A local man stares hard at U.S. soldiers with Company C, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, as they patrol the bazaar in the village of Hutal, Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

A local man stares hard at U.S. soldiers with Company C, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, as they patrol the bazaar in the village of Hutal, Kandahar province, Afghanistan. (Drew Brown / S&S)

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HUTAL, Afghanistan — U.S. soldiers were on a recent patrol in this village in Kandahar’s Maiwand district when they stopped two men in a Toyota Corolla hatchback for a routine search.

Inside the car, they found 219,000 Pakistani rupees, a couple of mobile phones and three inner tubes.

It seemed odd enough for two men to be driving around with the equivalent of $2,800 in a country where the average yearly income is around $300. The fact that the men couldn’t seem to explain where they got the money made the soldiers more suspicious.

"At first, they said it came from trading cattle," said 1st Lt. Matt Pathak, leader of 3rd Platoon, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment. "Then they said it was from selling sheep. Then they said it was from selling stuff in the bazaar. Their stories changed three or four times."

Even with the aid of an interpreter, it was impossible for the troops to tell if the two men were telling the truth or lying. The discovery of the cash, along with the other items, made troops think they might have a couple of Taliban bomb makers on their hands. Mobile phones and accessories are commonly used to trigger roadside bombs. Inner tubes can be used to make improvised pressure switches.

The incident was typical of the day-to-day interactions that U.S. troops in Maiwand district have with Afghan civilians and the Taliban fighters who hide in their midst. In many ways, the soldiers are like cops who walk the same beat every day, trying to separate the good citizens from the bad. But that’s a tough task in southern Afghanistan, where almost none of the troops speak the language or know the culture intimately. It’s the curse of being an occupying force in a foreign land.

Hutal is the governmental and trading center for Maiwand district. Company C has been operating in Hutal and a collection of nearby villages scattered around an area that covers 25 square miles since August. Even five months later, the soldiers admit they’re still learning their turf.

"This is the first permanent American presence that’s been here in a long time," said 1st Lt. Joshua Darnell, 26, of Watkinsville, Ga., the leader of 1st Platoon. "So, we’re trying to understand the demographics here and lay the groundwork for future U.S. operations, with the understanding that U.S. forces will be operating in southern Afghanistan for a long time."

What that means in practical terms is that Company C is still identifying the important village and religious leaders and locating important sites such as mosques and wells.

"What we’re trying to find out is what makes this area tick," said Capt. Trevor Voelkel, 28, of Brenham, Texas, the Company C commander. "We’re still doing that as we go out on patrols."

The primary focus for the soldiers has been to encourage local elders to participate in the district government. But that, too, seems an impossible task, considering that there is virtually no government in Hutal, aside from a district leader appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The police force is only several months out of training. There is no court system. There is no mechanism for collecting taxes.

"We don’t have any big goals here," Voelkel said. "If we can just begin to get the government stood up. ..."

Company C has distributed more than 1,000 metric tons of wheat seed to local farmers. The goal is to provide them with an alternative to poppy cultivation. A major effort has been to compile the names and other important information on who owns shops or sells items regularly in the Hutal bazaar.

The soldiers also distribute food and clothing on a regular basis, efforts they say help build rapport with local villagers. The goal, of course, is to encourage villagers to cooperate with Afghan and U.S. forces and to provide information on Taliban activities.

As in other areas of Maiwand district, direct fights with the Taliban have been rare. Most attacks have been by roadside bombs. One soldier from the company was killed and four others wounded on Sept. 4, when a bomb struck their Humvee.

After that attack, the company ditched its Humvees in favor of the more heavily armored Cougar, which was built specifically to withstand roadside bombs. They’ve been hit six times by bombs since then, and three vehicles have been destroyed, but there have been no more serious injuries.

Most interactions with local Afghans "haven’t been overly hostile, but it’s been wary," said Darnell. "They’re polite, but that’s just part of Pashtun culture. But there’s not a lot of trust for anyone here."

U.S. forces believe that Maiwand serves mostly as a logistical hub for the Taliban, and that fighters are not present in great numbers. However, spies are everywhere, and stories of fear and intimidation by the Taliban are not hard to find.

Voelkel believes that most Afghans in his area are "generally neutral or slightly supportive" of foreign troops.

"Security is the No. 1 concern for them," he said. "Whoever can provide that security, that’s who they’ll go with. If it’s us, then they’ll go with us. If it’s the Taliban, they’ll go with the Taliban."

In the case of the two men in the Toyota, it was never clear exactly who they were. The passenger appeared clearly nervous, but it turned out that he had only hitched a ride to the bazaar.

The driver stood by his car, smiling, apparently amused by the incident.

Pathak, 26, of Jacksonville, Fla., decided to take the men to the district government center and have the Afghan National Police check them out.

The driver related how the Americans had taken him into custody, laughing several times as he told the story. The district leader listened, and chuckled a few times. After the driver had finished, the district leader turned to Pathak.

"No problems," he said, in English. "There are no problems."

The district leader said he didn’t know the driver personally, but he knew him by reputation and that he was a local trader.

Pathak turned to the man. "Sorry for the inconvenience," he said.

Outside the building, the soldiers gave the driver back his money and his inner tubes. They told him they would keep the phones awhile, and that he could pick them up later from the district leader. The man nodded and stuffed the cash inside his vest.

The driver’s phone had been ringing almost incessantly since they picked him up. Even though he’d been let go, several soldiers remained skeptical of his story.

"If I made that kind of money selling sheep, then I’m in the wrong business," one of them said.

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