Nebraska Col. Tom Brewer's troops started a routine inspection of a dump truck full of rock at a checkpoint outside Kabul, Afghanistan, last week.
Searching the back, they found a suspicious 6-inch-deep gap between a piece of metal and the truck's bed.
In that gap, they found exactly 100 AK-47s.
Brewer celebrated at first. These assault rifles had been smuggled from Pakistan, likely meant for insurgents bent on attacking American troops and Afghan government officials. Brewer's troops had stopped that. They might have saved lives.
Then he had a darker thought, the Nebraska military leader said by phone from Kabul last week.
Brewer knows from experience that the border with Pakistan is porous, and Afghan border guards are sometimes ill-equipped, sometimes corrupt, or both.
So he had discovered this shipment of weapons. But how many more shipments had passed through undetected?
"We probably don't catch many of these loads," Brewer said.
The summer of 2011 is a bleak time for Brewer, a Nebraskan who has spent five of the past 10 years directing key missions in the Afghanistan War and is now based in Kabul.
Afghanistan's capital city has grown markedly more dangerous, he thinks, making it nearly impossible for American troops to travel around what was once a relatively safe city.
The Taliban and related groups are growing stronger, recently launching brazen attacks on powerful Afghan politicians and landmark buildings once considered impenetrable.
Those scary trends come even as the United States begins a slow withdrawal from Afghanistan after a decadelong war. This withdrawal is starting to have tangible effects: A Nebraska National Guard unit that mentored Afghan policemen in Kabul is returning to Lincoln this morning. No unit replaced it, meaning this week, Kabul's police are on their own for the first time since the war began.
"The stress level is probably as high as it's been since I've been here," Brewer said. "We're under a pretty high state of warning. There's a large, complex attack coming in Kabul. We know it's coming. We just don't know when."
Brewer, a 32-year Nebraska National Guard veteran and now a U.S. Army Reserve colonel, is no stranger to the stress of the war in Afghanistan.
While in Afghanistan he has worked with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, helping to lead counternarcotics campaigns meant to stanch the stream of poppy and its finished product, heroin, flowing from Afghan fields into European drug markets.
He has commanded a U.S. Army border security mission meant to complicate the movement of insurgents and their weapons from Pakistan into the war — back-and-forth trips traditionally made easy by a poorly guarded border.
In 2004, al-Qaida ambushed a caravan, including Brewer, that was traveling a dusty, deserted road between Jalalabad and Kabul. Brewer killed or wounded more than a dozen enemy soldiers during the firefight, continuing to shoot even after six bullets pierced his shooting arm, broke several ribs and tore his calf muscle. He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his actions.
He expects to remain in the country at least through the end of this year.
For much of his time in Afghanistan, Brewer has remained upbeat during periodic interviews, often stressing his missions' successes and downplaying failures as the inevitable difficulty of doing business in a war-torn country.
But now Brewer — who is believed to have more Afghan experience than any other Nebraska soldier — admits that a different emotion is creeping into his thoughts as the war grinds toward its 11th year and the violence worsens.
Case in point: At the Afghan-Pakistani border, they have installed state-of-the-art scanners that can detect guns or drugs. But the electricity is spotty, so the scanners often don't work. And then the scanners break down in the dust and heat, and it takes days or a week to fly in a repairman.
Sometimes the scanners work fine, but corrupt border agents don't use them because they are charging trucks an illegal toll to cross.
And sometimes the scanners simply don't matter, because insurgents avoid the major border crossings and cross using remote, rural trails that the Afghans and the coalition forces don't have the manpower to guard.
"You kinda get worn down," Brewer said. "You get to a point where it chews away at your soul."
Other Nebraska and Iowa military leaders with recent experience in Afghanistan offered more upbeat views from the war zone last week, but they also spoke of frustratingly intractable problems.
Lt. Col. Tom Rynders, commander of the Nebraska National Guard's 1-134th Cavalry Squadron that begins to return to Nebraska starting today, saw ample improvement in many of the Afghan police officers his squadron mentored during their nine months in Kabul.
The Afghan police began to plan operations themselves, pushing into the population and actually policing instead of simply manning checkpoints as Afghan police are known to do. And Kabul's police chief and many of his officers showed courage in the line of duty, often risking their lives to stop insurgent attacks.
But Rynders worries about the police chiefs whom the Nebraskans had to constantly goad into action and the police officers who supplemented their meager incomes by taking bribes.
There's no longer any foreign presence to combat this sort of activity — the Nebraska cavalry squadron will be the last mentors for the Kabul police force. They weren't replaced, as part of the troop drawdown.
"We're hopeful, but there is some worry there," Rynders said last week. "If their economy stays like it is, it's very difficult for their security forces to be effective. ... It seems like corruption is lurking around every corner for the police and the army."
Lt. Justin Schultz, the executive officer of an Iowa National Guard company that returned home Wednesday, said he believed the company had made significant inroads with the Afghan residents living in and around Zormat, a city in the eastern part of the country.
The Iowans started a jobs program that had residents cleaning the town for the equivalent of $8 a day.
After the program proved successful, more residents started to tell the Iowans where insurgents were hiding and where roadside bombs were planted.
But Schultz also sketched an unflattering portrait of the city's political leaders, or village elders. As many as 80 percent were longtime allies of the insurgents, he said, either taking money from the Taliban or the Haqqani network or, in some cases, actively planning attacks against coalition forces.
To Brewer, the foundational problem with the Afghan reconstruction is that Americans and Afghans often view that reconstruction — and life and death — in much different ways.
The Americans want to move 100 miles per hour, getting things done, especially now that military leaders know that many U.S. troops will likely be gone by next year.
The Afghans are calmer. They would like to drink another cup of tea, Brewer said, and proudly show you photos of their children. After more than three decades of war, they aren't even as worried about dying as Americans are, Brewer said.
"They often don't get wrapped around the axle about it like we do," Brewer said. "If it's meant to happen, it will happen. We are always trying to think of ways not to die."
Staying alive is getting more difficult for Afghans as well as Americans in Afghanistan, Brewer thinks.
In the past few weeks, President Hamid Karzai's brother — arguably the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan — was murdered by a foe believed to be a double agent for the Taliban. A suicide bomber then attacked Ahmed Wali Karzai's funeral, killing an important religious leader and several others.
In Kabul, insurgents invaded the Intercontinental Hotel, a well-known hotel favored by Westerners, who view it as one of the safest places in the city.
Brewer said he was at the Intercontinental four days before it was attacked and was impressed by the hotel's security.
Just a year ago, Brewer and his soldiers drove whenever and nearly wherever they wanted in Kabul.
Now, any transportation involves hours of planning. Even Brewer's Afghan interpreters don't drive cars after nightfall.
"The fact that they are willing to come into these larger metropolitan areas, like Kandahar and Kabul, and do these kinds of emboldened attacks ... as much as we'd like to say we have police checkpoints, that this somehow protects the city from these complex attacks, that's really a falsity," Brewer said.
He is asked what has changed since the U.S. military first entered Kabul in late 2001.
"We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go," Brewer said. "As much as we'd like to think that after 10 years some of the old ghosts are gone, that just may not be true."
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