They wanted to know if a man called Hazrat was staying at the guest house. They didn't say why. They didn't say who Hazrat was. The concierge had never heard the name. The five men left, unsmiling, driving at speed back on to the main road. "Why did they talk to me like that?" the concierge asked me. "Who do they think they are?" It was best not to reply.
"The Afghan people will wait a little longer for all the help they have been promised," the local district officer in Maiwind muttered to me a few hours later. "We believe the Americans want to help us. They promised us help. They have a little longer to prove they mean this. After that ..." He didn't need to say more. Out at Maiwind, in the oven-like grey desert west of Kandahar, the Americans do raids, not aid.
Even when the US military tries to bend its hand to a little humanitarian work, the Western NGOs (non-governmental organisations working with the UN) prefer to keep their distance. As a British NGO worker put it with devastating frankness in Kandahar: "When there is a backlash against the Americans, we want a clear definition between us and them." You hear that phrase all the time in Afghanistan. "When the backlash comes..."
It is already coming. The Americans are being attacked almost every night. There have been three shootings in Kandahar, with an American officer wounded in the neck near the airport two weeks ago. American troops can no longer dine out in Kandahar's caf‚s. Today, US forces are under attack in Khost province. Two Afghan auxiliaries were killed and five American soldiers wounded near the Pakistan border at the end of July.
For the NGOs in Kabul, the danger lies in the grey area, a deliberate grey area, they say, which the Americans have created between military operations and humanitarian aid. "Up in Kunduz, they've got what they call a 'humanitarian liaison team' that has repaired a ward in a local hospital and been involved in rebuilding destroyed bridges," the Briton said. "Some of the men with them have been in civilian clothes but carrying guns. We took this up with them, because Afghans began to think that our aid organisation also carried guns. The US told us their men didn't carry weapons openly or wear full uniforms out of deference to the feelings of local tribal leaders. Eventually, we all had to raise this matter in Washington."
It's not difficult to see the dangers. In Kabul, for example, the Americans operate an outfit called the CJCMOTF, the Coalition Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force, whose mission, an official US document says, includes "expertise in supply, transportation, medical [sic], legal, engineering and civil affairs". Headquartered in Kabul, it has "daily contact with [the] US embassy". Their personnel definitions include "physician, veterinarian, attorney, civil engineer, teacher, firefighter, construction, management" but their military experience is listed as "Desert Storm, Operation Provide Comfort, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo". Then there's the CHLC, the "Coalition Humanitarian Liaison Centre", at Mazar-i-Sharif whose objective has been "liaison between assistance [sic] community and military coalition" and which has included "rebuilding public facilities, 14 schools, providing a generator for the airport terminal and providing a medical clinic, a veterinarian clinic and a library".
But its tasks also include "security information", a "channel of communication to coalition commanders, US embassy and USAID" and, an interesting one, this, "miscellaneous supplies, eg concertina wire". Somehow, rebuilding schools has got mixed up with the provision of barbed wire.
It makes the aid agencies shudder. "I have banned all coalition forces from my compound and will not meet with them in public," a Western humanitarian official told me in Kabul. "If they want to contact me, I tell them to send me e-mails. I will meet them only in certain public authority offices. Yes, of course we are worried that people will mistake us for the military. They have these 'humanitarian units' and they ask 'how can we coordinate with you?' but I refuse to co-ordinate with them. They simply have no idea how to deal with the social, cultural, political complex of life here. They are really not interested. They just want to fight a 'war on terror'. I don't think they care."
This was no minor official but a Western co-ordinator handling millions of dollars of international aid. He knows, as do his staff, how angry Afghans are becoming at the growing US presence in their country. As long as Washington goes on paying the private salaries of local warlords, including some who oppose President Hamid Karzai, a kind of truce will continue to exist, but Afghans take a shrewd interest in America's activities here and their anger has been stoked by US bombing raids that left hundreds of innocent Afghans dead.
After the Americans bombed a wedding party in Uruzgan on 30 June - the death toll reliably stands at 55 after several more wounded died - Pashtuns were outraged at eyewitness accounts of US troops preventing survivors helping the wounded. They were especially infuriated by a report that the Americans had taken photographs of the naked bodies of dead Afghan women.
An explanation is not difficult to find. For their own investigation, US forces may well have taken pictures of the dead after the Uruzgan raid and, since bombs generally blast the clothes off their victims, dead female Afghans would be naked. But the story has become legend. Americans take pictures of naked Afghan women. It's easy to see how this can turn potential Afghan friends into enemies.
Now guerrilla attacks are increasingly targeting Afghan forces loyal to the government or loyal to local drug-dealers who are friendly with the Americans. Just as the first mujahedin assaults on the Russians after the 1980 Soviet invasion tended to focus on Moscow's local Afghan communist allies, so the new attacks are being directed at America's Afghan allies.
Even in the Panjshir valley, in Molla, the closest village to the tomb of Ahmed Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance commander murdered by two Arab suicide bombers posing as journalists just two days before 11 September, the local Muslim cleric has been preaching against the Americans.
One Friday last month, Imam Mohamed Sayed told his worshippers he had a dream and he had seen the dead Masood wearing a sad face. "He was not happy," Imam Sayed told his largely pro-American congregation. "He said the Americans are like the Russians and that we must wage 'holy war' against them."
Mercifully for the Americans - for this is largely friendly, Tajik territory for the United States - Imam Sayed's audience was largely unmoved. For the moment, at least.