Sifullah is just 14 years old, but he knows enough to be afraid to bring tea.
"If anybody sees me bringing tea, they'll ask me why I am helping the coalition forces," he said softly to a small group of U.S. soldiers and a reporter. "I'm afraid of the Taliban."
The Taliban guerrillas usually come out at night, walking from the other side of the mountain, Sifullah said. They have long beards and usually dress in white, with big black or white turbans. Often they carry AK-47 assault rifles on their shoulders and 9mm pistols at their sides. Sometimes they have satellite telephones. They search the stone huts of this village for weapons, making the women wait outside.
And they come with a message: Do not help the Americans and their allies fighting in Afghanistan, and do not register to vote in the Oct. 9 presidential election, or you and your family will be killed.
Here in the northeast corner of Kandahar province, still considered a Taliban stronghold more than 21/2 years after the repressive Islamic movement was ousted from power, Sifullah's story was corroborated over and over -- by an old man who fled to a nearby village after receiving threats, by a 16-year-old who was held for five hours while the Taliban searched for his older brother, and by a local militia commander whose brother was killed by the Taliban and who now works closely with U.S. forces.
Taliban fighters are abundant in the mountains, they all agree. When U.S. forces are in the area, the guerrillas emerge, staging hit-and-run attacks before disappearing back into the rock-strewn landscape.
U.S. troops say their battle against the Taliban is a classic guerrilla war against an elusive foe who refuses to show his face.
"They're scared," said Capt. Brian L. Peterson, commander of Alpha Troop, a reconnaissance and surveillance unit of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, based in Honolulu. "We've got to pry them out of the rocks to come out and fight."
"They know the air power that we command is devastating for them if they try to mass in number, so they are comfortable working at the small-unit level," said Staff Sgt. Joe Schoch, 29, a member of a long-range surveillance team. He added: "The tactic they are using right now is either hit-and-run or bait-and-ambush. As soon as the choppers come, they're dropping their weapons and picking up their goats."
The biggest problem, U.S. soldiers and residents here say, is that as soon as the Americans leave, the Taliban will return. "We are happy that you guys are here," said Sifullah, who wore a green traditional Afghan shirt that was stained and dirty, a cap and black sandals. "But we are worried when you go back. They will ask why we were talking to coalition forces, and who helped them."
To Peterson and Schoch, Sifullah pleaded: "Please, make a base here and stay for a long time. When you are here, they are not disturbing us."
Taliban tactics were underscored as Peterson's unit left Parlay on Sunday, heading back toward Kandahar. At 5 p.m., the convoy discovered the bodies of seven men close to the roadside; all apparently had been killed at close range. Most appeared to have been shot in the back of the head, with the bullet wounds exiting in front, and one seemed to have had his head bashed in.
The soldiers collected the bodies using the only two available body bags, as well as rain ponchos, and carried the corpses on the hoods of their Humvees. The blood was still fresh, indicating that the attack had taken place only hours before, according to an Army doctor traveling with the group who inspected the bodies.
The initial speculation among U.S. troops was that Taliban forces might have executed members of an anti-Taliban Afghan militia. Peterson said the victims also could have been government workers or others helping with the forthcoming national elections.
Local Afghan officials said they thought the men might have been killed for having voter registration cards, but no cards were found among them. The position of the bodies indicated that the men might have been trying to flee their attackers.
At 6:30 p.m., word flashed over the soldiers' radios that a smaller contingent of 20 U.S. troops left behind at Parlay, the Third Platoon of Alpha Troop, had come under a brief but intense ambush by suspected Taliban attackers firing small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. No U.S. soldiers were reported hurt in the ambush, in which the attackers fired at least five mortar rounds and 15 RPGs.
The ambush appeared timed to coincide with the departure of the main force of Alpha Troop soldiers Sunday morning, and the tactic of ambushing and retreating was familiar to these soldiers. "That's what they do," said Staff Sgt. Sean Shirey of Culver City, Calif. "They won't come out and fight."
A similar incident occurred when Peterson and his 35-man unit arrived Thursday, along with a truckload of local militiamen. They were acting on tips from residents that as many as 300 armed Taliban members were in the area, intimidating villagers and making voter registration all but impossible.
But when Peterson's convoy of eight armored Humvees arrived, positioning themselves on a plain between the mountains and between two villages, the soldiers found most of the stone huts occupied by women, children and elderly men.
The Americans saw men racing away over the mountains as they arrived. The reconnaissance team and the militia fighters briefly gave chase, and two helicopters circled overhead. But the men disappeared over the rocks. The Americans found only a freshly burned pile of what appeared to be clothes.
The U.S. soldiers could also tell that they were under constant surveillance as they set up a temporary position. "See that guy over there!" shouted Spec. Nick Plummer, 25, of Klamath Falls, Ore., peering through binoculars from the gunner's hatch of Peterson's Humvee. "He appears out of nowhere. Then he disappears into the rocks whenever the aircraft fly overhead."
On Saturday morning, Peterson decided to lead a foot patrol through one of the tiny villages where the Americans had spotted suspicious activity at night. They also had, from local informants, the names of several high-ranking Taliban leaders in the area. But as the 16 soldiers and their Afghan militia allies arrived, racing through the almond groves, about 20 Afghan men could be seen fleeing across the mountains -- again, leaving behind women, children and elderly men sitting among sacks of almonds and dried apricots.
A quick search of one stone building in the compound found sleeping mats that could accommodate as many as 30 people -- far more people than were found there. There was also a rusting metal container, which, when opened, revealed a false bottom leading to a deep shaft, which could have been either a well or an escape tunnel.
The remaining villagers denied that any of the men who fled were with the Taliban. The men ran away, they said, because they feared being arrested. Peterson was unconvinced.
"When I come in and they run, that makes no sense to me," he told the villagers through his interpreter. "Who am I supposed to believe?"
For the troops, it was a familiar story. "We aren't going to find anything here," Schoch said. "We just have to wait for them to hit us."
Added Shirey : "This gets old."
The same unit did run into a Taliban ambush two weeks ago while returning from the same village. It was a classic ambush, with the Humvee convoy caught on low ground and peppered with automatic-weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The U.S. troops returned fire, killing perhaps five attackers, although they did not recover the bodies. They took four prisoners, including a 12-year-old boy who picked up an assault rifle dropped by another fighter and began firing on the troops. The boy was shot in the buttocks and is undergoing treatment at the U.S. base at the Kandahar air field.
"They probably shot 500 rounds at us," said Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Bishop, 34, of Fairfield, Ohio. Bishop was in the last vehicle of the convoy, which was hit with a grenade and several bullets, causing a flat tire. "I thought the vehicle was on fire because of all the smoke," he said.
Another threat to U.S. troops in this area has been the proliferation of improvised roadside bombs. Because the armored Humvees are able to withstand many such explosions, the Taliban fighters have switched to a new tactic -- triple-stacking antitank mines for more lethal effect.
With the enemy so elusive, little is known about the Taliban guerrillas here and how they continue to exert control in the area, except for the information coaxed from locals who are not too frightened to talk, and from Abdul Satar, the local militia leader.
Abdul Satar returned from exile in Pakistan when U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in late 2001. The Taliban has put a price on his head, he said, and has warned anyone here against cooperating with him or joining his forces.
About two months ago, the Taliban in Parlay killed Abdul Satar's 30-year-old brother, Abdul Ghaffar, along with another man, Abdul Ghani, who was working with Abdul Satar. They killed the two in front of a group of villagers, according to Abdul Satar and Hayatullah, Abdul Ghani's father.
"First they shot him, then they hit him with stones," Abdul Satar said of his brother. "They said, 'If you work with the Americans, this will happen to you.' "
He spoke during a meeting with Peterson and two dozen members of his own militia in the village of Mianishin, about two hours south of Parlay over rugged road. In a bare, unlit building that serves as the community mosque, with the militiamen's AK-47s hanging from pegs in the stone wall, the men conversed over strongly sweetened tea and biscuits.
Other Afghans who made their way to Mianishin told similar stories about the Taliban in the area. They spoke of as many as 300 Taliban guerrillas in the mountains, and how they threaten people not to vote and not to cooperate with the U.S. forces. They said the Taliban also leave what the Afghans called night letters -- warnings at the homes of people they want to scare.
Besides making contact with local militia leaders, Peterson's team also is assisting with basic medical needs in this desolate area. Every contact, Peterson said, is a chance to glean new insights into an enemy they cannot see.
"Everybody is an intelligence operative out here," he added. "Everybody we interact with is a chance to collect information. But it doesn't happen overnight. The further we spread out, the better picture we build."