Afghan policemen take a break as local government officials meet with tribal elders in the Daychopan district of Zabul province. (Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson/U.S. AIR FORCE VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS)

For most of their lives, Gul and Razziq slept under the same dusty blankets on the same dirt floors. They toiled side by side in the same potato fields and prayed in the same mosque, two poor brothers in a forgotten corner of the Afghanistan war.

Gul, the elder brother, was the first to choose. With no gun or money, he walked out of his home one summer day and into the ranks of the Taliban. Razziq soon followed, but down a different road: to the barracks of the U.S.-backed Afghan national police. The brothers’ decisions have transformed them into enemies and forced them to consider a day they had never imagined.

“I don’t know when I will face my brother on the battlefield, but it’s only a matter of time,” Gul said. And when it happens, Razziq said, “I will have no choice but to fight him back.”

In Afghanistan, personal choice is often all that separates America’s friends from its enemies. Combatants share the same religion, land, language, even blood. “Upset brothers” is how President Hamid Karzai describes the Taliban.

And so the war has become one prolonged appeal for allegiance: The United States relies on tens of thousands of troops and a gusher of development dollars to make its case; the Taliban offers a simpler mix of intimidation and kinship.

The safest territory in Afghanistan is the neutral middle, a space that the expanding war has eroded. Forced to take sides, Afghans have divided into factions, complicating any attempt to end the war — and chipping away at any hope of bringing warring brothers home to the same family again.

Gul and Razziq, who spoke on the condition that only their first names be used, grew up in Bazargan, a village in Zabul province, along the southeastern border with Pakistan. They are ethnic Pashtuns from the same tribe that produced Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban. Since Razziq joined the police a year ago, the brothers have not spoken to each other. Separately, and without each other’s knowledge, they agreed to interviews in Kandahar city.

Neither looks the part of the warrior. Even with his grey turban, Gul, 23, stands barely over 5 feet tall. He has gentle brown eyes and delicate features: a finely crafted figurine of a fighter. He allowed no recordings or photographs but said he could move freely and without fear of arrest. Razziq, 20, arrived in civilian clothes — beige robes similar to his brother’s, his thick black hair spilling from under his notched Kandahari cap. He seemed more forlorn and introverted than Gul, and he told his story in a whisper.

Fighting the ‘invader’

The Northern Alliance, backed by the might of the United States, overthrew the Taliban when Gul was 13. He felt no allegiance to the Taliban regime, but he gradually developed an admiration for its interpretation of Islam. He spent more time at the mosque than Razziq. Gul objected to their younger sister taking classes in a neighbor’s home. His classmates called him “little mullah,” said Asadullah Nawabi, a friend and pharmacist in Zabul.

Gul’s views hardened when U.S. soldiers killed a cousin, Ismat, during a night raid in their village, according to both brothers. “The Americans had surrounded a compound. When he tried to leave it, he was shot,” Razziq recalled. Ismat was a bystander, they said, not an insurgent.

“That was the moment I realized the Americans were not here to build our country,” Gul said.

Not long after, he dropped out of high school and left home to find the Taliban.

“It’s every Muslim’s obligation to fight the invader and occupier,” he said. “I was nervous when I left. I didn’t know what would happen to me. But I was also happy because I was going to join a group of people who were fighting for God.”

A peripatetic life

Finding the insurgents was not difficult. “Anyone can join them,” Gul said. “They are not like government officials who don’t open the door even after you knock 20 times.”

A few days after leaving home, Gul returned with his new comrades. Razziq watched as three motorcycles came up to the family’s home, two turbaned Taliban fighters on each. He noticed that his brother, for the first time, was carrying a gun.

Razziq was disgusted. He had pleaded with Gul not to join the Taliban. It would put him in danger, the younger brother had argued, and would draw unwanted attention to the family. As the eldest son, Gul was responsible for tending the farm and supporting their parents and siblings. As it was, their meager harvests earned them barely enough to survive.

Razziq did not consider U.S. troops occupiers. They were in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, he noted, and have paid to build schools and hospitals and train Afghan soldiers and police. The Taliban insurgents “bomb bridges, they plant mines, and most of the time, civilians get killed,” Razziq said. “He joined the very people who burn down schools, who don’t let women go to school, who do all sorts of evil things.”

During the visit, Razziq brooded and refused to speak to his brother. While Gul’s Taliban companions lounged in the mosque eating an okra dish made by his mother, his father appealed to Gul to change his mind.

“He said, ‘Son, it’s not too late. You can still come back home and leave the Taliban,’ ” Razziq recalled. “But Gul wouldn’t listen.”

Gul pulled out a Koran and read his father a verse: For anyone who abandons his religion and dies an unbeliever, he read, “their deeds have become worthless in this world and the afterlife.”

Gul said he started as a driver for the Taliban, was promoted to bodyguard and now fights in a 10-man cell operating in Zabul province. As part of the organization’s military wing — separate from those involved in administering ad hoc village-level justice — he learned how to wire fertilizer bombs, fire a Kalashnikov rifle and ambush foreign troops. “The IED is our weapon of choice,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.

Since he joined in 2007, the Taliban’s area of operations has grown, he said, and he can move freely throughout southern Afghanistan. It has been a peripatetic life — traveling at night from village to village, camping outside — but a rewarding one, he said.

“The simplicity of their lives has really impressed me. The mujaheddin are people who left everything behind: their families, children, wives, property. They are fighting for God and freedom,” he said. “We feel sorry for every single American soldier who dies in Afghanistan. Our advice is to go home and live with your families and leave us in peace.”

Feelings of betrayal

Without Gul to help farm, money grew scarce. They had been a family of eight — parents, four brothers and two sisters — living in a three-bedroom mud hut in one of the poorest provinces in Afghanistan. They owned two sheep and a small garden but mostly farmed neighbors’ fields: potatoes, almonds, wheat and grapes. They sold their produce in the bazaar in the district capital, earning what they could.

On the radio, Gul said, he had heard about the millions of dollars the Americans had allocated for development projects in Zabul, but he saw no evidence of change. Afghan government officials, he concluded, had stolen the money. “The reason I don’t support the government is I think they are thieves,” he said. “They are heroin addicts and hash smokers. You can hardly find an honest man in the government.”

To help his family, Razziq needed to find work. Unlike Gul, who nearly finished high school, studied in a madrassa in Pakistan and could speak broken English, Razziq was illiterate — a condition he likened to blindness. The Afghan police paid $220 a month and required no education. “I wanted to serve the country,” he said. “And I wanted to be part of the team that makes it possible for children to go to school.”

His father hated the idea. Where they lived, the Taliban had more authority than the government: The group’s members spoke at the mosque and regularly passed by asking for food and shelter. Anyone who joined the police was asking for trouble. But Razziq refused to stay home. He joined an outpost in Taziq, an about 45-minute drive from his house. That was a year ago. He has not been home since.

“I cannot go back there,” he said. “The Taliban will cause problems.”

Each month, Razziq sends $130 — more than half his salary — to his family, usually with a friend acting as courier. When his father had errands in the provincial capital, Qalat, they would meet for a few minutes to catch up. But that has been rare. His connection to his family has been severed.

To Gul, his brother’s new job was a betrayal: a choice of money over freedom. “I know my brother made the wrong decision. I hope he quits his job and comes back home. Nobody will touch him,” Gul said. Until Razziq does, they will be enemies.

Another family’s story

The centrifugal forces of war have pulled apart other Afghan families as well. In 2006, Yar Mohammad left Shahjoy — Gul and Razziq’s district — and moved to Iran, where he discovered clean neighborhoods, paved roads, young men in jeans and women without burqas. When he came home, he wanted nothing to do with Chino, his dusty village, or his brother, a Taliban leader who goes by the nom de guerre Commander Khanai. Without telling his family, Mohammad joined the police and was stationed in neighboring Ghazni province, leaving behind his wife and baby daughter.

When his family members found out that Mohammad had chosen to side with the government, they were enraged. His father called him a “servant of infidels” and vowed to disown him and never attend his funeral.

Mohammad is “dead to us,” said Commander Khanai, who has fought with the Taliban for five years. “He has betrayed us. He has made an unforgivable mistake. I will shoot him if I see him. Since he is serving the occupiers’ interests, for me, he is no different from an American.”

A few months ago, Mohammad called his brother and asked for permission to visit his wife and daughter in the village.

“He first started cursing me, and then he warned me that if I show up, he will kill me himself,” Mohammad recalled.

“I told him nobody wants to see him, including his wife,” Commander Khanai said. “He is an apostate, and the punishment for apostasy is death.”

Lingering affection

The enmity between Gul and Razziq is more tempered. They miss each other and yearn for the day when the family can be reunited. Gul hopes his brother understands why he is fighting. Razziq hopes his brother realizes they are both Muslims.

“When you leave your loved ones, you miss them,” Gul said. “I’m trying my best to convince him to quit his job.”

“I want to see him again,” Razziq said. “Although I’m mad at him, I could forgive him.”

When the war is over, both want to return to their village, and both are willing to forgive. “Who doesn’t want to be with his family in his own home?” Razziq asked.

“We had a very good relationship once,” he said. “We were two good brothers.”

Special correspondent Habib Zahori contributed to this report.