It's impossible to say when the road snaking southwest from Kabul becomes dangerous. NATO officials say the security situation in the Afghan capital is under control. "The enemy is not at the gates" either, the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) top commander in the "regional command capital," General Michel Stollsteiner, admonished skeptics at a recent press conference.
Yet local drivers in Kabul say they would not want to attempt Highway One in the direction of Wardak, a notorious hotbed of insurgent activity barely 35 kilometers southwest of Kabul. The north is safe; in the east the risks are tolerable; but the south is deemed off-limits. "You need armor," says Ahmed, the principal driver-cum-guide ferrying us about in the Afghan capital.
Or better still, a helicopter. An aging Russian "helo" provided by USAID offers unrivaled aerial views of the route and the chance to reflect on how little face value is worth in Afghanistan.
For somewhere along 35-kilometer stretch of the highway, the relative safety of Kabul is replaced by utter insecurity. Turkish officials who welcome us to their Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Wardak's sleepy little provincial capital say they cannot safely venture more than three kilometers from city limits. Local elders concur. The menace is invisible from the air, but very real. Any foray into the country by Western or provincial officials risks becoming a military engagement.
This is particularly jarring because, according to the chief of the Turkish PRT, Cuneyt Yavuzcan, his team represents the cutting edge in ISAF's approach to community outreach. Yavuzcan is a civilian, protected by a special police outfit, and the few genuine soldiers at the Turkish compound are there only to man its gates.
Yavuzcan speaks with obvious pride about what remains ISAF's only civilian-led PRT -- and attacks the idea that the military could transform Afghanistan.
"In my view, that's wrong, because PRTs exist to do reconstruction projects," Yavuzcan says. "Civilians have more expertise in these kinds of project; they have to take the lead [and] they have to decide [on] the programs they are going to execute."
There is also the issue of trust, Yavuzcan says.
"When they talk to a civilian, [the locals] are more comfortable and they trust more," he says. "It makes a huge difference."
He adds that "all the PRTs in Afghanistan should be like that."
The Turkish PRT has the extra advantage of hailing from a predominantly Muslim country. Yavuzcan says that helps to make the PRTs presence and activities more congenial to the locals. He shows off a mosque built for Turkish money and says the mullah is open to a bit of "indoctrination" in return. True enough, the mullah praises Turkish efforts and seems happy to see girls go to school -- something that many local Pashtuns reject -- saying Islam commits both men and women to seek knowledge.
Yet Yavuzcan admits that despite all this, Wardak, like all of Afghanistan's Pashtun-majority provinces, remains "a war zone." Most Turkish-financed projects are limited to using local Afghan contractors. Yavuzcan says the situation in Wardak has deteriorated further recently, prompting the United Nations to close down their office in the province in September.
Trying to throw light on the origins and the nature of the threat in Wardak quickly turns into a study in Afghan culture and politics.
The provincial governor, Muhammad Halim Fidai, is a relatively recent arrival. Appointed in July, he hails from the southeastern province of Paktika. He flatly contradicts the testimony of insecurity offered by Turkish officials and local observers.
"I can tell you that there's no permanent base for insurgents in this province," Fidai says. "They could come and show [themselves] in front of TV and media [and say], 'Oh hey, I'm here, it's controlled by me.' But if you leave and come back suddenly, you won't see anyone there."
Fidai castigates journalists, local and Western, for painting a skewed picture of his province from a distance. The governor singles out an Afghan news outlet that, he says, covers events in Wardak from Helmand; he is seemingly unaware of the irony behind his words, since Helmand remains one of the most dangerous environments in the entire country.
Fidai invites journalists to come to Wardak and report first-hand. As if to remind the assembled journalists of the master's degree in public relations his CV says he holds, Fidai dodges the question when he's asked if he could guarantee the safety of any intrepid reporters. "Journalists must know themselves what security measures they need to take," he says.
A dozen or so local elders, making up Wardak's provincial council, watch the exchange with deadpan expressions.
In an ensuing interview, Shershah Bazon, an elder representing Chak district, says insurgents have "no special place" in Wardak where they live. They "come from outside the province and go back," Bazon says, adding that "foreigners" supply them with weapons and ammunition.
'Three Miles' Of Freedom
Bakhto Jan, an elder from Jhagoto district, is similarly vague until asked if it's true that Western and Afghan officials are confined in their movements to a three-kilometer radius of the provincial center.
"You're right," he says, "the governor cannot go farther than that," adding, "Even I cannot do that." He blames the absence of police -- or, rather, corrupt police. "The police who come here are thieves and robbers." The Taliban, the elder says, are "everywhere in villages and districts."
Turkish officials later say the provincial council is a permanent body and its members reside in the provincial capital, under the protection of a U.S. garrison stationed nearby.
No one, it seems, can -- or wants to -- say with any certainty who the enemy is. Background material provided by the Turkish PRT notes that Wardak is home to Ghilzai Pashtuns who form the "backbone of the Taliban." The Ghilzai are the perennial rivals of President Hamid Karzai's Durrani tribe, and local observers say Karzai has used his power to sideline the Ghilzais. They have even gone so far as to accuse Karzai's government of having some of their elders imprisoned under the guise of the "war on terror."
Then there is Hizb-e Islami, a fundamentalist Pashtun movement headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hizb-e Islami is in conflict with the Taliban and, according to Western sources, has the upper hand in Wardak.
In Kabul, the top Afghan official in charge of local governance, General Jelani Popal -- a Karzai confidante -- had earlier in the week described a recent "uprising against the Taliban" in Wardak.
"In the Saydabad district, people said to the Taliban, 'You cannot come to our villages, and not only to the villages [but also] to the [outskirts]of the villages, because if you come we will resist you,'" Popal says. "Then the Taliban decided not to attack the convoys because [the district] is located on the main [highway to] Kandahar."
In Nirkh, Popal says, "people pointed out where the Taliban were hiding." He claims that 60 insurgents were killed without a single Afghan military casualty.
NATO's website says ISAF troops engaged insurgents in Nirkh district on October 16 and "after 10 hours of fighting" killed 20.
A few days after this trip to Wardak, the editor-in-chief of the Wakht News Agency, Samander, will tell me that around about the same time, Afghan National Army (ANA) troops entered a village in Nirkh and rounded up and killed 20 local men and boys. Samander says he was told by numerous locals the killings took place long after a Taliban force had left the village.
Samander says at least 13 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are in a situation comparable to Wardak's -- the local governor's power does not extend beyond a few kilometers of his compound. The rest of the provinces are contested by insurgents and the national army.
And then there is the criminal element. Yavuzcan, the head of the Turkish PRT, says foreigners in Wardak are mostly targeted for money, not for what anyone tries to pass off as ideals.
"There is a general impression that foreigners could be kidnapped, foreigners could be attacked for political reasons -- not the project itself, but the persons," Yavuzcan says. "There are also many criminal groups functioning in Wardak. They mainly kidnap foreigners for money, for ransom. Many times they are more dangerous than the insurgents."
Be that as it may, we lift off before nightfall to head back to Kabul. Like the governor, we are told, who prefers not to spend nights in Wardak.
RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas gathered information for this report during a recent, NATO-hosted visit to Afghanistan with a small group of journalists.
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