GARDEZ, Afghanistan – At a checkpoint outside the Afghan capital, a soldier with a Kalashnikov rifle leans into the car and warns to be careful on the road ahead: "Everyone is with a gun."
In Kabul, there is a new Afghan government and an international peacekeeping force. Beyond the city, there is no security to speak of, just occasional roadside posts -- some manned by government soldiers, others by armed men loyal to the local tribal chief or council.
Each weapon-toting guard offers the same advice: "I wouldn't go on." "We can't be certain who is on the road ahead." "That's not our area."
At one checkpoint, four tanks are lined up like sentries ready for action. But their presence does little to diminish the danger in the area, where dark roads stretch for miles with no houses or farms. Two men leap from behind a tree, their faces wrapped in blue scarves so only their eyes are visible. They take aim, but too late. The car has sped past.
At the next checkpoint, a soldier named Poinda Khan is told of the armed men.
"What can I do? That's not our area," he replies.
Afghanistan's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, in office just one week, says security is a top priority, along with unifying his deeply divided nation. But Afghans say their country will only suffer more fragmentation as long as every road from Kabul is too dangerous to travel.
On the road to Gardez, 65 miles southeast of Kabul, a young man carrying a Kalashnikov flags down a truck.
The driver of a nearby car watches. "Why is he stopping him? There is no traffic, nothing," says Ghulam Ali. "He just wants money."
With such shakedowns and other problems so common, it's no surprise that in rural Afghanistan, residents say they welcome international peacekeepers.
In Surmad, 18 miles beyond Gardez, men sit on the carpeted floor of a cavernous cement-walled room, sipping sweet black tea. Their shoulders wrapped in traditional woolen shawls, they discuss Afghanistan's future.
"We don't want the gun anymore, that's true, but we have to have security because without it, no one will trust the other," said Mohammed Naeem Farook, the district's police chief.
The tribesmen say al-Qaida fighters and Taliban leaders, who earlier came from southern Kandahar to rule their province, are gone.
Tribal elders in Surmad say 50,000 peacekeepers are needed in Afghanistan, a number the United Nations is not ready to commit. But support for peacekeepers by these fiercely independent tribesmen contradicts interim administration officials who have said Afghans do not want a large international presence.
"It is the only way that we will have peace in our country. We need them," elder Nasrullah Mansour said.
The men, all ethnic Pashtuns -- Afghanistan's majority ethnic group and one that has earned a warlike reputation -- pleaded for peace. "We do not want war or fighting," Mirza Mohammed said.
The countryside is lawless, say taxi and bus drivers who regularly travel roads outside the capital. Taliban rule was repressive, but the Islamic militia's strict tactics virtually wiped out banditry.
"We used to drive at night always, and there was no problem during the Taliban, but now no one will go on the road to Khost after 3 p.m.," driver Mohammed Bashir said.
Aid convoys travel with armed guards, negotiate checkpoints and worry that help for the needy will be hijacked by bandits.
"The issue of security of the road is one of the main priorities of the interim government," the government's foreign minister, Abdullah, told a news conference Sunday. "We shouldn't wait for the multinational force to take charge of the security of the roads, we have an Afghan security force."
But in his war-wrecked nation, Abdullah estimates at least 1 million people have light and heavy weapons -- all of whom need to be disarmed.
On the road from Kabul to Jalalabad, where four journalists were shot and killed by gunmen who stopped their car in November, drivers say robberies occur daily.
Bus driver Jan Aga said his bus and three others were stopped by thieves with rocket launchers. The armed men emptied the passengers' pockets and luggage, then beat the drivers, thinking they had hidden money.
"They even stole our shoes," Aga said.