It has not been an auspicious start to the morning. The heavy weapons squad has just been dropped into the wrong field of mung beans.
"Man, one of these days we'll be dropped in the right place," Pvt. Mike Patraw says, voicing everyone's thoughts. Being out of position means not only a longer walk, but possibly not being able to provide covering fire for units in the valley below as they search a village.
By the time they reach the village of Kunlalan, Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers and other members of the US 82nd Airborne are already going house to house looking for signs of Taliban weapons or support. Any Taliban who might have been in the village would have hid their Kalashnikovs at the first sound of the Chinook helicopters.
The 40-odd men of the 82nd Airborne - on a five-day mission with ANA troops in the mountains of northern Zabul province - know that their chances of facing an armed encounter with the Taliban are not great. But from a military standpoint, it has been foot patrols and air assaults like this that have produced a year of the most serious fighting with insurgents since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. The key, US commanders say, is sending a message to the Taliban that their havens are no longer safe, and to Afghan villagers that they can begin to trust that the Afghan Army will be there to protect them.
"Most of the people say they haven't seen anything, never saw any Taliban," says Sgt. Joseph Parker of Cleveland, Ohio, as men of 2nd Battalion, Charlie Company search the mud-walled room of an Afghan home.
Sergeant Parker nods his head toward the residents of this home, some women and children, huddling in the shady corner of the yard. "As far as going and getting to the Taliban through local intelligence, it's not going to happen. The only way to do it is to sneak up on them."
Pvt. Jacob Rutledge, a quiet, lanky kid from Washington, D.C., searches through some baskets near one of the women, who is holding an infant in her arms. A chicken darts out of the basket, as if clucking its final prayer. The infant starts to cry. "I'm sorry," Private Rutledge says gently.
Outside the compound, which sits above a very healthy field of opium poppies, a crowd of old men and children are gathering around the US soldiers. One shepherd pleads with the soldiers to arrest another shepherd who has just passed through town with his flock. "He's a thug," the shepherd says in Pashto. Another villager, an elderly man, approaches an Army medic to ask for medicine for a child. The local people may not be ready to tattle on the local Taliban, but they grasp that the US Army is a possible source of help.
"This is what I love," says Spc. "Doc" Kris Tyte, a medic from Charlotte, N.C. "You get to sit down with kids and an interpreter and just talk. And you know, kids are pretty much kids everywhere. They don't say, I want to be a Taliban. They say, I want to be a policeman, or even president. Even after all these years of war, they want to be productive members of society."
So far, this day has brought what Lt. Ben Wisnioski, of Rocky Hill, Conn., calls "the usual lies" from the villagers: No, we haven't seen the Taliban. If we have seen the Taliban, they pass the village at night. If they came during the day, we haven't seen them before, and we didn't see their faces very clearly. No, we didn't see what direction they came from or what direction they left in.
But these men know that they have to stay alert, nonetheless. Hiking between villages, they keep their heads "on a swivel," scanning for signs of movement. They also make sure they are always within 10 paces of a boulder to provide cover, in case of an ambush, which has long been the Afghan's preferred method of warfare.
Just a month ago, a few days before the national election, some Taliban fighters opened fire on a patrol near the town of Shahjoy. "We air assaulted into a village, and one guy with an AK-47 opened fire on an Apache helicopter," says Pvt. Jeremy Wier, of Douglasville, Ga. "The Apache pretty much handled him." In the next village, recalls Private Wier, two other men carrying weapons ran out of the village as soon as Wier and his team arrived. Helicopters handled those fighters too.
"We heard them talking on their radio," says Wier. "Our interpreter told us they were doing a roll call. There were three confirmed dead and one missing. There were 20 of them down in that village originally, but most fled to the mountains."
When the Taliban do fight, they are usually lousy shots, Wier adds. A few weeks ago, the Taliban fired two rocket-propelled grenades at members of this squad from just 50 yards away - and missed.
Wier pauses. "Basically, it's either zero or 100 [Taliban] here. So far today, it looks like nothing." Pvt. Shane Hahn of Rush City, Minn., smiles: "That's not necessarily a bad thing."
Still, the past two days have brought some results. In one village, men tell Charlie Company's translator, Ahmed, that they have recently slaughtered two goats for Taliban to eat. In another village, ANA soldiers discover about 100 rounds of ammo, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. Clearly, the Taliban come to this area often.
Yet it's a game of cat and mouse. Every time the Americans enter a new valley, the Taliban radio the fighters to clear out: the Americans are coming.
At dusk, the men pause on a road and sip from the Camelback water pouches, while a few hundred sheep and donkeys belonging to the "thug" shepherd walk past.
"Baaa-aaa," say some of the sheep. "Baaa-aaa," responds a chorus of exhausted soldiers.
• Thursday: The men of Charlie Company on their role in Afghanistan.