On a recent morning, Maj. Shawnna Paine and Capt. Kara Callaham took a rumble-tumble ride to a trio of villages to chat with local chiefs and win the war of hearts and minds.
It's standard procedure for this Army civil-affairs unit, but there's a subtle feminine touch. Major Paine is a woman. So is Captain Callaham. So is the psychological operations Spc. Andrea Vivers, who hands out pro-government propaganda and Beanie Babies donated by an American Girl Scout troop.
The conversation with Afghan villagers is neighborly, but the subtext is gently radical: I am woman - now, let's rebuild your country.
"You would hope that seeing women from America doing these jobs would have an effect," says Paine, commander of the US Army's civil-affairs unit at Kandahar air base. "Afghans are not used to seeing females in the military. When we first arrived, we used to ask the village leaders, 'Do you have a problem working with women?' And they said, 'We understand that's your culture and we will work with you.' And for our part, we try to work with them in their culture."
Intentional or not, some see a delicious irony in having female soldiers operating here in Kandahar. After all, this was the birthplace of the Taliban, the hard-line Islamist regime that forced women to quit their jobs and wear head-to-toe veils. Today, in villages where mothers and daughters still flee at the arrival of any stranger, Afghan men are getting an object lesson in women's empowerment. If they want to work with the US, occasionally they will have to work with American women and treat them as equals.
Whether this lesson has any lasting effect, however, is an open question. The two-year-long American presence has not set off a feminist revolution - no veil burnings, no street protests, no student movements demanding women's rights. Experts say that Afghan culture has a time-tested resistance to outside influences.
"My impression is that they view Americans as another species of animal, and one of the characteristics of this animal is that they let their women work as soldiers," says David Edwards, an anthropologist at Williams College and specialist on Afghan culture. "The Afghans see the Americans and say, 'They drink, they eat pork, they don't fast during Ramadan. There's a whole package of things they do that we don't do.' "
"It could be that women are better mediators than men, and this unit may be effective for that reason," he says. "But at the end of the day, what Afghans see are foreign soldiers - male or female - bristling with guns. The fact that these soldiers are women is secondary. We think we are teaching new lessons of life, but I don't think it comes across this way."
Driving her Humvee in a heavily armed convoy of US and Romanian vehicles along dusty lanes, Specialist Vivers says she has seen changes in the villages she visits over the past three months. "A lot of villagers don't mind female soldiers," Vivers says. "In fact, a lot of the time, they have to ask if we are female. A few times, they say it shows them that it's OK for women to show their faces and to go to school."
As she drives through a parched farming village, women stand alongside an irrigation canal and young girls in scarves wave at the passing troops.
The convoy passes through two villages, delivering school supplies to the headmaster in the largest village, named Khush Ab, (literally "good water"). But at the third village, Zarak Qali, the soldiers stop and the village elder, a farmer named Samad, invites everyone into his small guest-room for green tea and a wide-ranging discussion on farms, schools, and politics.
The main problem in Zarak Qali, Samad says, is water: There's not enough for their crops. The local district chief, named Manan, has done nothing to bring irrigation projects and relief aid to Zarak Qali, he complains, although Samad admits he has never attended a district meeting himself to represent his own village.
The closest school is a few miles away. Some of the village boys walk to school, Samad says, but the girls are not allowed to walk such a long distance without better protection. This latter point draws a friendly rebuke from Callaham.
"Why don't the girls go to school?" she asks.
"Even the boys can't walk from here to that school; how can the girls make it?" Samad replies.
"They could ride camels," Callaham jokes. When the Army's local interpreter renders this into the local Pashto language, Samad and the other villagers erupt into laughter. But Samad makes no promises of sending girls to school.
Samad says that he intends to be a good neighbor to the Americans, whose base is barely a half-mile from his home. But he complains at the slow pace of reconstruction, the weakness of the central government, the lack of a national army, and the perception that the US is only in Afghanistan to hunt Taliban, not to rebuild.
"A month ago, we heard on the BBC radio that the Taliban said that any Afghans who live near the Americans should move, because they will be in trouble when the Taliban attack," he says. "But if they ask 100 times, no one will ever support them." He adds that Taliban rule gave Afghans just two things: "peace, and they were not thieves."
"Progress is slow," Paine says, "and if everyone is patient, then everything you want will happen in this country."
After the meeting, Paine feels upbeat about the talk. "Some of these village leaders give you a textbook answer of what they think you want to hear, but this leader told us what he felt," she says. "That's how we know if we're effective."
Back in her vehicle, returning to Kandahar Air Base, Vivers points out spots where Taliban sympathizers have laid land mines for passing US vehicles. There have been three mine strikes since August.
"I don't think anyone should forget that this is Taliban Central," says Specialist Elijah Spencer, a media-affairs escort riding with Vivers.