For Mohammed Nader Ashraf, the most important thing is to make sure they don't find him. That would be dangerous, because he is crouched behind a wall on the edge of a cornfield, talking to strangers.
Ashraf, who has a dark wrinkled face and is wearing a light-colored turban, spits on his right index finger and scrubs it with a small stone. The finger is still colored bluish-black with ink, the method used in Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election to prevent multiple voting.
But in Ashraf's native village, near Khalaj in Afghanistan's Helmand province, the mark is also a curse. Helmand is Taliban country, the province where the insurgents are strongest in Afghanistan. They view participating in the presidential election as an act of treason. The Taliban have denounced voting as un-Islamic and threatened to cut off the inked fingers of anyone who votes.
But Ashraf is smiling. Despite the threats, he rode for four hours to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah early on the morning of the election, taking secret routes along irrigation canals and dusty paths. Then the 42-year-old placed a cross next to the name of President Hamid Karzai, not out of a desire for democracy, but out of a lust for revenge. In the spring, a Taliban court ruled against him in a land dispute, and he lost two of his fields. "If President Karzai stays in office, even more American soldiers will come to Helmand, and I'll get my property back," says Ashraf, licking his finger.
The second presidential election since the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul was not without incident, but it was also not a failure. An estimated 17 million Afghans were officially eligible to vote, although most village elders and clan leaders had decided in advance who their followers were to support or whether they should vote in the first place.
Dirty deals were made, votes were bought and voting permits were distributed on good faith. There were 135 incidents last Thursday alone, including more than a dozen Taliban attacks on polling places and one police station. About 50 people were killed, most of them attackers. The relatively high voter turnout, given the circumstances, was partly attributable to the fact that provincial councils were also being elected. These councils are often more relevant to the daily lives of Afghans than the relatively weak president in faraway Kabul.
Nevertheless, incumbent Karzai is likely to have won the vote, and Ashraf's hopes of having his farmland returned to him could in fact come true.
The American soldiers he is pinning his hopes on are already there. Four thousand troops arrived in Helmand last month in an attempt to drive out the Taliban, who are stronger in the region today than at any time since the American invasion eight years ago. Operation "Khanjar" ("dagger") is the test case for US President Barack Obama's new strategy for achieving a turnaround in Afghanistan.
The US Marines include men like Captain Robert Tart, a wiry, 33-year-old New Yorker whose angular face, under his sand-colored helmet, makes him look at least 10 years older. Wearing a flak vest and outfitted with an assault rifle, night-vision goggles and a radio, he is standing in a forward operating base, a US camp with protective walls, on the border with Helmand province.