ROHANI, Afghanistan -- President Obama's problem in Afghanistan is Abdul Nabib.
At first, Abdul Nabib was insistent: no Taliban anywhere around. The elderly man grinned, perhaps at the baldness of this lie, revealing a row of missing teeth. He squatted comfortably on the hard-packed earth, draped in soiled white robes with a long beard to match. He squinted into the hard sunlight. We are perfectly safe, he said.
That was hard to credit, and Capt. William Alfonzo Biggs Jr., a U.S. cavalry commander, gave a grunt of disbelief. This squalid, adobe-walled village, lacking running water and electricity, among other things, is just south of Kandahar city. There and across this region, the Taliban are putting up hard, violent resistance to the growing U.S. and allied military presence. A key Taliban strategy is threatening Afghans against having any dealings with Afghan or Western security forces or the Afghan government. Those who do are punished.
Just down the road from here, two men were hanged by the Taliban, another beheaded. Earlier this week, a suicide bomber narrowly missed the district governor, killing instead six children in a fiery explosion.
The Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy depends on American troops being able to convince men like Abdul Nabib to ignore Taliban threats and to embrace Afghan security, government services and the cornucopia of development projects offered by the international community.
That's the strategy. Fear stands in its way.
Biggs had come in search of a villager who would agree to oversee a development project already approved and funded for Rohani: reconstruction of badly eroded lanes through the village -- a need that its elders had once said was their highest priority.
No go. The village's two maliks, or mayors, had fled. Most elders had scattered. No one else would volunteer.
The sun beat down and a foul stink rose from a clogged ditch. A crowd of ragged children craned their necks to watch U.S. Army helicopters clatter overhead. At the entrance to the village, four of Biggs' armored gun trucks growled at idle and his troopers stood guard. Biggs asked whether girls were allowed in the village school.
Instead of answering directly, the old man burst into a tirade. "We are in the middle!" he cried. "We can't say anything to you, and we can't say anything to them." What he meant: Americans push education for girls. The Taliban forbid it.
Biggs handed him a stack of cards, each bearing the location and phone numbers for the local police. "If you have trouble, call these numbers," he said.
Nabib reacted with alarm. "But what if they ask about these?"
"Hide them," said Biggs.
"But they search everyplace -- more than you," said Nabib.
Aha, said Biggs. "So there are Taliban in the village!"
"Being really honest, yes, definitely they come sometimes. But we can't tell you where they are," the old man said. "After sunset they come. We don't come out of our compounds.
"We are living in fear."
"We have no power to face them or you," he complained. "We are just like a soccer ball being kicked by both sides."
"We are not here to kill insurgents or anyone," said Biggs. "We are not here for you to join our team, but just to deliver government and security to your village."
The old man snorted. "They are also telling us this same speech, that they are here to protect us," he muttered.
"I look around and I see pumps, wells, irrigation ditches – the insurgents didn't build them," Biggs retorted. "We did, your government did. The insurgents don't do that. We do. We have other projects planned, better roads. We can't do that because the Taliban have scared people away."
His voice rose in frustration. "We're just here to help!"
The Taliban, already effective at this kind of intimidation, is nonetheless bearing down even harder. Its command recently issued a new 69-page field directive ordering Taliban fighters to kill anyone cooperating with foreign troops or the Afghan government, according to officials of the International Security Assistance Force, the allied high command.
An ISAF spokesman quoted the directive from Taliban chief Mullah Omar as threatening those who support the Afghan government: "We will not leave you alone." (The spokesman cannot be identified under ISAF media regulations.)
Omar's directive is no idle threat. This year has seen a 75 percent leap in the number of Afghan civilians killed by IEDs, according to an analysis in Washington by USA Today
. In Kandahar, civilian deaths have jumped 132 percent since last year, as the Taliban cranks up its campaign of intimidation.
Biggs took one of the cards and scrawled his cell phone number on it and thrust it back at the old man. "Use this any time you need us," he said. Nabib handed the card off to one of the young men squatting beside him.
"We talk to you now," Nabib said. "I guarantee this evening the message will be out" that the village had cooperated with the Americans. He handed all the cards back to Biggs.
"If you end up dead, I know this face and this face and this face," Biggs said, pointing to young men in the group.
He buckled on his helmet. "Tell the insurgents that Captain Biggs is here and will be here every night if necessary."
"I have already been told to leave this village," Nabib said as he struggled to his feet. "I already have the warning."