Allawi had told me that because he was clean-shaven and wore Western clothes, he was sometimes mistaken for a communist when he reported in the Afghan countryside. He was also accustomed to being mistaken for a foreign agent. And he found it unremarkable that he and other journalists, as some of the few people who had regular contact with the Taliban, would be seen by international forces as viable sources of intelligence. “I’m aware that all my conversations with anybody is recorded for somebody else. And it’s not something secret in this country,” Allawi told me. “This is an intelligence war, and intelligence war has no limits.”

After three nights in detention, Nader was called out of his cell again. A soldier met him, cheerful and smiling. “I have good news,” he said. “You’re going to be released.”

The soldier beckoned to him: “Come here so I can show you some pictures.” Nader looked at the photos, taken at a copper mine in Logar Province south of Kabul. The soldier explained that the mine was being developed so that Afghanistan could export its minerals. “He said, ‘I’m showing you this because Afghan people always think that wherever there is an American base, they are stealing these things from Afghanistan. But we’re here to build this country, not to steal from you,’ ” Nader told me. And then Nader said something that made me wonder again about NATO’s intentions. He recalled that the American soldier said something like: “This is a picture so that you learn, and give this picture to other people also.” Nader wasn’t exactly being asked to distribute a picture or a video clip on behalf of the coalition. But he was being asked to tell a particular kind of story.

The soldier asked whether Nader thought the Americans should stay in Afghanistan. “We don’t have a strong national army or police,” Nader told him. “When they are strong enough, the Americans can leave, but not now.” Nader suggested that the money the Americans spent on bombs might be better invested in construction projects that would create jobs for young people, so they wouldn’t be pressured to join the insurgency. “Next time you come to town, you can visit us in the Kandahar Press Club and we will prepare food for you, because you treated me well,” Nader said he told the soldier. “If I were in Afghan custody, I might have been beaten.”

When they let him go, they gave him back the equipment and Afghan currency they had taken from his house, along with 1,000 Afghanis, about $20, for taxi fare. Nader told me that about $300 in U. S. currency and some of his wife’s wedding jewelry, which were stored in the safe with the money, disappeared and were not returned. He complained to the Kandahar governor’s office, and someone promised to look into it.

Admiral Smith was not available to speak with me about the detentions. Instead, I was invited to interview his second in command, Navy Captain Gary Paul Kirchner. We met in a coffee shop at ISAF headquarters, a leafy compound in central Kabul ringed by towering blast walls. Kirchner is an earnest, mild-mannered reservist with a background in video production. In civilian life, he is a strategic communications consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, and he told me that his responsibilities at ISAF included “marketing.” He spoke optimistically about a roundtable that ISAF had hosted for Afghan journalists to discuss civilian casualties, and regular meetings over tea where Afghan journalists and NATO officials discussed the day’s top news.

I asked Kirchner to describe the Taliban’s media strategy. He laughed. “I would characterize it as fiction,” he said. “General Petraeus believes that we have to be the first with the truth, and that means that every time we do an operation, we write a press release on it.” ISAF has learned that if it doesn’t fill the early information void after an event, the Taliban will. And if ISAF’s message isn’t strong and clear enough—and usually it isn’t—the Taliban will win the day. “They have a very sophisticated operation,” Kirchner said of the Taliban media strategy. “They know what they’re doing.”

Vanessa M. Gezari is the author of The Tender Soldier, which came out in paperback in August 2014. She teaches at Columbia Journalism School