Published: December 2004
On bin Laden's Trail
By Tim McGirk
Elders of the Wazir tribe gather in a farmhouse in southern Afghanistan to discuss how to press a grievance with the U.S. military. American troops searching for Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda fighters had arrested a young Wazir male for allegedly attacking U.S. troops. Since then the elders, who claim the young man is innocent, have heard nothing about the case. As both American and Pakistani troops comb the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border for Islamic militants, the Wazir and other tribes of the famously independent Pashtun peoples in the area can expect no end to conflict. Whose side are they on? The elders must decide as the military continues its manhunt.

Faqir Shah sprays machine-gun fire across the black hills of Tora Bora, shooting at phantoms of al Qaeda. The shots echo through a forest of twisted holly trees, zigzagging up through the ravines to the granite peaks, as if searching for a reply. But there is no response, only the wind. Shah lowers his machine gun, smoke curling from the barrel. It's the first time the Afghan militiaman has gone back to Tora Bora since the fierce battle between al Qaeda fighters and the U.S. military in December 2001, and there is an equal measure of bravado and fear in his macho display.

"We fought al Qaeda here for two weeks in the snow," says Shah, who is wearing U.S. Army-issue camouflage trousers under a ragged gray coat. He points to a nearby bomb crater, 15 feet (4.6 meters) deep, left by one of the U.S. warplanes, and says, "See that hole? An American soldier tossed a piece of concrete in there from the World Trade Center, because he thought al Qaeda was all finished. I told him I didn't think so."

Shah leads me across the boulders of a narrow creek and up a hill into the Tora Bora caves. There are dozens of caves honeycombed into the hillside, all empty now, save for a few cartridges left over from the U.S. siege of three years ago. Next we venture back outside to the ruins of a mud-brick house, pulverized by bombs. I find fragments of an artillery shell, a prayer cap. "This was where Osama lived," says Shah.

I sit in the rubble, peel an orange, and check the coordinates on my GPS. North 34.07.080 by East 70.13.209. According to eyewitnesses, sometime before the siege of Tora Bora began in early December 2001, bin Laden stopped here for the night, gave a pep talk to hundreds of his fighters, and vanished.

As this article goes to press in early October 2004, the world's most wanted man has not been seen since, although rumors are flying that U.S. forces or their Pakistani allies have captured him and will produce him just before the U.S. presidential election.

Where could he have gone? Since 9/11 I've asked that question nearly every day as I covered breaking news from my home in Islamabad, Pakistan. In search of an answer, I've trailed bin Laden along the smugglers' crossroads near Afghanistan's desert border with Iran, through the craggy mountains of the Hindu Kush, and even in the high-rent districts of two Pakistani cities, Peshawar and Karachi, where a few al Qaeda chiefs have been found hiding in fancy villas.

It may turn out that bin Laden is hiding somewhere far away—in his family's ancestral homeland of southern Yemen, perhaps, or posing as a dreadlocked beachcomber in Costa Rica. There's no shortage of theories, some of them outlandish. But electronic intercepts, statements from captured al Qaeda fighters, and videotapes that show bin Laden in local surroundings are persuasive evidence that bin Laden is still right here, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in a wild, mountainous region the size of Ireland that I've come to think of as "Bin Ladenstan" for its most infamous occupant.

For any outlaw or fugitive this is the perfect hiding place: a fortress-like maze of geography, defined by a great wall of mountains running a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) from the Hindu Kush south to the Arabian Sea. Those formidable mountains form a natural barrier between Central Asia and the plains of India, as a parade of would-be conquerors, from Alexander the Great to 19th-century Britain, and more recently the Soviet Union, have learned the hard way.

Even more forbidding than rocks and snow are the locals, a bewildering array of tribes and clans known collectively as the Pashtun, who number more than 25 million and are sometimes referred to as the Pakhtun, or Pathan. Living on both sides of the border, the Pashtun share a language (Pashtu), a love of guns and jokes, a deep suspicion of outsiders, a passion for the green chewing tobacco called naswar, and belief in a strict and ancient code of honor, called Pashtunwali. One tenet of this code—nanawateh, or sanctuary—is particularly vexing to bin Laden's hunters. It means that every Pashtun is duty bound to help anyone who comes knocking at his door seeking refuge, even if it's his worst enemy. A Pashtun is expected to give his life defending a guest, and many have done so.

I recall a conversation with the urbane Col. Mohammad Yahya Effendi, one of the Pakistani spymasters who ran the Afghan rebels, or mujahideen, during the Soviet war in the 1980s. The Pashtun "can act with nobility and yet be absolute rascals," Effendi told me. "They'll do all sorts of treacherous things—even betray their fathers. But they're bonkers when it comes to giving sanctuary. It's like a sacred mission."

Anyone who hands bin Laden over to the Americans might be 25 million dollars richer in reward money, explained Effendi, but the disgrace would hang over this person, along with his family, clan, and tribe, for many generations. "Osama's a major Islamic hero," he added. "Whoever betrays him, why, his life wouldn't be worth an onion."

In a clearing near the ruins of bin Laden's Tora Bora house, I punch a few buttons on the GPS, broadening the map on my screen. Due south, directly over the Spin mountain range in front of me, is the crooked line of the Pakistan border, drawn by a British diplomat, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, in 1893.

Northeast lies the Afghan town of Jalalabad. There are stories that bin Laden doubled back there from Tora Bora and spent a few days cloistered in the house of a wealthy landowner, even as U.S. forces and their allies were closing in. That seems unlikely: Returning to the Afghan war zone would have been foolhardy, and bin Laden has proved to be a cautious man.

Directly in front of me lies another possibility: a mule trail that threads through the holly trees, away from bin Laden's house up to a granite ridge, toward Pakistan. It's only logical that bin Laden would have headed for Pakistan; in December 2001, Pakistani troops were slow in sealing off the border, and dozens of al Qaeda fighters made a run for it up those mountains. Maybe bin Laden did too.

The easiest way for National Geographic photographer Reza and me to enter Pakistan is simply to follow that trail. Bad idea, says Shah, the machine gunner; he wasn't just firing at shadows. The night before we arrived, some bad guys, probably Taliban with a few al Qaeda thrown in, had attacked the Afghan border police nearby with rockets and gunfire. The Taliban are probably still watching, and the Afghan commander in charge of our safety, Sher Ghulam, waits until nightfall before he moves us out of camp, without flashlights, to a safe house in a nearby mountain village. "Our enemies come from Pakistan," Sher Ghulam says. It is a refrain we would hear time and again, wherever we traveled in Afghanistan.

Even if Reza and I managed to cross the Pakistan border, we would probably be in just as much danger on the other side. Most of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, along the border with Afghanistan, is semiautonomous tribal land. In the 19th century the British, after many bloody campaigns to pacify the Pashtun tribes there, ended up leaving them alone, to serve as a buffer zone between the wilds of Afghanistan and the British colony of India. After Pakistan was founded in 1947, successive Pakistani governments also thought it wise to leave the tribes ungoverned—at least before 9/11.

The Pashtun may be the most ungovernable people on Earth. They are divided into dozens of tribes and hundreds of clans, which are usually at war with each other. The presence of an invader (even a pair of journalists from National Geographic) unites the tribesmen just long enough to drive out the interlopers. Then they go back to shooting at each other. The only time the Pashtun are at peace with themselves, it is said, is when they are at war.

In the tribal areas, the typical Pashtun home is built like a fortress, with high watchtowers and 20-foot (6-meter) walls. And no self-respecting Pashtun is without his personal armory. A powerful household might have an antiaircraft gun mounted in the watchtower, a mortar or two, a .50-caliber machine gun, a dozen or so AK-47s, and a stack of rocket-propelled grenades. With all this firepower, a spat between neighbors often turns into a pitched battle.

What saves the Pashtun from mutual annihilation is a tribal council of elders known as a jirga. Chosen by their respective clans, these sages are the supreme interpreters of Pashtunwali, and their collective judgments on land disputes, blood vendettas, and the fine points of sanctuary are final and binding. It's a democratic system because every Pashtun refuses to accept anyone but the jirga as his superior.

In the end Reza and I decide to seek official permission to visit the tribal areas in Pakistan, rather than just walk across the border. We travel to Peshawar and present ourselves to the local secretary for security, Brig. Mahmood Shah, a sad-eyed man with a soft voice and a burgundy silk scarf tucked rakishly into his vest pocket.

Brigadier Shah is a Pashtun himself, from the Yusufzai tribe, and it is important to note, he says, that not all Pashtun are terrorists and killers. They make fine soldiers, doctors, sea captains, poets, truck drivers, and dashing movie stars whose fame extends throughout Asia. They are men of their word, the brigadier says, and you can go as far as Calcutta and find Pashtun moneylenders whose informal system of banking relies entirely on trust. The brigadier has an impressive array of four colored telephones on his desk, but it is his cell phone that rings, to the jaunty tune of "The Hokey Pokey."

"Hello?" the brigadier answers. He listens and then says: "This man must be eliminated. Use the element of surprise. A night attack. If he gets away, it will be a catastrophe."

His voice is so bland and weary that he might be ordering up a supply of paper clips, not the death of a tribal troublemaker. "Now," he says, turning to us, "what can I do for you?" We explain that we need travel permits and an introduction to the Pakistani government representatives, called political agents, in each tribal district. In their colonial-era bungalows with English rose gardens, the political agents deal with the tribal elders, rewarding them with money, roads, and jobs if they behave. And if they don't, the agents punish the tribesmen with collective fines, arrests, and by occasionally leveling their houses with a charge of dynamite. A final option available to the agents was the brigadier's deadly command: Eliminate the man.

The repercussions of such an order, of course, are hard to predict. In March the Pakistani Army, under pressure from Washington, launched an operation in the mountains southwest of here, a Pashtun tribal region called Waziristan, to clean out hundreds of foreign al Qaeda fighters (known hereabouts as simply the "Arabs"), who were taking advantage of nanawateh.

At one point it was thought that bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were hiding near the town of Wana, but these reports later proved false. When we arrived a few weeks into the fighting, the Pakistani Army's offensive wasn't going well, and it had taken dozens of casualties. Convoys were ambushed. Garrisons came under rocket attack, and a dozen Pakistani soldiers who had fled into a mosque were dragged out by al Qaeda fighters and slaughtered.

With Waziristan in flames, Brigadier Shah wants us out of the crossfire. So Reza and I set out instead for Kurram, a long river valley facing Tora Bora that is bounded on one side by snowy mountains.

Guiding us is Rahimullah Yusufzai, a scholarly frontiersman with a white beard and owlish glasses who is the voice of BBC Radio in these parts and the doyen of Pashtun journalists. He had interviewed bin Laden twice and the Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar, several times, and knows the physical and cultural contours of Bin Ladenstan as well as any man alive. (He had also helped National Geographic track down Sharbat Gula, whose haunting green eyes were familiar to readers all over the world; see "Found," in the April 2002 issue.) And then we have our six bodyguards, scruffy frontier militiamen whose AK-47s often seem to be nonchalantly aimed at us. For our own protection, of course.

Our first destination is Dandar Kili, a village of woodcutters where a group of 50 al Qaeda fighters, many of them frostbitten and wounded, had staggered over the mountains from Tora Bora in December 2001. Sipping green tea in the house of a 100-year-old tribal chieftain, Tajmir Daradar, we ask about that story and are met with stony silence. Later, in the next village down the valley, we find out why.

"Did you notice that in Dandar all the houses were new?" says one villager, Noor Mohammad. "That's because we burned the old ones to the ground." Apparently the al Qaeda fighters had indeed spilled into Dandar and were sheltered in the village mosque. Then the old chieftain Daradar himself had rushed in, warning that the Pakistani Army was on its way and urging the fugitives to stash their guns and hide. The al Qaeda men complied.

"It was a trick," explains Noor Mohammad. "The people of Dandar robbed the Arabs of everything, all their belongings, their dollars. The Arabs came to us limping barefoot through the snow. Even their socks had been stolen." This mistreatment of al Qaeda was seen as such a violation of the Pashtun code of sanctuary that the surrounding villages gathered a 4,000-man army, or lashkar, and attacked Dandar, burning down the houses, killing their livestock.

And what happened to the al Qaeda fighters?

"You have to understand," says Noor Moham-mad, eyeing me coolly. "If an American soldier comes to my house asking for protection, I will give it to him. And if Osama comes, I will also give him refuge. This is our Pashtun way." That was as close as I got to an answer.

On the road back to Peshawar, at twilight, we stop at the hillside grave of an al Qaeda man. His body had been found by a shepherd boy and buried by villagers. Flags on sticks—signifying a martyr's burial—snap in the wind, and jagged spears of lightning crash around us with supernatural accuracy. I feel like an intruder, and half-expect bin Laden himself to come gliding down the hill.

During our travels, we saw over a dozen al Qaeda graves. They have become places of pilgrimage for the Pashtun: Women pray there to give birth to brave sons; others honor the fallen fighters in florid poetry, just as they did the mujahideen who died battling the Soviets in Afghanistan.

That decade-long conflict, sparked by the 1979 Soviet invasion, was a tipping point of modern history. To fight its Cold War archenemy, the U.S. made a covert alliance with Pakistan's intelligence services to run the war. Pakistan funneled guns, money, and eventually Stinger surface-to-air missiles to a group of Afghan rebels, who saw the struggle as a jihad, or holy war, to expel the Soviet infidels from Muslim lands. Soon other Muslim countries, especially Saudi Arabia, began exporting fundamentalist clerics into the Pashtun tribal regions, along with Arab volunteers for the war, including bin Laden.

Meanwhile, independent-minded Afghan elders who resisted Pakistani control were assassinated, one by one, by Pakistan's agents. This weakened the tribes' social order and gave rise, in 1994, to the band of Pashtun warrior-zealots known as the Taliban, or "students," who came out of Pakistan's Saudi-funded religious schools. Supported by Pakistan, the Taliban put together an army, marched on Kabul, and seized effective control of the Afghan government in 1996.

After 9/11 most of these black-turbaned Taliban and their al Qaeda mentors fled back into Pakistan's tribal area, beyond the reach of U.S. warplanes. Using trails known by smugglers and mujahideen who had fought the Soviets, they also launched cross-border raids against the U.S.-led coalition forces, which continue to this day—aided and abetted, some say, by supporters in the Pakistani military.

There are persistent reports of al Qaeda fighters in the Mohmand Agency west of Peshawar, so Reza and I set out to visit that remote region, keeping our eyes peeled for one very tall Arab and his entourage. We have an entourage of our own, including our six bodyguards and a Pakistani Army intelligence officer who's been assigned by Brigadier Shah to "protect" us. Our friend Rahimullah will follow the next morning.

On the steep mountain road we encounter a long procession of gaily painted flatbed trucks carrying huge boulders of white marble from a quarry. This marble—and opium—are two main sources of income for the local people. Later we pull over at a shrine to a Pashtun freedom fighter and outlaw, Haji Turangzai, who was sheltered from the British by local tribesmen for nearly 20 years. In the early 20th century, the Brits mounted 17 operations to grab him and failed every time. The bin Laden of his day, Turangzai died in his sleep at age 81.

Verses of the Koran, written in slivers of black glass, surround Turangzai's expansive marble mausoleum. Through an arched window I see a hard-eyed, turbaned man, possibly Taliban, lurking in the shadows of a mulberry tree, watching me as I watch him. He is gone when we leave the shrine.

The next day Rahimullah arrives late, with six bullet holes in his pickup truck. Just 20 minutes out of Peshawar, two gunmen had stepped out of a sugarcane field onto the road and flagged down his vehicle. It was either a robbery or a kidnapping, but the driver didn't wait to find out. He sped away, and the gunmen opened fire. Later, the police told Rahimullah, "Are you crazy? We never go on that road. It's too dangerous!"

Mohmand is not a friendly place either. Nearly every house is a castle built on steeples of rock, and every farmer toiling in his field has a rifle strapped to his back. Still, the rules of hospitality apply, and one day a local chieftain named Iftikhar Chandar invites us, and our police escort, to his house for lunch. Rope-strung cots are set out in a courtyard under the shade of an ancient grapevine arbor, and we feast on roasted goat and okra. Bees drone lazily around us.

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.

After the Soviets were chased out in 1989, the Kharotis gained the upper hand because one of their tribesmen, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, rose to become prime minister, backed by Pakistan with guns and money. In 1995 the Wazirs sided with the Taliban, who chased away Hekmatyar, and they rose to power together. Then along came the Americans, and the Kharotis cleverly sided with them, handing over a "terrorist" to curry favor.

"They gave the Americans an Uzbek captive," says one Wazir scornfully, as murmurs of disgust fill the crowded room. After that the Kharotis were trusted by the U.S. military and given jobs as militiamen and workers at the local American firebase at Shkin. And, he adds, the Kharotis used the Americans to take revenge against the Wazirs. The Wazirs, he says, had no choice but to side with al Qaeda and the Taliban, who gave them weapons to attack the Kharotis as long as they killed a few U.S. soldiers in the bargain.

As we drive away from the jirga at dusk, we come across a 15-vehicle U.S. armed convoy. "Hey! How's it going?" I yell out. But in my baggy shalwar kameez and turban, I get a chilly response. To them I look like a Wazir, and the words coming out of my mouth may not even register as English. The convoy halts at a crossroads, and the vehicles remind me of a wolf pack, sniffing the night wind for prey, before they rumble off into Wazir territory.

Back at Gul Mohammad's house for the night, I wander out into the courtyard to call my wife on a satellite telephone. Suddenly, I hear a Predator drone circling overhead, and I wonder, with horror, whether I had summoned it with my phone call. I cut off my wife abruptly and pray that I hadn't called a missile with bin Laden's name on it down on our host's farmhouse. After a few long minutes the Predator moves on across the field of stars, and I fall into a restless sleep.

The next day, as Reza and I approach the U.S. firebase at Shkin, the Kharoti militiamen who guard it eye us and our Wazir companions with open hostility, but they finally let the two of us—but not our bodyguards—through the giant coils of razor wire.

Inside I reel with culture shock. Rap music pours from a sandbagged gym where soldiers of the Second Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, are lifting weights, which clang along with the music. Inside the chow hall all the soldiers are eating next to their guns, watching baseball on a giant TV screen. A few Kharotis mill around the kitchen, wearing plastic shower caps for hygiene instead of turbans. Later Reza points out a dozen tribesmen who have gathered, gape-jawed, to watch a woman soldier sawing a plank. She is wearing gym shorts and a T-shirt. "This is very strange to us," remarks one worker.

Reza asks several Kharoti workers if they are still loyal to their chieftain, Hekmatyar, who is high on the U.S. most wanted list in Afghanistan, along with bin Laden and Mullah Omar. To a man, they reply yes. Worrying news. For now, Hekmatyar may want his men inside the camp spying on the Americans and collecting a paycheck. But the day may come when he tells his Kharotis to rise against the Americans if for no other reason than they were forced to parade around in plastic shower caps or watch women in shorts do woodwork.

The Shkin camp commander is Capt. Tommy Cardone, 32, from Memphis, Tennessee. He's quick-witted and energetic, seeming to run on five-times-normal voltage. Captain Cardone came to Shkin thinking that his job would be chasing al Qaeda up and down mountains. He still does that. But to hunt down his enemies, Cardone has to first know where they're hiding, and that sort of intelligence comes only with understanding the Pashtun tribes and their complex weave of loyalties and vendettas.

Next morning Captain Cardone takes us out on patrol. The mission is to visit a few villages, give away a few generators, and also to see if the patrol can prompt al Qaeda to ambush us. If that happens, the convoy, backed by air support, will respond with scorching firepower, at least in theory. I climb into the back of a Humvee, and off we go. As we rumble through one village, I notice a guy on a rooftop using a mirror to signal our presence to others—perhaps Taliban—on a distant hilltop ahead of us. As we pass it, I brace for an attack. When nothing happens, the soldiers are disappointed; I start to breathe again.

An hour later, over brackish green tea with village elders, Cardone explains that U.S. troops in Afghanistan are more sensitive now about Pashtun culture. During house searches the men of the family are given time to cloister their women in one room before the soldiers enter. Nakedness is a great shame for the Pashtun, he explains, so no man is strip-searched in public by the soldiers. Gifts help too, and the generators are a big hit. One village elder hugs Cardone and says, "I would die for the U.S. soldiers now."

"Let's hope that isn't necessary," Cardone replies. A few miles away, at a village where the U.S. gave away generators and a tractor, the Taliban came down out of the hills and warned that from then on, anyone who took American gifts would be shot dead.

Slowly, the Americans are making inroads in Bin Ladenstan. Intelligence on al Qaeda has improved, and in one village square Captain Cardone noticed a change in the scenery: Before, the walls of a tea shop had a primitive drawing of al Qaeda stick people shooting at helicopters. Now those figures of gunmen were erased, and in the drawing the U.S. helicopters were flying unharmed over the land of the Pashtun. It's a happy picture. But among these wild-hearted warriors, and with the world's most elusive ghost still at large, it may be nothing more than an illusion.