A Friend in Need

Even with all the troubles that followed, Mohammad Gulab says he's still glad he saved the U.S. Navy SEAL. "I have no regrets for what I did," the 32-year-old Afghan told NEWSWEEK recently. "I'm proud of my action." Nevertheless, he says, "I never imagined I would pay such a price." Last June, foraging for edible plants in the forest near his home in the Kunar-province village of Sabray, Gulab discovered a wounded commando, the lone survivor of a four-man squad that had been caught in a Taliban ambush. Communicating by hand signs, Gulab brought the injured stranger home, fed and sheltered him for two days and helped contact a U.S. rescue team to airlift him out.

Gulab has been paying for his kindness ever since. Al Qaeda and the Taliban dominate much of Kunar's mountainous backcountry. Death threats soon forced Gulab to abandon his home, his possessions and even his pickup truck. Insurgents burned down his little lumber business in Sabray. He and his wife and their six children moved in with his brother-in-law near the U.S. base at Asadabad, the provincial capital. Three months ago Gulab and his brother-in-law tried going back to Sabray. Insurgents ambushed them. Gulab was unhurt, but his brother-in-law was shot in the chest and nearly died. The threats persist. "You are close to death," a letter warned recently. "You are counting your last days and nights."

Gulab's story says a lot about how Al Qaeda and its allies have been able to defy four and a half years of U.S. efforts to clear them out of Afghanistan. The key is the power they wield over villagers in strongholds like Kunar, on the Pakistani frontier. For years the province has been high on the list of suspected Osama bin Laden hideouts. "If the enemy didn't have local support, they couldn't survive here," says the deputy governor, Noor Mohammed. Since the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, jihadists have been amassing influence through scare tactics, tribal loyalties and cash. A little money can purchase big leverage in an area where entire villages sometimes subsist on a few thousand dollars a year, and many foreign jihadists have insinuated themselves into the Pashtun social fabric by marrying into local families. "The enemy knows the culture and exploits it," says Col. John Nicholson, who commands U.S. forces along several hundred miles of saw-toothed borderland.

Al Qaeda effectively owns much of Kunar. "There is little or no government control over most of the mountain villages," says an Afghan intelligence officer in Asadabad, asking not to be named because of the nature of his work. Many local Afghan officials are afraid to visit their home villages. Fighters entering Kunar from Pakistan have grown increasingly brazen in their movements. "This year they are so bold, they are coming in broad daylight," says the Afghan intelligence officer. Around Gulab's home village, even the natives stay out of certain areas that have been staked off by the jihadists.

Fear wasn't enough to keep Gulab from helping the commando he found in the woods last June. The Afghan says he had heard about the previous day's ambush and knew that local insurgents were hunting an American who had escaped, but Gulab believed he had to do the right thing. Under the mountain tribes' code of honor--Pashtunwali, they call it--there's a sacred duty to give shelter and assistance to anyone in need. Using gestures, Gulab indicated that he meant no harm. The injured stranger signed back that he understood and lowered his automatic rifle.

Word spread fast among Gulab's neighbors that he had taken an American into the village's protection. The jihadists soon heard the same thing. Their commander, an Afghan named Qari Muhammad Ismail, sent the villagers a written demand for the fugitive. Gulab and other village men answered with a message of their own: "If you want him, you will have to kill us all." Sabray has roughly 300 households altogether. "The Arabs and Taliban didn't want to fight the village," says Gulab.

The next night, Gulab and his neighbors took their guest to a nearby cave. For two days they took turns standing guard with his weapon while a village elder traveled to the Americans in Asadabad, carrying a letter the SEAL had written and a piece of his uniform. Four days after the ambush, a U.S. military team finally arrived to secure the village. That night a helicopter carried the wounded man and Gulab to the U.S. base.

There, Gulab says, the SEAL thanked him and promised to send him $200,000 as a reward. The Afghan also claims that U.S. officers, knowing that he and his family would be in danger because of his heroism, promised to relocate them to America within two months. (The military denies such an offer was made.) All he has now is a $250-a-month job at the base as a construction laborer. "I sacrificed everything," he says. "Now no one cares."

After several requests for comment on Gulab's story, NEWSWEEK got an e-mail from Col. Jim Yonts, a public-affairs officer in Kabul. "The U.S. military undertook many positive actions toward this individual and the other Afghans of the area to show our national gratitude and respect," he wrote. "I can not discuss the issue of the U.S. Navy SEAL promising money, but I can tell you that there was never an expectation to arrange relocation for this individual or his family." The military has no authority to make such an offer, he explained. The SEAL, who remains on active duty, declined to comment via his attorney, Alan Schwartz, an "entertainment lawyer" in Santa Monica, Calif. Gulab only shakes his head: "Why would anyone else want to cooperate with the U.S. now?"