In his blurred field of vision, Daud the soldier sees camels walking, veiled women strolling, motorcycles driven by men in flowing robes, and turbaned men rattling by in their Toyota pickups.
The 28-year-old Afghan has been assigned to guard the border. It is six in the morning, and although the Durand Line separating Pakistan and Afghanistan was created 110 years ago with a straight British ruler, everything is spinning around Daud today.
Hashish is cheaper here than anywhere in the world. A pencil-thick, 25-centimeter roll costs about a dollar. Even an Afghan soldier, who earns about a hundred dollars a month and is supposed to be guarding a country which, like his mind, is coming apart at the seams, can afford to escape from the crisis zone for a little while.
The Chaman Bazaar begins just across the border, which Daud is supposed to be guarding with an old Kalashnikov. Skinned sheep hang on butchers' hooks in front of a crude shack while two other animals in front wade through the blood of their slaughtered fellows. They wait, meek as lambs, for the slaughterer to slit their throats. The market seems chaotic, but everything here has its own clandestine sense of order.
There is fighting just a few dozen kilometers away from Chaman. Across the mountains to the north, veiled women, turban wearers and motorcyclists occasionally transform themselves into guerilla fighters.
The Taliban hide in caves or behind mud-colored clay walls that are barely distinguishable from the surrounding desert. They attack Americans and Afghans loyal to President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. Karzai, a Pashtun who is protected by American bodyguards, has already lost large sections of territory to the Islamist fighters. The deputy governor of Zabul recently complained that he no longer has any control over four districts in his province, and that even the provincial capital, Kalat, is under heavy attack by the Taliban.
Several thousand Taliban fighters are hiding in the mountainous, poorly accessible border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They appear as if out of thin air, attack, and disappear again. The Americans almost always arrive too late.
North of the Afghan border city of Shkin, about 300 kilometers from Chaman, the Taliban recently slit the throat of a pro-American police chief in broad daylight in a bazaar. Seven of his men suffered the same fate. The US soldiers, stationed in a fort just a few kilometers from the site of the attack, only arrived in time to collect the corpses.
No one - not Latin American Red Cross employees, Turkish engineers or American journalists - is safe from the guerillas. Foreigners and Afghans allied with Kabul face the risk of being kidnapped or killed. The situation is spiraling out of control in Afghanistan, but soldier Daud is pleased that his post is in the eye of the storm, which, as everyone knows, is the safest place.
In fact, it is quiet in Chaman. The only use Daud has for his Kalashnikov here is as something to lean on. He spends most of the day sitting on his plastic chair, until the sun sets.
He knows what prolongs life in the border region: keeping still and not getting mixed up in things. His Pakistani counterparts take care of the rest.
Captain Mohammed Tariq, in his early thirties, is proud of his checkpoint. He is responsible for patrolling exactly 41 kilometers of the border. An eight-foot earthen wall separates the two countries, and a manned watchtower protrudes from the sand every 1000 meters.
Tariq's soldiers, members of Pakistan's "Frontier Corps," wear tidy blue uniforms. They carry brand-new rapid-fire weapons and, after sunset, observe suspicious areas through expensive night-vision goggles. "We have everything under control here," says a confident Captain Tariq, glancing contemptuously at Daud, whose uniform is buttoned crookedly. "He is an addict. Someone like that is no soldier!" says the captain.
How fortunate that the Pakistani army exists when not even the border guards on the other side have their wits about them. "No one gets through here without our permission," claims Tariq, proudly showing off his passport control post.
On this day, Tariq refuses to allow any Afghani without a valid passport to enter the country. A gaunt nomad, seven children and three wives in tow, approaches the officers at the checkpoint. "But you always let me through," the man says in disbelief, spreading his arms in a gesture of protest, "why not today?"
Tariq's rigid immigration policy probably has something to do with the presence of journalists in Chaman, as well as with the fact that the Pakistani government is heavily under pressure as a result of continuing attacks on Americans and troops loyal to Karzai.
For the past year, US soldiers have been complaining that after staging their attacks in Afghanistan the Taliban retreat to Pakistani territory to regroup and then attack again.
The "Frontier Corps" rarely get in the way of the operations of the Islamist guerillas. In Angur Ada, a town near Shkin, the Taliban has even opened fire on Afghan and American troops in broad daylight - and in full view of Pakistani soldiers.
In late September, Pakistani militias fired grenades on US troops nearby. A 19-year-old American soldier from the 10th Mountain Division lost his life in the attack. Was the whole thing simply a regrettable misunderstanding, as the Pakistanis later claimed?
Afghan politicians in Kabul believe that Pakistan supports the Taliban in its struggle against the Karzai government. "The regime in Islamabad has no interest in Afghanistan developing into a peaceful, democratic country," believes a Karzai confidante.
Captain Tariq refuses to stand for such accusations. "We are all fighting terrorists here. It doesn't matter whether they are Taliban or fighters from the Northern Alliance."
In Pakistan, which has been governed by General Pervez Musharraf ever since he came to power in a coup five years ago, the army leads an inscrutable life of its own.
Life is quite comfortable in the officers' houses in Chaman, with electricity and water and satellite dishes on the roof. There is even a school for the children of enlisted men in the barracks courtyard, where history and English, biology and physical education are taught.
In the school in Zhob, a city in Beluchistan built around an old fortress, knowledge about the world is not divided into different subjects. "There is only the Koran. Everything else leads to pornography!" says Maulana Abdul Hayee, the school's director.
When the British conquered the subcontinent, this was where the boundary of its colony was drawn. But in the shadow of the imposing Fort Sandeman, built by the conquerors on a nearby hilltop more than a century ago, the Pashtuns continue to lead a life of their own, one that is foreign and sometimes hostile to the West.
Music is strictly forbidden in the religious schools of Zhob, just as it once was under the Taliban in Kabul. And pictures showing human forms cannot be found in Imam Maulana Hayee's school.
The only melody that the gaunt, gray-bearded old man permits in the dark classrooms of his madrassa is a gloomy Arab singsong that emerges from the small throats of his pupils, some as young as five, on every day except Friday, the holy day.
The boys' heads are shaven and their covered heads sway to the beat. They recite the Koran. Today, the pupils are learning the third verse of the fifth sura. "Help one another to achieve honesty and fear of God, and do not help one another to commit sin and acts of hostility. And be fearful of Allah, because Allah is strict in his punishments."
But the words they learn mean nothing to the pupils. They do not speak or understand Arabic. One day, Hayee will explain to them what sins, honesty and piety are all about. Obedience is taught here, not independent thinking.
With a silent gesture, Hayee ushers about 40 pupils and few teachers out of the room. Only a few chosen pupils are allowed to remain and listen to the words of Zhob's interpreter of the world. "There is no evidence that Osama is behind the attacks of September 11th," he says. At the madrassa, one believes what one wishes to believe.
This so-called religious scholar is not as much a theologian as a spiritual dean of the holy wars.
The students who are educated here are not destined to wander the earth as dervishes one day, but rather to become soldiers of faith. Former students of the madrassa are fighting against Indian occupation in Kashmir, or battling the hated regime of Hamid Karzai on the other side of the border. The spirit is trained in Hayee's school, and in the house of Mauli Allah Dad Kahar, the recruits of Allah are dispatched to the various fronts of Islam.
Kahar, 68, fought against the Soviets and later joined the Taliban in expelling the mujaheddin from Kabul. He is a friend of Mullah Omar, the leader of the movement.
Kashar's left eye tears constantly, but anyone who would attribute his tears to the loss of two sons in the Jihad (both perished while fighting for the Taliban against the Northern Alliance) would be incorrect. Casualties are as much a part of the holy war as fasting is part of Ramadan.
"It is not easy fighting in Afghanistan now," he says. He would love to send out a few dozen young men to join the fight against Karzai, but where would they go? "We have too few training camps over there. We can only wage a guerilla war at this time," he says, with regret.
Kahar issues passports to Jihad in Zhob. Anyone who wishes to fight for Islam needs his stamp on a document. Everyone in town knows this, and no one prevents this agent of terror from going about his business.
He sends the boys from the religious schools to the front. At the moment, however, everything in Afghanistan is "poorly organized. The Americans are strong. They send out their bombers as soon as we show up somewhere."
Kahar sighs. "No one supports us," he says. Those were golden days, he says, when the Americans and Saudis were still pumping millions of dollars into the madrassa system to breed holy warriors against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan.
But the machinery of Jihad is still operating. There are five religious schools in Zhob alone, and their classrooms are filled with 3000 students. The Pakistani government in Islamabad does very little to stop the system of raising religious warriors. Two provinces bordering Afghanistan have been under the rule of Islamist coalitions for the past year. And Islamic law, or Sharia, has been introduced in the northwestern portion of the country.
Of course, Hayee is pleased with these developments. The government in Beluchistan already includes politicians openly sympathetic to the Taliban. Here at the border, no one is likely to remind him of his crimes or bring him to justice. Nonetheless, the old warrior complains.
"We are on the defensive. All that we can do is make life miserable for the Americans. Then, perhaps, they will withdraw. Inshallah!
Beluchistan is the hinterland of the holy warriors. No soldier Daud, no Pakistani officer, and no Americans are there to stop the border traffic of terrorism. After all, there is little left to link this region with the central power in Islamabad and President Pervez Musharraf, except a 295-kilometer stretch of railroad the British built between Quetta and Zhob almost 90 years ago.
Locomotives have long since stopped running on this route, but the tracks, made of steel from Sheffield, still glint in the sunlight. Kahar, this official in charge of getting things done for the Taliban, seems to have weathered the death of his sons rather well. But the old man becomes sentimental when he looks at the tracks. "When the British were still here, everything had its proper order," he sighs.
But his longing for supposedly better times dissipates as quickly as it came. In parting, Kahar says: "I hear that Osama is doing well."
CLAUS CHRISTIAN MALZAHN
Translated by Christopher Sultan