At first glance, the bewhiskered foreigners look like all the other relief workers in western Afghanistan.
They negotiate animatedly with Afghans over lunch - mountains of rice and chicken drenched in mysterious red sauce. Like scruffy backpackers, wearing worn boots, jeans, and bundled in a variety of scarves, they stand in line for tickets on Afghanistan's national airline, Ariana.
And they talk the talk in Herat, of humanitarian projects like rebuilding schools, providing clothes and generators for the local hospital, and refitting former gunmen with jobs clearing silt from irrigation canals.
But on close inspection, these men with American accents have large radio antennae sticking out of their backpacks, pistols sometimes poking from beneath their sweatshirts, and a serious uniformed Afghan security detail hovering about them.
There are few secrets about the mission of these US Special Operations soldiers, however - and that is how they want it. That is because these troops are the vanguard of a novel Pentagon mission aimed at smoothing Afghanistan's transition from war to peace.
Their presence is a sign of how much the US military has learned from rocky attempts at keeping the peace in Somalia and the Balkans in the 1990s. It also reflects how the Pentagon - dusting off a concept first spelled out after the cold war - is embracing a more holistic view of what is necessary to declare victory in modern war.
"This is a new template, the first time we have put up an organization like this," says Maj. Mike Warmack, a member of the Coalition Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force (CJCMOTF). "It shows the US military is committed to doing whatever we can to return Afghanistan to normal, then to pass it over to the professionals."
Far from their Kabul headquarters, 10 or so specially trained four-person teams - often working closely with local warlords - are spread across Afghanistan, hunting for projects that can have an immediate impact, that other agencies can't do.
"We are really a short-term tool - we're trying to fill the gaps," says Maj. Kim Field, who began working on this project at Central Command in Tampa, Florida. Just two weeks after US bombing began on Oct. 7, she says, the overall US commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, began asking about humanitarian requirements when the bombs stopped falling.
"It's a recognition that when you think of security, you have to think of sustainable security - and that is not just coming in with weapons and bombs," Major Field says, speaking in a Kabul command center plastered with maps and humming with computers and radio traffic.
Some 23 schools have been targeted for refurbishment, including the 1,000-pupil Zendeh Jan girls' school west of Herat. A project to clear a 12-mile irrigation canal, also in Zendeh Jan, has kept 500 former soldiers and other workers busy and supplied with cash and food for weeks. That project is likely to be expanded to 19 more canals for 5,000 workers.
While the "force protection" mantra remains in effect at every remote location, these small units have unparalleled, hands-on contact with ordinary Afghans. But winning the peace is not easy.
"We get a lot of suspicion from relief agencies, who ask why the military is doing this work, so results have been mixed," Field says. The Americans host interagency meetings weekly to avoid duplication of efforts.
One European agency protests that soldiers are wearing civilian clothes, though government agencies say that dispensing of uniforms makes it easier for them to take team members out for tea. "The uniform is a barrier, and we know that the level of interaction we have with relief agencies and the UN is far better than in Bosnia or Kosovo [where uniforms were worn]," says Field, who first called UN and other groups to a meeting in October at Central Command in Tampa.
"What we did at Centcom was ground-breaking," she says. But while the military said it wanted to enable the agencies, it didn't get very far at first. The only requests were for quick extraction possibilities in the case of trouble, or guarding convoys. "That is still in their minds from Somalia," says Field, who dispatched convoy guards in Somalia.
This is not necessarily a hearts-and-minds campaign, though. Such operations were tried in Vietnam - and failed. The Soviets did the same thing - running clinics and feeding Afghans when they occupied Afghanistan throughout the 1980s.
Instead, the Pentagon here is applying military capabilities to civilian problems at a time when the usual agencies are just getting to their feet - to prevent the need for any future military operations.
Such plans have been in the works long before Sept. 11 sparked the Afghan war. Captain Curt, who will only provide his first name, runs the team in Herat. To learn how to deal with relief workers, journalists, and locals, he was given five months of regional training, six months of Arabic, and one month of civil affairs training. "That school prepared us, along with the mistakes we made in the past," says Captain Curt, who sports a short goatee and Oakley sunglasses. "This is the same stuff we do in peacetime, with the add-on of a little more risk in the environment."
That means that teams like his are sometimes called in to escort officials from the US Agency for International Development, who might otherwise not be able to assess certain areas. To support the Kabul government, they also fly Afghan officials to problem areas.
"We go to the ministries and ask what their priorities are," says Major Mike, an engineer wearing a woolen Panjshiri hat on a survey in Herat. "We're trying to empower the Afghans to do the work."
Major Mike points out officials from the irrigation and rural develop ministries sitting on the Ariana flight, just in front of his seat. The CJCMOTF paid for their tickets, and they are requesting $3,800 to travel to former Soviet republics to buy parts for their broken fleet of drill and pumping equipment.
"You can't slap a US drill head on a Soviet drill," Mike says. The technological gap is almost as deep as the culture gap, in one of the poorest nations on earth. "We whip out our satellite phones, and they don't have any phone at all," he says.
Projects are small by relief standards - normally $5,000 to $90,000. The entire budget for the CJCMOTF is just $2 million. "There have been certain frustrations," says Field, who helped pull together this unit from Special Operations groups at Ft. Bragg, NC. "In many ways, civil-military work is still foreign to people who make up general staffs. Most of them are war-fighters."
For those deployed in the further reaches of Afghanistan, bantering with their interpreters and grappling with the turf wars that can afflict normal relief agencies, there are few doubts about the significance of their work.
"We will write up a long-term plan, to keep coming back, to make sure the projects are still working. That is one of the lessons we have learned," says Warmack. "We will probably be the last US military unit to leave Afghanistan."