- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Crouching in the back of a dusty black pickup truck, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier trains his rifle on two Afghans, one armed with a machine gun, found inspecting a Soviet-era T-55 tank abandoned in a dry river bed.
Two other Americans step out of the truck and cautiously approach, rifles ready, as a third Afghan pops into view.
In a country where alliances change faster than the dust clouds settle, who is a friend isn't always apparent, especially around the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
The rifles lower slightly when the men on the tank, and two buddies who join them, greet the American soldiers warmly, assuring them there are no Taliban in the area. One shows a gaping bullet wound in his lower leg.
"They say they scared 'em away. That's how he got this," said Mike, who hauls a medical pack from the truck and begins cleaning and wrapping the leg, explaining with a few words of Pashto and a lot of hand gestures what he is doing and how to care for the wound.
The men of the U.S. Army Special Forces, known as the "quiet professionals," are reluctant to talk about their operations, and allowing journalists access to the teams for the first time was a difficult decision for their commanders. To protect the men, the Army did not allow them to be fully identified or for photographs to reveal their faces.
Not long ago, the elite soldiers were in the thick of the war against the Taliban regime, advising and training opposition forces and sometimes fighting alongside them, taking a central role in a war fought thus far largely without conventional U.S. ground forces.
Fighting has quieted, and now the Americans spend more time on reconnaissance missions like the one that led the members of team Python 36 to the tank.
They survey old battlegrounds for unexploded munitions and weapons and keep an eye out for signs of trouble. They search dusty valleys for Taliban or al Qaeda fighters and for discarded documents and other materials that might provide information on Osama bin Laden's terror network, blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
They have nonmilitary tasks, too. Trained in languages and culture, the teams spend time talking to residents and shopkeepers about food and water supplies, crime and the availability of schools, police stations and other services.
"My team understands that what they recommend shapes government policy," said Paul, a 29-year-old captain from Tennessee who commands Python 36.
In Kandahar, his team's soldiers watch the city from the rooftop of a building they have called home since Dec. 10. Gunfire occasionally is heard, and they keep an eye out for suspicious vehicles that venture too close. Afghan guards outside move people along.
The sparse quarters are more comfortable than usual for a team whose members have seen action in Kuwait during the Gulf war, as well as in Haiti, Bosnia and other hot spots. Other teams, operating from makeshift camps in the rugged mountains and deserts across Afghanistan, are searching for senior Taliban and al Qaeda members.
Teams in the Kandahar area have been in close calls, losing friends when a U.S. bomb went astray north of Kandahar on Dec. 5, killing three Special Forces soldiers. A Special Forces soldier was killed in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan Friday.
Frank, a 37-year-old staff sergeant from West Virginia, said the men bond regardless of age or rank. "If it's us against the world, it's us against the world there's a lot of brotherly trust."
As they slowly cruise Kandahar's dirt streets, their beards scruffy and their heads wrapped in Afghan scarves, the men of Python 36 wave at grocers, old men drinking tea, boys on bicycles and armed men in passing vehicles.

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