MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
We now bring you the story of two Afghan powerbrokers - one's a warlord, the other a tribal leader. One is working with the Americans, the other's far more tentative in his support. NPR's Tom Bowman went out with troops from the 101st Airborne Division outside Kandahar City in southern Afghanistan. As he reports, the warlord and the tribal leader illustrate the challenge for the U.S. military as it tries to build enduring partnerships.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
TOM BOWMAN: Alpha Company just suffered one more grenade attack - there have been a handful lately. Captain Nick Stout wants to put an end to the grenade throwing once and for all. He assembled his soldiers and some Afghan police inside his operations center, a plywood building at Combat Outpost Sangeray, just north of Kandahar City.
Stout wanted an Afghan official to join in too - that's because the Americans put a premium on what they call partnering.
Captain NICK STOUT (101st Airborne Division): (Unintelligible) over here too. I don't know if that's going to work, but this is his chance.
BOWMAN: Haji Lala - he's the local tribal leader, akin to the mayor of the village. Captain Stout's not so sure he'll cooperate because Haji Lala is a reluctant ally, like a number of Afghan officials.
Capt. STOUT: I define him as a fence-sitter too.
BOWMAN: Haji Lala only took over the tribal leadership because his brother was killed by the Taliban. Everyone says he prefers business to fighting.
Capt. STOUT: Okay. Well, hey, gentlemen...
BOWMAN: After a while, Haji Lala walked into the building. He's a short, stout man. He stood in the outer edge of the group, fingering his prayer beads and saying little. Everyone else studied a map of the village. Finally, Captain Stout made an announcement.
Capt. STOUT: Gentlemen, big things - this is our opportunity to stand all together, go into Sangeray and say, look, something's got to change.
BOWMAN: Then he turns to Haji Lala.
Capt. STOUT: I would really like it if you would have the - I mean if you wouldn't mind it, I would like you to come with me.
BOWMAN: Haji Lala laughed nervously and says he shouldn't be seen with the Americans.
Mr. LALA: It's so bad for me because I am a tribe elder, and it's so bad for me to walk with the Army in...
BOWMAN: His excuse is a tribal leader shouldn't patrol with American troops. They try to convince him but he wouldn't budge and soon walked out.
Stout could barely contain his frustration, and said he doesn't doubt the rumors that Haji Lala has links to the Taliban. What the village needs, he says, is a real leader.
Capt. STOUT: We need a guy like Haji Ghani in Senjaray, because like the people are scared of the Taliban. But people are straight terrified of Haji Ghani.
BOWMAN: Terrified isn't the word that comes to mind when you arrive at Haji Ghani's compound a few miles away. A sign on the white-washed guesthouse declares: Welcome to Uncle Haji Ghani's Nature Park.
There are well-kept flower beds, almost every color imaginable. Servants dart about. And under a grove of tall eucalyptus trees, Haji Ghani appears, smiling and warmly hugging each of his American guests.
Mr. HAJI GHANI (Warlord): And, sir, say, how are you doing? How's your soldiers? How is the duties...
BOWMAN: Haji Ghani is tall and rangy, dressed in black with a pistol tucked in his waistband. He has a thick pirate's beard. His long hair has streaks of red dye. And over the course of a long lunch of kabobs, he is at times comical, charismatic, and menacing - like his quick solution for the grenades that are at times thrown by teenagers.
Mr. GHANI: Take me to patrol. When he throws the grenade, Im going to shoot him myself and then they'll think twice about it.
BOWMAN: There are few attacks on this side of the river. That's because after a few roadside bomb attacks, Haji Ghani gathered the entire village.
Captain PAUL DELEON (Commander, Combat Outpost Durkin): He spent about two hours yelling at the elders and telling them, you know, you have to take ownership of your town.
BOWMAN: Captain Paul DeLeon commands an American outpost just up the hill from Haji Ghani's compound.
Capt. DELEON: And then he went on to, you know, threaten the families of the Taliban, at which he, you know, pointed out in the meeting, you know: Your son is off on his own, you need to get a hold of him. Or: If I find an IED next to your house in the future, it's going to be you that I turn to.
BOWMAN: Haji Ghani brags that his lecture pretty much put an end to roadside bombs in the area.
Mr. GHANI: I can guarantee you, in the whole Kandahar Province or Zhari District, nobody can show you anywhere secure like this area.
BOWMAN: Haji Ghani is not just talk. With a little prompting, he shows off his battle scars - puckered, pinkish wounds that are on his arms, his hips, his legs, even his feet. I lost count at seven.
Mr. GHANI: I don't have an education. I haven't got any religious education or any school education. But for a fact, I know that I have a lot of experience in fighting.
Capt. DELEON: He's a warlord. He's a ruthless warlord.
BOWMAN: Again, Captain DeLeon.
Capt. DELEON: He'll tell you about, you know, stories of beating people up and killing people and things like that.
BOWMAN: And things like making money. Just along the river is Haji Ghani's gravel pit - his stones, like at many of the combat outposts north of Kandahar.
DeLeon and other American officers say they'd like to clone Haji Ghani, the warlord, because he's willing to take on the Taliban, unlike Haji Lala - the reluctant tribal leader who Haji Ghani dismisses with a wave of his hand.
Mr. GHANI: He doesn't do his job very good. He doesn't cooperate with us. If you show this kind of cowardice against the enemy, you know, of course the enemy is going to get stronger, you know. And they get - what do you call -courage to attack us.
BOWMAN: Ghani might be willing, even eager, to take on the Taliban. But as we leave his compound, the Afghan-American translator has mixed feelings. He points to a highway bridge thick with traffic. Rumor has it that Haji Ghani demands an illegal toll from each truck.
He's part of the solution, the translator says, and part of the problem.
BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.