There was nothing really wrong with the Taliban, says Haji Mangal, a small-time local commander in the city of Khost. They were "good people," he says, who got mixed up with the wrong company—international terrorists, that is. Such politically incorrect remarks would be hard to find in many parts of Afghanistan. But Khost has always been different.
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This is a land of independent, rebellious people and forbidding terrain, where foreigners are rarely welcome. The Soviets found this out in the 1980s when mujahedin—among them a volunteer named Osama bin Laden—made their life here hell. A group...