It’s almost dusk, and our car is belching steam from the engine. We have stopped at a police station in the southwestern Afghan province of Zabol in a district where foreign aid workers have been held up at gunpoint, their belongings and vehicles stolen. My driver’s face is edgy as he pumps water from the police-station well and pours it over the boiling engine of a car he wishes he hadn’t bought.

Afghan policemen are circling the car with Kalashnikovs, peering inside at the curious light-skinned bearded man in Afghan clothes–me–clutching a Thuraya satellite phone. I’m engaged in a conversation with my editing desk about a story I filed earlier in the day about a US offensive against Taliban forces in the area around Kandahar, a city we left at dawn. One man, apparently the police chief, walks up to my translator, Ali, and asks, “Who is this man? Is he going to call in an airstrike on us?”

Just as the last light fades over the mountains around this checkpoint, we start the engine and head out on the road, breaking rule No. 1 of travel in Afghanistan: Never travel at night. But our foolishness is based on the second rule of Afghan travel: Never trust an Afghan policeman. “These men are policemen in daylight,” says Ali, a razor-sharp medical student, nervously adjusting the white prayer cap on his head. “But at night, they become thieves. They are probably the ones who steal cars from the NGOs.” My driver, Malik Jan, a former Islamist guerrilla against the Soviets, adds another layer of gloom. “These men were here before the Taliban. Then they became Taliban. Now they support Karzai. But they will always be thieves.”

Despite some positive signs in Afghanistan over the past year–children going to school, homes being rebuilt, wells being dug–there is much about postliberation Afghanistan that hasn’t changed during President Hamid Karzai’s first months of power. Businessmen complain about harassment by corrupt policemen and thuggish soldiers. All but the bravest women still wear sky-blue burqas, their only protection from the hungry eyes of gunmen. Some villages are so far away from doctors or medical clinics that preventable diseases like polio and measles are making a comeback after being largely wiped out in the early 1970s, during the reign of King Zahir Shah.

In this environment, America has an unusual chance to be the good guy, to enhance its reputation in an increasingly hostile Muslim world. In Afghan eyes, at least, the Americans started well. American diplomats helped the Afghans select their government in Bonn, Germany, even before the Taliban fell. American generals sent in bombers and troops to help the Northern Alliance and various other warlords drive the Taliban from power. Then American aid agencies led the international charge to bring in some $1.2 billion in donor aid to get the reconstruction process going after twenty-three years of war. The US government supplied some $531 million of that aid, most of it in the form of surplus grain.

But the nearly $800 million spent by international aid agencies and the United Nations in 2002 has brought few tangible results. Major highways like the one from Kabul to Kandahar remain so rutted and potholed that many drivers prefer to take their chances driving among the landmines along the roadside to the certainty of crushing their crankcases on the road itself. Despite international largesse, many Afghans feel the same sinking feeling of abandonment they felt in 1992, when the Soviet-backed Afghan government fell, and nobody came to help them rebuild the country.

“Eight hundred million, and where has the money gone?” asked Mohammad Afsal, a war veteran and landmine amputee, taking part in a streetside protest of war veterans in Kabul last December. “This country is getting worse and worse, not better and better. Where are the jobs? Where are the roads? We have completely lost patience with Karzai. We are just waiting for the next war, the next government.”

The slow pace of reconstruction leads many Afghans simply to give up hope and hedge their bets. One senior Afghan official told me privately that he was advising various commanders to hold on to their weapons for the time being. “Be careful,” he recalls telling them. “It’s not finished yet.” For all the appearances of stability, Afghanistan is tottering at the edge of civil war. It needs only a nudge.

Adding just a touch more volatility is the American-led war in Iraq. For several weeks now, pro-Taliban groups have distributed “night letters” in the bazaars of certain border cities, calling on Muslims to unite against American forces in Afghanistan “just like the mujahedeen fought against the Russians.” Some Afghans appear to be taking these letters seriously. In Helmand province, four gunmen on motorcycles attacked a group of US troops on patrol, killing one Special Forces soldier and one airman. And in central Uruzgan province, gunmen killed an aid worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Today, US officials admit they should have stuck around in 1992 to help Afghanistan, but they say they won’t abandon the country again. In January, with the war in Iraq brewing, US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad came to Kabul to assure Afghan leaders that America would not forget Afghanistan. “We are capable of doing more than one thing at a time,” Khalilzad told reporters. Lakhdar Brahimi, the top UN official in Afghanistan, says he takes such promises with a grain of salt. “There are only 24 hours in a day,” he told the New York Times recently. “If you are forced to spend 20 hours on Iraq, then clearly you are not going to have much time on anything else, however much you would like to.” Indeed, it is Khalilzad who is doing more than one thing at a time these days. In December President Bush appointed him special envoy to the Iraqi opposition leaders, the quarrelsome group hoping to replace Saddam Hussein. Khalilzad has not returned to Kabul since his January visit. Brahimi was right to worry: In its initial 2003 budget request, the Bush Administration failed to include any reconstruction aid for Afghanistan. Amid media jeering about broken promises and short memories, Congress added $300 million.

Out in the provinces, American soldiers provide Afghans with America’s most prominent, and often its most dreaded, face. Dressed in sand-colored camouflage, driving in sand-colored Humvees through a sand-colored moonscape devoid of vegetation, these young men and women are the heroes sent to avenge the deaths of 9/11. A few US soldiers make attempts to converse with the local population, buying fruit or carpets from vendors, giving candy bars to children. Americans may also be following the Vietnam generation by dipping into local drugs. One enterprising taxi driver in the edgy eastern city of Asadabad, in Kunar province, told me he regularly sells hashish to US soldiers, who are forbidden to drink alcohol in Afghanistan.

But the vast majority of soldiers remain at perpetual high-alert, watching every Afghan’s movements behind mirrored Oakley sunglasses. Outside the wire surrounding their bases, soldiers jokingly trade names for their temporary home: Trashcanistan, Asscrackistan. Most call the Afghan people “hajis,” whether the Afghan in question has actually gone on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca or not. Imagine calling all Jews “rabbi.”

For information and intelligence, US commanders continue to rely on the same rogues’ gallery of fighters and warlords who helped the US forces move into Afghanistan in November 2001. But for every successful operation against an Al Qaeda cell, there are several other operations that can only be called vendettas. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the best way to eliminate tribal or personal enemies is to tell US forces that they are Al Qaeda. “It’s all tribal now; nobody thinks about the Taliban anymore,” says Whitney Azoy, a former US diplomat and anthropologist specializing in Afghan studies. “The US military is being used for these personal vendettas, and they don’t have the experience in this region to realize it.” (There are also continuing errors, as in the case of an errent US bomb that killed eleven civilians on April 9.)

It is the complexities of Afghan tribal culture that could present the greatest long-term danger to US troops, and to the mission of stabilizing the country. Consider the case of Abdullah Jan. Last December this Afghan teenager threw a grenade into a US military jeep in Kabul, severely wounding four American soldiers. Relatives of Abdullah Jan say the boy wanted to kill Americans in revenge for the death of his brother, Nasratullah, who was killed when the United States bombed the city of Khost in November 2001. Nasratullah, an Afghan farmer, was praying in the wrong place at the wrong time, alongside forty Arab Al Qaeda fighters who had just fled from Kabul. A 500-pound bomb leveled the mosque, killing everyone inside.

Whatever the truth of such cases–Afghan police say Abdullah Jan was a Pakistani named Amir Jan, trained in an Al Qaeda camp–the fact is that US troops have found themselves in a classic guerrilla war of attrition. Afghans or Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters lie in ambush, take a few shots at a US convoy or outpost, and flee before the planes can arrive.

At the end of the day, the difficulty of America’s mission here is tied up with the tragically frail Afghan nation-state. Afghanistan has always had kings and rulers, but its present form was created in the late eighteenth century as a buffer state to keep the growing colonial empires of Russia and Britain apart. It has a dozen ethnic groups, none of which are in the majority. It has a half-dozen languages, at least four major religious sects and a major chain of mountains–the Hindu Kush–splitting the country in two, making it difficult for all these varied groups to meet and create a common identity.

Creating a stable Afghan nation-state may be the key to American success, but it has eluded the best minds for centuries. The British, who played a major role in creating this mess 200 years ago, at least attempted to work within the system as it existed. British colonial officers of the East India Company, like Col. Henry Lawrence and Capt. John Nicholson, avoided the typical mistake of turning locals into Englishmen, and instead went native. They met with local elders, used local methods of justice and limited the number of British military in favor of local militias. For their troubles, the British were occasionally massacred by the thousands, by mad mullahs and kings alike. But the Brits also managed to maintain a dominant presence on the Afghan frontier for nearly 200 years. And it was Afghan tribal warriors who eventually rescued the British empire at Lahore, Delhi and Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Russia’s methods were more straightforward and brutal, and many Afghans say American policy is much closer to the Soviets’. Like the Americans, the Soviet troops of 1979 entered the country to confront and eliminate dangerous Islamists. They spent millions to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans, building roads and bridges, training doctors and teachers, and filling schools with motivated students eager to drag their country out of the twelfth century. But local elders didn’t like all these modern ideas–modernity had a way of taking one’s mind off God, and so did the miniskirts introduced by the Soviets. So the mullahs started preaching for a jihad to expel the nonbelievers. In the horrific war that followed, Soviet troops dropped toylike landmines designed to attract and maim little children, they bombed villages thought to be feeding and supporting Islamic militants, and they tortured intellectuals and militants whom they captured. Nearly

1 million Afghans died during the Soviet occupation.

My window into this period is my driver, Malik Jan. During the Soviet occupation, he was a village-level commander for Hizb-e-Islami, a radical Islamist party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar is America’s latest bête noire, having recently announced his alliance with the Taliban and Al Qaeda against the “American infidels.” But Malik Jan has no interest in war anymore. Instead, he tells war stories, some humorous and boastful, others horrifying. And every time he passes an American convoy of troops, he shakes his head at how easy it would be for an Afghan sharpshooter to pick off the Americans in their open Humvees. “The only thing that keeps this country from going back to the Taliban are those B-52s,” said Malik Jan recently. “But if there is war in Iraq, then maybe all those B-52s will go away too.” He pulls out a cigarette and lights it with the car’s cigarette lighter, about the only part that works reliably. “And then everything America has done here will be khattam, khallas, finished.”