Local Pakistani officials say the border is only a formality. The same tribes live on both sides, the same language is spoken on both sides, and the border drawn by departing European colonial rulers 115 years ago does not have any historic significance for the ethnic Pashtuns who dominate the area. Families are allowed to cross without passports.
Asked if Taliban cross the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan, Mulvi Agha Muhammad, a member of the Pakistani parliament from a district just across the border from Zabul, said, "Of course they do, even as we speak … all Afghan men have beards and differentiating between a Talib and a non-Talib is extremely difficult. They are all citizens of Afghanistan and they all have beards, so who are you supposed to stop from crossing over?"
The United States has never sent enough resources to the area to secure the border. In Zabul, the border became "one of the lowest priorities, given the resources that I have," admits Cannata.
Before a few months ago, neither he nor any of his predecessors in Zabul even knew how to call the lone border police post on the Zabul-Baluchistan border. He now has a mobile phone number for the border police chief, but cannot visit the area without a huge amount of reinforcements -- not because he fears an attack but because he simply does not have enough intelligence to know what kind of resistance might be waiting for him when he arrives.
"Coming in, I was just asking myself, 'What's my border picture?' I couldn't find it," he said in an interview in his office in the main base in Zabul, just outside the provincial capital, Qalat.
On the wall a huge map of the province details precisely where U.S. troops are located, where their coalition partners the Romanian troops are located, and the location for every casualty his unit has suffered. But in the area near the border, there are almost no push-pins, no color-coordinated stickers.
"Unfortunately, the border is not well-covered at all," Cannata says, "nowhere near what I would like as a military professional."
Just as the United States has not had enough resources, so too have the Afghan border police been woefully short-staffed.
"In my opinion, our border police don't have enough equipment to stop the Taliban," says Gen. Farahi, the Afghan counterterror chief. "The number of police is not enough. The area is a very big area, and we can't control all of the fighters coming across the border."
That was evident to Cannata during an incident in May when the border police station in Zabul was attacked.
Eventually, after realizing he did not have any contact numbers, he reached the police chief and asked where the station was in relation to the attackers. The chief was a bit flummoxed: he did not have a single map or grid in his station to help explain the geography of the area.
"I was on the floor, trying to compare my maps to the village names he was giving me," Cannata recalled, shaking his head while telling the story.
He has reason to worry. The supply lines from Pakistan, he says, come into Zabul and then cross Highway 1, the road that links Kabul to Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan. At those crossings, militants concentrate their attacks using roadside bombs, which have become the greatest worry for U.S. troops and for commercial traffic that use the highway.