Reporter's Notebook: Reading Terror Tea Leaves

Lt. James Kavanaugh drinks a lot of tea on his job.  Glasses of it, maybe gallons of it a week.

Kavanaugh is commander of the Army's 3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Batalion, 501st Parachute Airforce Regiment (search), and he is on the terror hunt.

Why the tea?  On the lieutenant's nearly daily patrols throughout eastern Afghanistan (search), he meets with village elders and others and asks them if they've seen anyone strange or foreign passing by.  And to do this, he has to go through the ritual of sitting down and sipping tea with the Afghans.  It is the thing to do in this neck of the woods.

There is one side effect to this, however — Afghan Tummy.  It seems the Afghans don't boil their water long enough before sticking in the tea bags.  So the ever-resourceful Kavanaugh has found a way around this.  He has his men bring their own bottled water which they give to the locals for the tea.

That's not all Kavanaugh does. He cajoles people. But in the best sense of the word. For the best reasons.

Let's say one village domo needs a well for his people. Kavanaugh will suggest to him if he  wants that well, then that big man in the village might have to come up with some information about bad guys moving through their neighborhood.

It's amazing how a new paint job on a local school can jog an Afghan leader's memory about a Chechen trudging through his area woods. And these self-effacing troops even let the local big shot get the credit for the neighborhood improvement — as long as he comes up with the intelligence goods.

According to some I've talked to, it wasn't always like this.

When the 501st first rolled into the area, I am told the locals saw no evil, heard no evil and certainly didn't speak any evil even though there was a lot of evil in the area.  Al Qaeda (search) made the Khost region their terror playpen for years before 9/11 and the Taliban let them get away with it. Afterwards not all the bad guys left. But now, after months of patrols, talking, and some fixing up of this very run-down corner of Afghanistan I am told the intelligence has gotten considerably better. And the people now are ready to talk when they see the green humvees roll up.

That doesn't mean the information is all correct.  It seems everyone has an axe to grind here.  Even the kids.  One soldier said one child walked up to him and pointed out another who was his arch-rival in the Afghan playground and screamed "Al Qaeda!!!!?"

Score-settling is a fine art in this country. The troops here once thought they had wandered into a full-fledged terror shoot-out a while back along the border with Pakistan (search). It turns out it was just two tribes "duking it out" over who had control of the area's forest. Firewood is a big deal.

But back to Kavanaugh.  When he leaves Afghanistan maybe he should take up psychiatry.  He has a calming effect on some of the most agitated people he comes into contact with.

One rather well-off gent (he drives a taxi which puts him in the upper pay grade in Khost) complained to Kavanaugh that going through homes of innocent people looking for guns or other bad stuff was offensive to people who were innocent of any ill intent.  After listening to the diatribe, the lieutenant kindly reminded the individual he was just doing it for the safety and security of the people and every effort was made to avoid any upsetting experiences.

Guess what happened after Kavanaugh finished his explanation? They guy invited him for tea!  It was Monday afternoon when the offer was made. The lieutenant told his translator to tell the man to re-schedule the tea date for Wednesday.

And so it goes on the terror trail.