our homes, our country."
Two years ago, American soldiers wouldn't have thought twice about the day-to-day gripes of a distant Afghan village. But today, nearly two years after the fateful Sept. 11 attacks, Afghanistan remains a centerpiece in America's war on terrorism. Not only has the US Army set up Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) like the one here in Gardez, but American experts are now being selected to advise regional governors and top Afghan ministers. US aid to Afghanistan is expected to double this year as well.
It's all part of what some diplomats here are calling the Bremerization of Afghanistan, adopting the pro-active management style of America's administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, to an Afghan context. And US officials and Afghan officials say it's a sign that America's involvement in Afghanistan is deepening and expanding beyond a narrow task of hunting for Al Qaeda remnants to a broader task of shaping a nation.
The question many Afghan officials and foreign aid workers are asking now is whether this renewed US attention is coming too late.
"There's a reason we're here: We don't want 9/11 to happen again," says Col. Anthony Hunter, head of the US Army's PRT in Gardez, which started operations last January. "And the US government is committed to maintaining the security in Afghanistan, so they will commit the resources to do that."
"Every villager we meet tells us they don't want us to leave this country as we did after the Soviet withdrawal" from Afghanistan, Colonel Hunter adds. "But my response is that you can't rebuild a country in two years that was destroyed for 25 years. We've got a long way to go, but we're going to stay the course."
If the American military and diplomatic corps are working hard to prove their sincerity, there is a good reason. Afghans remember how quickly American support evaporated after the withdrawal of Soviet occupation troops in 1989. And as US troops were airlifted to yet another war in Iraq last spring, many Afghan officials openly complained that America seemed ready to abandon their country yet again, just as Taliban attacks are increasing and international aid money slows to a trickle.
While the war in Iraq struck doubt in many Afghan hearts, there has been a slew of recent steps that seemed to be aimed at restoring that trust.
Last month, President Bush appointed his personal envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to be US ambassador to Afghanistan, and gave him sweeping new powers to oversee the reconstruction process. In addition, Bush officials reportedly are planning to double the planned US reconstruction budget for Afghanistan to nearly $1.8 billion, and to place up to 100 Americans in key positions in Afghan ministries to speed up the reconstruction process.
In addition, they plan to double the number of PRTs, a US official told Reuters, as US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld kicked off a visit to Afghanistan Sunday.
With most headlines focusing on an upsurge in Taliban attacks across the south, it's easy to forget how much ordinary life here has changed.
Over 2 million Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan in the past two years.
In major cities, from Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif to Herat, small businesses have opened to help individual Afghans rebuild their homes. Lumber yards are full of timber for roofs. Carpentry shops are banging out new doors and windows.
In the countryside, farmers are digging out the silt from irrigation canals neglected during a generation of war. This work, combined with good rains, made this year's wheat crop the largest in 20 years.
Some larger-scale reconstruction projects are also under way. International engineers have shut off traffic to repair the war-damaged Salang Tunnel, which connects Kabul with the northern areas such as Kunduz and Mazar-e Sharif. Down south, US engineers are expecting to finish repaving the Kabul-to-Kandahar road by the end of the year, cutting an 18-hour trip to about five or six hours.
Poor security conditions, however, could further delay the road's completion. Just last week, Taliban attacks killed six soldiers guarding the $250 million project.
Seen in another light, the road project is a success just for breaking dirt. Of the over $5 billion pledged by international donors for reconstruction, less than $1 billion has actually been spent on projects that were under way by May 31, according to a report from the Center on International Cooperation at New York University (see chart, page 14).
Some sectors, including energy, telecommunications, and private-sector development, have received next to no project funding, the report finds.
And slow response from donor nations could delay the registration of voters, warned UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva at the end of August. The nation has missed several deadlines along the way to organizing next June's vote - the first modern, democratic elections since the 1960s.
The sluggish pace of funding and greater long-term needs ahead worry Afghan officials and international aid workers, who nonetheless welcome the renewed US interest.
"This obviously is a boost to the effort to create visible change ... in people's lives," says Omar Samad, spokesman for Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry. "But what we are looking at is the bigger context. In the next 10 years, we will need $15 billion in assistance to rebuild this country and to feel confident of the direction this country is heading. What we received in pledges so far is just $5 billion to cover the next four or five years."
The goal, says Shahmahmood Miakhel, a senior Interior Ministry official, is self-reliance. But that will only come after richer nations help Afghanistan remove the detritus of war.
"We want a government that can stand on its own feet, and not allow Al Qaeda and the Taliban to operate here," says Mr. Miakhel. "Clearly, we are not in that stage now. If there were no coalition forces and no peacekeepers, we'd be back to square one again."
Indeed, across the southern portion of Afghanistan, there has been a notable increase in violence, from small-scale ambushes of US troops to bomb attacks on civilian buses to daylight attacks on remote Afghan police posts. At press time, US, British, and Afghan troops were engaged in what the US military is calling the largest operation in a year to rout up to 1,000 Taliban in the mountains of Zabul.
The violence threatens to undo progress. Last Tuesday, unknown assailants burned down a tent school in Logar Province. It had been built with the help of a Danish charity to serve some 1,100 local children, including girls.
The Taliban regime had forbidden girls from going to school, and had forced women to wear burqas. In some areas, especially Kabul, some women now wear less restrictive clothing in public, and girls have returned to school.
But a July report from Human Rights Watch finds women in many regions are not always free "to seek education, to seek lifesaving healthcare, and, in some cases, even to leave the walls of their family compound."
Across the south, where Pashtuns make up the vast majority, villagers talk of their suspicions that the Americans are giving more support to the powerful Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance that controls Kabul and most of the main government ministries. There is also a great deal of ill feeling about the way last year's United Nations-run loya jirga, or grand council, excluded Afghan King Zahir Shah from running for the presidency, choosing instead Hamid Karzai.
Sending US advisers, particularly those of Afghan ethnicity, could help professionalize ministries that still carry the legacy of Soviet-style hierarchies and procedures. But the move could also backfire, giving the appearance of a full-scale US administration - or occupation - of Afghanistan.
"The Afghan people can live without food, they can live in the open without shelter, they can live in a country without water, but they cannot live without respect," says one Pashtun elder in Nangarhar Province, who didn't give his name. "And this government is not treating us with respect. So that's why some people would rather have the Taliban than this government. They were cruel, yes. They were stupid, yes, ... but at least they gave the majority of the Afghan people some respect."
In this period of instability, reconstruction projects have been stymied as aid groups restrict their staffers from traveling in much of the south. Most worrisome, aid workers say, is that Taliban officials - including Mullah Mohammad Omar, the supreme Taliban leader, in a recent public letter - now openly talk of targeting foreign aid workers. One such worker of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) was killed last spring, and two Afghan Red Cross workers were killed this past summer.
"The murder of our delegate impacts not just the ICRC, but other aid groups, too," says Simon Schorno, spokesman for the ICRC in Kabul. "We will operate in the cities, but we can't operate outside in rural areas."
It is this lack of aid to remote areas that could undermine US efforts to win hearts and minds, both in regard to US forces and the Afghan central government.
Consider the recent gathering of tribal elders in the eastern city of Asadabad. Organized by the governor of Konar Province, and attended by US Army commanders from a local base, the gathering had all the feeling of a pep rally - without the pep.
"These US forces who are here today, they are here to support us, to provide security, they don't intend to occupy our country," shouts Abdul Sattar Mohmand, police chief of Konar. "Do you support them?"
Three hundred tribal elders say yes.
"It was these same tribes here today who expelled the British a hundred years ago, and it was here that the jihad was started against the Russians 20 years ago," Mr. Mohmand continues. "Nowadays, there are people who put land mines on the roads to kill the Americans. Why don't you stop them? You are brave people. You have a grand history."
Three hundred tribal elders remain silent.
Gov. Sayed Fazl Akbar knows he has a tough sell, but he believes the people of his province are tired of war.
"I know these people, and 95 percent of them support what we are doing," he says. But he admits that a certain portion of Konar's citizens may be involved in "anticoalition attacks," such as firing rockets on the nearby US base near Asadabad.
"In every society, you have poor people who are willing to do anything for a job," says Governor Akbar. Intelligence reports suggest that the going rate for firing a rocket at the Americans is 5,000 Afghanis, or about $116. "Until now, nobody has been killed by these rockets, which suggests that for these people it's just a job."
For other Afghans, the problem is less economic than political. Three of the more powerful ministries in the Afghan government - foreign, defense, and justice - remain in the hands of a powerful ethnic minority, Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley.
This chicken-and-egg scenario - no security without aid, no aid without security - poses a tough challenge for the US.
But US advisers could encourage and build upon recent political reforms that observers see as progress toward greater stability.
Over the past two months, President Karzai has fired a few controversial leaders in some of the more fractious states. In a single day last month, Karzai announced that both Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai and Herat Military Chief Ismail Khan would be stepping down from their jobs. (Mr. Khan kept his other job as governor.)
More recently, Karzai announced a major shakeup at the Ministry of Defense, headed by the ethnic Tajik warlord Gen. Mohammad Qasim Fahim. General Fahim will retain his post as defense minister, but much of his staff will be replaced by military officers who reflect Afghanistan's many ethnic groups, and by Pashtuns in particular.
These moves create a sense of forward progress, observers say.
"If there is positive change at the Defense Ministry, it's important for national unity; it sends a signal to people and encourages them to work together for the national good," says Mohammad Nasib, director of the Kabul-based Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan.
But, noting that the more intensive process of disarming tens of thousands of militia soldiers remains largely undone, he adds, "if these steps are only symbolic, and they maintain the same power structure, then it will not produce results."
Like many Afghans, Mr. Nasib supports the US military's friendlier moves at the village level, as seen in the PRTs. It's not too late to try to win the Afghan people's trust, he says. "The Afghan people can be wonderful if you treat them with respect. But you have to approach them in the right way. You can't expect them to adopt Westminster style democracy overnight."
It's a lesson that Captain Baggett and other officers of the PRT in Gardez say they are learning fast. (Three other PRTs are up and running in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, and Bamiyan, and another is planned soon in Kandahar and other cities.)
"We're the face of America to these people, and if we come in here showing respect for them, people will act accordingly," says Baggett, a US Army Reserves officer from San Antonio. "We find that people generally are very supportive of what we do and what the [Kabul] government is trying to do."
After handing out radios to a few villagers, and exchanging handshakes with villagers in Ghar-e Kale, Baggett climbs back into his truck and grins. "We've got the best job in the Army."
Afghanistan is struggling to put back the pieces of a society racked by two decades of war. Refocused on Afghanistan by the 9/11 attacks, the US led a coalition to unseat the ruling Taliban and pledged to help the nation build itself a stable democracy.
But the promise of a new Afghanistan has been undermined by warlords, the narcotics trade, and attacks by a resurgent Taliban. Plans for democratic elections to take place in June 2004, are behind schedule, and a state of bedlam outside Kabul has hampered aid work.
Sept. 11, 2001
Suspicion for the terrorist attack falls quickly on Al Qaeda. The group's leader, Osama bin Laden, is residing in Afghanistan as the guest of the ruling Taliban. Just days earlier, suicide bombers killed the chief Afghan rebel leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Oct. 7, 2001
The US begins airstrikes against Afghanistan to oust the Taliban. In an earlier address, President Bush warns that "any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded ... as a hostile regime."
Nov. 13, 2001
The Taliban retreat from Kabul with little resistance. Crowds cheer as US-backed Afghan forces enter the capital.
Nov. 27 - Dec. 5, 2001
Afghan leaders meet at a UN-sponsored conference in Germany. Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, is chosen to head a transitional government.
Dec. 16, 2001
US-backed Afghan forces overrun mountain caves of Tora Bora, Mr. bin Laden's main base. Reports suggest he slipped past Afghan forces with the help of locals, and escaped to Pakistan.
Dec. 20, 2001
The first of 5,000 multinational peace-keepers, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), deploy in Kabul, but do not extend their reach beyond the city.
Jan. 21-22, 2002
The international community, meeting in Tokyo, pledges $5.2 billion for Afghanistan's reconstruction. The figure falls short of the $10.2 billion World Bank estimate of what is needed.
March 1-18, 2002
US forces surround hundreds of holdouts in the Shah-e Kot mountains. Operation Anaconda becomes the largest US ground battle in Afghanistan and one of the war's last major engagements.
June 11-19, 2002
Some 1,600 delegates from across Afghanistan gather for a loya jirga, or grand council, to decide on a new Afghan government. At the meeting, Karzai is chosen as president.
Sept. 5, 2002
President Karzai escapes an assassination attempt unharmed. Weeks earlier, in a controversial move, Karzai replaces his Afghan bodyguards with Americans after two cabinet ministers were killed.
March 27, 2003
Insurgents kill a foreign-aid worker. This incident, followed by others, prompts some aid groups to pull out of mainly Pashtun regions, further isolating an ethnic group already suspicious of the Tajik-dominated government.
June 26, 2003
The UN releases its annual drug report, which finds that opium-poppy production in Afghanistan has jumped from an all-time low in 2001 to a near-record high in 2002. A bumper crop is predicted for 2003.
July 8, 2003
A mob in Kabul attacks the Pakistani Embassy following reports of border encroachments by Pakistani forces. Relations between Karzai's government and Pakistan, a former supporter of the Taliban, remain rocky.
Fighting escalates between US, Afghan, and Taliban forces - particularly in Zabul Province - making August the bloodiest month since the ousting of the Taliban. Many civilians are killed in attacks targeting police stations, aid groups, and a passenger bus.
Aug. 13, 2003
Ismail Kahn, the warlord ruling over Herat, is stripped of his military command by Karzai's government. The move is seen as an attempt by the central government to extend its authority outside Kabul.
Aug. 28, 2003
An Afghan commission pushes back the deadline for a new constitution to the end of this year, a delay of two months. The delay may set back national democratic elections - the first since the 1960s - slated for June 2004.
Sept. 1, 2003
Karzai announces a shakeup at the Defense Ministry, designed to dilute the concentration of Tajiks in the agency, and ease the reluctance to disarm among the country's tens of thousands of militiamen.
- Compiled from wires by Ben Arnoldy