MARJAH, Afghanistan — Bouwudin courteously greeted the Afghan and American officers who came to meet him, offering tea and eventually a meal as the meeting lingered on. No amount of invitations could get him to walk a few hundred yards to the Marines base.
"I'm sorry, but I can't do that, it's too early," said Bouwudin, a tribal chief. "I'll go when security has come back."
Despite an 11-day-old U.S.-led attack to capture the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, most Afghan tribal leaders in this town are like Bouwudin — still sitting on the fence. The mission may be proceeding militarily, but it has not yet won over the people who matter most.
Many of them seem unwilling to believe that the Americans and the Afghan military will stay long enough to ensure that the Taliban never come back.
"If you leave again, I'll have too many problems with the Taliban," Bouwudin said with a polite smile as servants poured more cups of tea to guests sitting on rugs next to the mud-brick wall circling his fortress-like compound.
Safety wasn't the issue in Bouwudin's refusal to visit the American base. He simply didn't want to be seen with NATO troops.
The Marines made no fuss about it. They knew Bouwudin had worked with NATO before, only to be beaten and jailed by the Taliban when they moved in when British forces left in 2007.
His family had to pay a ransom for his release. When British and Afghan troops reclaimed the town again in March last year, Bouwudin stayed away. It was a wise move because the British pulled out again.
Winning over people like Bouwudin is key to NATO's efforts in the embattled Afghan south. The critical step is to prove that American troops and Afghan units are going to stay — and provide better governance than the strict Islamist Taliban, who, residents say, at least ruled the town without corruption and allowed the lucrative opium poppy business to thrive.
"He's exactly the kind of person we call 'on the fence,' " says Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, the commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. "We need to bring him over to our side, because if he does, the population will follow."
As he met with Bouwudin, Christmas promised over a dozen schools, a health clinic, roads and — most importantly — professional police forces permanently stationed in the area.
Bouwudin, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, winced at the idea. "When police were here, they stole all the time," he said. "People were relieved to have the Taliban back."
Capt. Abdelhai Hujum, the Afghan army commander for the area, promised it would be different this time. "These aren't corrupt police, they're a new type," he said.
Hired from ethnic groups all over the country, the new police units have been trained to treat all citizens fairly, Hujum said.
But all attempts to establish a modern administration won't succeed in Helmand province without the support of Bouwudin's own power base.
"He's a proper, old school 'khan,' " says Jared Davidson, an analyst hired by the Pentagon to advise Marines on working with the local population. "You don't see so many of them still around."
Bouwudin, about 45, holds over 3,000 acres of land granted to his late father by the king of Afghanistan in the 1960s, after Americans dug a large irrigation canal system through Marjah.
While he belongs to an aristocratic clan of the Pashtun ethnic group — like the Taliban leadership, the former king, and President Hamid Karzai himself — most of his tenants are impoverished nomads from the Kochi tribe who settled in the area to plow his fields for a share of the crop — now almost exclusively opium poppies.
Many villages across Afghanistan have a "malek," or local chief, acting somewhat like a mayor.
But Bouwudin is much more than that.
To explain the difference, he pulls a tin box of chewing tobacco from his pocket. "A malek is like this tobacco," Bouwudin says, tucking a pinch under his lower lip. "You take it, and then you spit it out," he says with a smile. "But a khan is like the box," a permanent fixture.
Stepping in his father's shoes, Bouwudin is now the mayor, the local chief justice and just about the only permanent authority several hundred families here can rely on.
"We live under his shadow," said Zaher, one of the frightened civilians who greeted U.S. Marines when they entered the town Feb. 13.
Bouwudin says the tenants who steered the troops away from some of the numerous minefields laid by insurgents were sent on his orders. He says he'd be relieved to see the Taliban gone for good.
But intelligence officers know he's had a working relationship with the Taliban too, if only because he grows several thousand acres of poppies used to refine heroin. Bouwudin won't discuss the subject, but intelligence officers say 10 percent of the crop's worth certainly went as a tax to the insurgency. Tenants swear they know nothing about the deal.
"People came only by night to buy the poppies," Zaher says. "They went straight inside Bouwudin's house." He says the khan then handed some money back to the farmers: their fields' equivalent for a crop of wheat — much, much less than the roughly $2,000 an acre that opium poppies have been going for.
Learning from errors of the past, NATO does not plan to antagonize farmers by destroying their poppy crops, fearing that could build support for the Taliban.
"This is not a counter-narcotics operation," insists John Weston, a senior member of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT, as NATO's civilian arm is known in Helmand province. Drug Enforcement Administration teams moving in the wake of the Marines are tasked with finding traffickers and heroin factories — but not destroying crops.
The khan, who won't have his picture taken for security reasons, says he'd be happy to try out alternative crops.
"If you stay, we can do a lot of work together," he told Marine officers.
But alternative crops were not on the mind of the Marines during the meeting. They've been tasked with securing the town, and know the khan can help them. They repeatedly asked how insurgent gunmen keep crossing through his area to fire at the troops.
Even as the meeting went on, the sound of gunshots and rockets grew more intense as Marines battled an insurgent unit just a few blocks away.
"I don't know these fighters, I don't talk to them," Bouwudin said, escorting his guests indoors to avoid stray bullets.
The Pashtun code of honor — the Pashtunwali — requires he provide protection to guests in his home. If the Taliban had showed up at the door and demanded he hand over the Americans, it would be a huge breach of honor to have done so.
Others weren't so lucky.
The khan's guests had barely finished eating their omelet when the word "angel" rang out on the Marines' handheld radio sets. That's the code word for someone killed in action.
A Marine had just fallen to Taliban bullets in Bouwudin's nearby fields.