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Tea with one lump, three agents, and a job offer

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Inside the dimly lit tent, the three US intelligence officials made it abundantly clear they didn't want the ensuing discussion to go beyond the gray canvas flaps. One of the men ran his index finger across his throat to make the point that there could be retribution if the secret got out.

"Let's be clear from the start, none of this goes beyond our base," he told Lutfullah Mashal, who has been my interpreter, colleague, and loyal confidante for the past five months while I've reported from both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Mashal is an Afghan, an intrepid reporter who formerly worked for the Kabul Times. He has penetrated no fewer than three Al Qaeda bases in recent months and put his life on the line for news stories on several occasions.

Mashal says he was quite surprised when, a day earlier, several American men in dark glasses and plain clothes, whom he met while translating the complaints of a Pathan tribal elder as a special favor, invited him to tea.

American military and civilian intelligence officers are keen to find a few good Afghans to help them in their hunt for Al Qaeda, and Mashal - fluent in English, Farsi, Pashto, and Arabic - must have seemed like a good fit.

As the job interview continued, the US intelligence officials explained that it had been extremely difficult for them to find good English-to-Pashto and Pashto-to-English translators. "We ask people to 'please go up that mountain', and they translate it, 'please go climb a mountain,' " complained one official.

In eastern Afghanistan, as elsewhere in the country, there are plenty of Afghans anxious to work closely with the American military - even with the CIA. For some, the lure is pure patriotism, others are drawn by rumors of big paychecks.

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