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Finally, as discreetly as I can, I ask Chandar what he thinks of his new neighbors, the Pakistani Army. He turns to a gaunt man with pale eyes and a beard like steel wool who is sitting apart from us, playing with a child. "Sher Khan," the chieftain calls out, "perhaps you'd like to grace us with one of your couplets."

His eyes sparkling, Sher Khan leaps up and delivers a poem in Pashtu. It ends with an obscene gesture that has our army escort looking extremely uncomfortable and Rahimullah doubled over laughing. "Oh, he's good. Very critical of the government," Rahimullah says. By having the court jester deliver the truth to us in a poem, he explains, the Mohmand tribesmen get their message across without fear of retribution, as Pashtun poets are beyond reproach. Sher Khan wanders back to his corner, and our host says apologetically, "You have to excuse Sher Khan. He's a bit mad. But a fine poet!"

There is another theory about bin Laden that I'm curious to explore. Soon after 9/11, the story goes, a chieftain of the Kuchi nomads approached Taliban leader Mullah Omar and volunteered to take bin Laden under his protection. This might have appealed to bin Laden: The Kuchis, with their herds of goat, sheep, and camels, are Pashtun who drift around Pakistan, Afghanistan, and sometimes Iran. They're rarely stopped at borders, and their ferocious mastiffs and fabled marksmanship keep snoopers far away from their campfires. Avoiding towns and following their ancient pathways through the hills and deserts, the Kuchis are said to have an intelligence network that is the envy of any Western spy agency. And there are more than a million of them, making it easy for bin Laden to lose himself among them or to be passed from tribe to tribe.

One day in Kabul, I go around to meet a Kuchi leader, Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, from the influential Ahmadzai tribe. "I'm a camel jockey and proud of it," says Ghani, a wryly combative man with a close-cropped beard who speaks English and four other languages. The Ahmadzais, he tells me, own a long-distance trucking business and 340 gas stations around Afghanistan. "We're like ants," Ghani says gleefully. "Working together we can rip the skin off a tiger."

 An hour later I'm climbing out of Ghani's bulletproof Mercedes limousine at the family farm in Lowgar, south of Kabul, where we've come to test Ghani's new Turkish-made shotgun. It's spring, and the blossoms are drifting off an apple orchard as we stroll down to a stream. Fanned out around us are half a dozen men with guns; they are Ghani's bodyguards. It's like a scene from The Godfather.

Could a fugitive take refuge with a Kuchi family? I ask. Ghani nods. "Happens all the time. He has to explain why he's on the run and promise that he won't commit a crime when he's with the Kuchis."

And bin Laden, could he be among the Kuchis? "Of course not," he says, "although a few people from the CIA have stopped by to ask me that."

Ghani blasts away with his Turkish gun at a floating branch in the stream, hitting it both times. He signals to his bodyguards, and in silence we walk back through the orchard, through a snow of blossoms. His face darkens, and I recall the words of Colonel Effendi: Whoever betrays bin Laden, why, his life wouldn't be worth an onion. And the shame of that treachery would last for generations.

With a deft sweep of his arms, my guide Gul Mohammad winds a long, broad flag of ash-colored cloth around my head—a Wazir turban. As a finishing touch, he pulls a tail of the cloth up through the turban so that it stands like a jaunty cock's comb. "You are ready to meet the Wazirs," Gul Mohammad says, stepping back to eye my floppy turban. "It is all arranged." Reza and I are on our way to a jirga—a tribal council—and we have to look our best.

Things are temporarily quiet in Waziristan. Near the town of Wana, the Pakistani Army had granted amnesty to the pro–al Qaeda tribesmen they'd been fighting all spring in hopes that the Wazirs might be coaxed into turning over their foreign "guests."

It didn't work, and now all the Pakistani general in charge has to show for his truce is a rusty old sword, given to him by rebel leader Nek Mohammad, an ex-Taliban commander with long black locks and a sly grin. (Mohammad enjoyed his fame, and he was always giving interviews via his satellite telephone. This may have led to his downfall. The calls were reportedly tracked, and a month after we left, Nek Mohammad was killed by a single missile that came arcing out of the sky.)

We are heading south on the Afghan side of the border, which is perilous since al Qaeda and Taliban fighters constantly cross this border to ambush American patrols in Afghanistan. It is only because we are traveling with a few Wazir tribal elders—and a mob of gunmen—that we are allowed into Wazir territory, after a 12-hour ride from Kabul through ravines and narrow defiles and forests of glimmering silver pines. All perfect places for an ambush.

The Wazir jirga takes place in the back room of a gas station, a few hundred yards from the Pakistan border. Our hired guns patrol outside. The Taliban and al Qaeda have spies everywhere, I'm told. Inside the gas station, crammed with Wazirs, I make a little speech, by way of introduction. Americans don't hate Muslims, I say; they are in Afghanistan seeking badal—revenge—for the 9/11 attacks. A young Wazir interrupts me. "This isn't about Islam," he says, rubbing his fingers together. "It's about money." The Wazirs are growing rich, he explains, because al Qaeda is throwing around thousands of dollars for terrorist recruits and war supplies. Even that has little to do with politics, he adds; it all comes down to a feud between tribes.

As voices rise in agreement, I begin to understand. These guys have no particular allegiance to al Qaeda—or to the U.S., for that matter—but they are prepared to use either side to fight against their real enemy, a neighboring tribe called the Kharotis. For centuries the Wazirs have been locked in a struggle over land with the Kharotis, and the balance of power has tipped back and forth.

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