An Apache helicopter buzzes overhead, banks, and swings in the direction of the Pakistani border where hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have taken refuge in recent months.
But for Britain's elite mountain warriors in the Royal Marines 45 Brigade, there is a more pressing foe. Dr. Mark Woods and his team are loading up their drills and extraction equipment and preparing to launch a secret operation.
The dental team uses all the stealth tactics they have learned back home to home in on what fighters call "the real enemy tooth decay." Milk chocolate bars labeled "Duncan's of Scotland" are used as a "lure" one that unfailingly brings Afghan children with a sweet tooth dashing into the open.
"Kids run up to us asking politely for water and candy, sometimes holding a sore tooth," says Dr. Woods. "That is when we jump into action."
The 45 Commando Brigade, possibly the best alpine fighters on earth, didn't envision dental emergencies as their most pressing task when they launched "Operation Buzzard" last week. In a mission both British and US military officials billed as a "sharp end" hunt for the enemy, nearly 300 Royal Marines were airlifted into this former Taliban and Al Qaeda stronghold, poised for what commanders said might be fierce combat.
But that fighting task has morphed in recent days into something more akin to a Balkanstyle "stabilization mission." Operation Buzzard is, according to a leading British military expert, probably a prototype of a new phase in the war in Afghanistan a struggle to win the loyalty of Afghan villages, rebuild a nation, and gain much-needed intelligence in the process. Charles Heyman, the editor of British defense publication Jane's World Armies, says that the new goal of the war in Afghanistan is a long term endeavor. "It is still a terrorist pot that needs to be properly drained," he says. "I think we are now moving into the phase of Allied ground domination."
Even the US military, led by a commander in chief who has spoken in the past against the idea of "nation building," is facing the hard realities of Afghanistan, says Heyman. "You can't just fight a war in a country like Afghanistan and then walk away," he says. "In this new phase, 'hearts and minds' is far more important than guns and bullets. This will also be the key to gaining intelligence on ground."
Britain's 300 mountain-ready fighters have been roving across Khost Province's rugged countryside in vehicles ranging from four wheel dirt bikes to British Army Land Rovers.
In some cases, small teams of US special forces can be seen leading the British units through the terrain, which they have worked in already for several months.
The US Army's 49th Civil Affairs Battalion based in Knoxville, Tenn., is working closely with one contingent of the British commandos. "We are here to stabilize the area and to assist the nongovernmental organizations to get some projects up and running here," says Maj. Greg Jackson, who has already made several trips to Khost for that same purpose. "Our goal is to start up some projects that can be taken over by the locals." The province is one of Afghanistan's most unstable, where Pashtun warlords compete for everything from customs duties to the right to serve alongside Western coalition forces.
But the scenes in the countryside around Khost are far less tense and worrisome than three months ago, when the US military was hitting suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda hideouts with "smart bombs," the results of which sparked protests by local villagers. The mood has lightened. "Sometimes it feels like the liberation of France," says Major Jackson. "We are getting kids running up to us and waving wildly as we drive through an area. We have to try to tell them to stay clear so the little ones don't fall under a wheel."
Despite the warm welcome from some Afghans, Western forces, including the Royal Marines, still appear eager to hunt down the enemy. "We still live in hope of facing off against Al Qaeda," says the British "Zulu Company" commander, Maj. Rich Stephens. "Our job here began as a combat operation in order to deny Al Qaeda sanctuary. Though we would have liked to meet them face to face, with the [humanitarian] work we find ourselves in, we are denying Al Qaeda the province as a sanctuary. If we can bring in aid for these people, we are essentially winning hearts and minds and doing the same thing as killing Al Qaeda."
In an eroded gully at the base of lightbrown mountains that rise up into Pakistan, Major Stephens spoke as several dozen of his elite fighters sunned themselves and listened to the latest results from the World Cup soccer matches. The British officer isn't in the least bit embarrassed to dispatch Zulu Company's dentist whose job is to service the teeth of the unit's troops, not those of civilians into the hinterlands to fill and extract teeth if necessary. "I don't see the humanitarian and the military aspects of this operation as being mutually exclusive," he says. "It would be shortsighted to have one without the other."
Western military analysts say that finding Afghans to trust is probably a goal of the new "hearts and minds" campaign. Most the Afghans already working closely with the US and British militaries say they hope they will never have to face the day that Western militaries pack their duffel bags and leave Afghans on their own.
The powerful governor of Kandahar province, Gul Agha Shirzai, insists that to stabilize Afghanistan and completely defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban will require "at least five more years."
"I think that the US and Britain should start to think in terms of 20 or 30 years on the ground here in Afghanistan," he says. "That is the only way to be sure you won this war."