Maimana, Afghanistan -- U.S. Army Maj. Kerry Trent, a member of the 45th Infantry Brigade, a National Guard unit from Oklahoma, walks to the illegal checkpoint to meet with the armed men who run it. The Afghan soldiers escorting him scurry into position; they are members of the First Kandak (battalion) of the First Brigade of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which was set up under the auspices of President Hamid Karzai's interim government. Trent is their adviser.
Trent spies the men he is looking for as he walks past a cleft in the bluffs overlooking a river. The men, who are not uniformed, carry the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs, but they also have rocket-propelled grenade launchers and PKM squad machine guns. Even though two U.S. Humvee crews with a mounted .50-caliber machine gun and another with a grenade launcher back Trent's unit, it would be a fierce battle if the men wanted to fight.
Instead, they get up, greet Trent with "Salaam, salaam," and invite him and his ANA commander, Col. Kareem, for tea. One man introduces himself as a general in the loosely organized, militia-based 200th Division, a unit of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the hero of the famed Northern Alliance who turned on the Taliban and, with the help of American air strikes, defeated them. Dostum's forces sit on the pipelines that move gas into Uzbekistan and on the opium trade routes in the north that move heroin into Germany.
Trent, Kareem, and the interpreter sit down with the Dostum man on a large mat. An attendant brings them tea. Trent does not drink until the Dostum man drinks.
"Why are you here with weapons?" Trent asks. "The Security Council has agreed that no one but ANA forces are allowed to carry guns outside the compound."
"We came here to protect this village," the man answers via the interpreter. He casts a prolonged glance at a large truck driving past, carrying wool.
"Protect them from what?" Trent counters. "Are there Taliban here?"
"Are there Al Qaeda?"
No, the man admits.
"Then what are you protecting them from?"
"We are sightseeing," the general now says. "Many of the men are from this village, and they wanted to visit their homes. We are leaving this afternoon." The general glances at another truck passing by, this one carrying sand. "We will go back this afternoon."
"That is good," Trent says. "I'm glad you are going back this afternoon. That way no one will mistake you for bad guys who are out here robbing people."
The general nods. Then he speaks to the ANA colonel in Uzbek. Their voices rise. They interrupt one another. This goes on for some time. Trent observes. Then the general turns back to him.
"We are leaving this afternoon," the man says again.