Police corruption and insurgent attacks sow fear and make traveling many sections of the road a lottery.
The ruined Afghan police truck smoldered on the highway in the village bazaar, flames rising from its cargo bed. The village was silent. Its residents had hidden themselves ahead of a U.S. patrol.
The remains of a second truck, a tanker, sat on its wheel rims 100 yards to the north. To the south, another patrol was removing two other freshly burned tankers from the highway, clearing the lanes so traffic might pass.
The Americans examined the police truck. Holes marked where bullets had passed through. The front passenger door was gone; a rocket-propelled grenade had struck and exploded there.
This vehicle graveyard on Highway 1, roughly 50 miles south of Kabul, the Afghan capital, symbolizes both the ambitions and frustrations in Afghanistan six years after the Taliban were chased from power.
Highway 1 is the country's main road, the route between Kabul and Kandahar, the country's second largest city. It lies atop an ancient trade route that, in theory, could connect Central Asia and Afghanistan with ports in Pakistan, restoring Afghanistan's place as a transit hub for something besides heroin.
The highway, which has been rebuilt with $250 million from the United States and other nations, accommodates a daily flow of automobiles, buses and ornately decorated cargo carriers, which the soldiers call "jingle trucks."
The Afghan and U.S. governments say the road's restored condition is a tangible step toward a self-sufficient Afghanistan.
But Highway 1 remains bedeviled by danger, extortion and treachery. Police corruption and insurgent attacks sow fear and make traveling many sections of the road a lottery. The risks limit its contribution to the economy and underscore the government's weakness beyond Kabul.
Training indigenous security forces to police the road honestly is one of the primary long-term goals of the American and NATO forces in outposts along the route. In the short term, the goal is to keep traffic flowing with a minimum of graft and attacks.
"Right now, freedom of movement is our main task on Highway 1," said Lt. Col. Timothy McAteer, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry, a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division that operates in two provinces bisected by the highway, Wardak and Ghazni.
The road is different in many ways from its recent past. But in some ways it is the same.
In 2001, after more than two decades of war, Highway 1 was almost impassable. It had been washed out by floods, ground apart by tank treads and bombed in repeated military campaigns. The husks of looted cars and abandoned Russian armor lined its shoulders. In places, it was mined or littered with unexploded rockets, shells and bombs.
12 hours, 230 miles
Armed men set up roadblocks and chased victims on motorcycles and trucks. The 230-mile journey from Kabul to Kandahar, assuming the trip was not delayed by robbery or breakdown, often took more than 12 hours.
The road is now paved, with two lanes, wide shoulders and bridges over gullies and streams. Convoys of pickup trucks, newly purchased vehicles for the police, roam its length. Most bombs and mines have been removed.
Although stretches of the road are now generally safe, several sections remain plagued by violence. Some attacks are Taliban guerrilla operations, several officers said. Others are the sort of crimes that have afflicted Afghan trails for centuries.
"You go back in history, and people made money here by hitting caravans," McAteer said. "Now they hit buses and jingle trucks."
The colonel said that within two or three years, the Afghan police might be competent enough to secure the road. Since last year, U.S. financing for police equipment and training has sharply increased. Their improvement has become a priority.
For now, Capt. Matthew Fogarty, an intelligence officer, and Capt. Matthew Hagerman, an officer in the operations section, described three threats.
The first, they said, are police officers themselves, who set up impromptu checkpoints and shake down passing drivers and their passengers. There are three legal toll points on Highway 1 in the battalion's area, they said. The police typically set up five to seven more each day -- and pocket what they collect.
Afghan police officers and supervisors are scheduled to receive significant pay raises in January; Afghan government officials and their U.S. mentors say they hope the raises will reduce the shakedowns.
The second threat, the officers said, comes from criminals, some of whom masquerade as police officers and order drivers to pull over. They sack vehicles and seize their goods.
"They pretend to be ANP, because they can get someone to stop with a Kalashnikov and half a uniform," Hagerman said, using the initials of the Afghan National Police.
The third threat comes from insurgents, who make checkpoints but also ambush patrols. As the insurgents steal, the officers said, they warn Afghan drivers not to carry cargo for NATO forces and warn passengers not to work on military bases.
Taliban fighters have killed drivers who haul cargo for NATO or have sliced off their noses and ears before releasing them. At times the different groups collaborate, as apparently happened when a bus with 23 South Korean missionaries was hijacked in Ghazni Province in July. "The Koreans got hijacked by basically one dude with a Kalashnikov," Hagerman said.
The Taliban killed two hostages before releasing the rest.
Once the hostages were safe, their captors -- thought to be about a dozen men -- were pursued by the U.S. military.
"So far, all but two of those involved have been hunted down and arrested or killed," Hagerman said. "It was important to send a message: You want to kidnap people? We are going to find you, and there is going to be a price."
Sparse military resources
But concentrating military resources in one district means others receive less attention. In other areas, including around Salar, insurgents prey on traffic with near impunity.
On a recent patrol, a platoon from the 2nd Battalion's Company D entered Salar and found it silent. Every business was shuttered.
Three coalition patrols and a police convoy had been ambushed there in the past 10 days. The attackers had fired grenades and swept the road with machine-gun fire, two survivors said, then fled and mingled with civilians in Salar.
The paratroopers watched nervously, expecting to be ambushed, too. "This is where jingle trucks go to die," said Staff Sgt. Anthony Cassetta, as his vehicle passed the burning truck.
During an ambush at night, the paratroopers had seen gunmen run to a compound on the far side of a stream. The soldiers had not called in an airstrike, unsure whether civilians were inside.
Capt. Aaron White, the company commander, wanted to search the compound. As he gathered about a dozen paratroopers, an Afghan police convoy stopped. The police commander greeted the Americans.
Approaching the compound would require the paratroopers to cross several hundred yards of open ground, exposed to anyone who might fire on them. White asked the police officers to join them.
The police commander refused and led the convoy away. White allowed himself a smile. "I should have told them we were searching for money -- a cache of money," he said. "That would probably have worked."
He ordered the paratroopers into the field. They crossed the terraced cropland, descended into the stream bed and followed it to the compound.
An Afghan woman, who said her name was Shafiqa, appeared and unlocked the compound's metal door. The paratroopers rushed inside. No one was home.
Shafiqa insisted that the Taliban did not operate here. The paratroopers found a military-style parka hidden under leaves. White held it up. Shafiqa's story changed.
"All the time, Taliban come here!" she shouted. "We tell them, 'Go away from this area.' If they attack on anybody, you know, they will bombard our houses."
"This is the place," the captain said.
He thanked her and led the patrol back to Highway 1.
Sgt. Ryan Gloyer, a squad leader, said Shafiqa's behavior was typical of the protection that insurgents received in a land where the police were weak. "It's kind of like a mobster mentality," he said. "They're afraid to give anybody up."