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SPERA COMBAT OUTPOST, Afghanistan — The greeting between the two men is a rich hug, a hand-holding "Asalaam alaykum (Peace be with you)," and sometimes, a hand over the heart for good measure.

Maj. Nicholas Fleischmann’s warm smile is matched by his unexpected counterpart: a turbaned Afghan in traditional dress with long, bushy hair that gets lost in his thick black beard.

Except for his Nike sneakers, Musofor, as he is known, hardly looks the part of the best friend the Americans have in this Taliban-controlled valley.

Yet little is ever as it seems at Spera Combat Outpost, a tiny joint U.S.-Afghan military compound surrounded by hostile peaks just meters from the Pakistan border.

Here, peaceful silence can explode into deadly battle in the blink of an eye, and placid villages with braying donkeys can conceal hostile Taliban strongholds.

Except in Sra Khanda, Musofor’s village just up the riverbed from Spera. The men in his village support the government.

"They are now hating the Taliban," Musofor told Fleischmann. "They are trying to find a way to fight them."

In these faraway mountains, Spera is the lone U.S. foothold for miles around.

Here, about a dozen U.S. troops live alongside twice as many Afghan National Army forces smack in the middle of two Taliban border crossing routes.

The Americans’ time is divided between maintaining and defending the outpost against Taliban aggression and reaching out to ambivalent local villages.

It is a land without government. Regional politicians refuse to venture here: Villagers don’t have ID cards and they couldn’t vote if they wanted to. The locals fend for themselves, and most give allegiance to the strongest force: the Taliban.

Only Musofor and his father, Haji Awar Khan, share information and offer U.S. patrols safe passage up the wadi, or riverbed, for visits. They always participate in the gatherings the Americans arrange for the area.

"See, the major left his country with its big buildings to come help my country," Musofor said. "Shoulder-to-shoulder, we will bring security. With the help of Allah, I will be working with the U.S. to help my country."

In exchange, Sra Khanda receives a regular flow of humanitarian aid. Fleischmann set the balls rolling on several construction projects: a new school, a mosque, water wells and a small bazaar.

A strong bond

Fleischmann, 44, a California National Guardsman who is completing his deployment, forged a strong bond with Musofor. Both men have nine children — Musofor with his two wives, and Fleischmann and his wife through adoption of five siblings apart from their own four children.

"It is a dream of mine to one day come back here as a friend and not a soldier," Fleischmann told Musofor during the major’s final week at Spera in late June. "I dream to one day board a plane in America with my family, fly to Kabul and then drive … here for a visit."

Musofor advised Fleischmann about Taliban kingpin Sarajuddin Haqqani and his key regional commander, Golbuddar. A Pakistani military campaign to capture Haqqani’s ally, Baitullah Mehsud, just over the border is preoccupying Taliban fighters, he said. That’s why the valley is quiet.

But that military campaign has driven a stream of Afghan exiles back into Afghanistan. About 300 are in Sra Khanda, he said. In other villages, there are hundreds more, though there are likely Taliban infiltrators among them.

"Yesterday the Taliban left letters for some of the refugees (in Sra Khanda)," Musofor said. "They told them they should come back to join the Taliban fight in Pakistan. If not, they won’t let them come back there."

But the relationship between Musofor and the Americans is not always easy. When Musofor comes to Spera, he is met outside the gates of the outpost. He has never been inside.

The new Afghan company commander questioned Musofor suspiciously during their first meeting. It’s not lost on Fleischmann and his second at Spera, Sgt. 1st Class Chad Rickard, how Musofor manages to travel safely up and down the wadi from his village to the American outpost.

"The whole thing is ambush point. ‘Mus’ is up and down the wadi all day," said Rickard, of the California National Guard Joint Headquarters, who led combat efforts at Spera. "There’s a reason why Musofor can walk around totally unarmed, pick up stuff here and go back unharmed. Could it be because his dad is so powerful and it would start a tribal war? Or is it because they want him to come here and come back with information? You have to be careful."

‘Deserve a chance’

A hero of the mujahedeen fight against the Russians, Musofor’s father is chief elder of the Waziri tribe here. He mediates between warring tribes and represented the region at the national Loya Jirga when Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government was created. Pitting his influence against the tide of Taliban support, he has allied himself with the Americans. But the choice has come at a cost.

A year ago, Haqqani and Golbuddar called on Haji to come to Pakistan and take command of the border tribal areas, known as Waziristan. When he refused, men loyal to Baitullah Mehsud put two of Haji’s sons in jail, Musofor said.

The Taliban burned his homes and took his cows and buffalo, but Haji says he continued to refuse. Finally, he paid a ransom and his sons were released.

"This is my country. If they kill my two sons, I still can’t leave my country," he said. "I was shot in the chest and hand (by the Russians). They shot my wife in her eye.

"Now we want a secure Afghanistan, to rebuild our country."

During his last week at Spera, Fleischmann led the new unit commander on a patrol to Sra Khanda, where villagers came out in numbers to greet them. They drank tea with Haji and Musofor and promised the warm relationship would continue.

"I am going to miss ‘Mus’ and his dad. That was the fun part of the mission," Fleischmann reflected. "They always say the attacks of Sept. 11 were launched from these mountains we are looking at. It’s truly the holy ground for this war. That’s why I came here. But the people are really nice. They deserve the chance at a good life.


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