For the past three days, the men of the 82nd Airborne's Charlie Company have been chasing ghosts. Every time they fly into a valley in Chinook helicopters, the Taliban flee at the thumping sound of the rotors.
Every time they walk into a village, Taliban radios crackle with news of their arrival. It's frustrating, and more than one soldier grumbles this mission is "pointless."
"It's frustrating," says 2nd Lieutenant Ben Wisnioski of Rocky Hill, Conn. "It's like Vietnam, or the French in Algeria. We have the ability to beat these guys militarily, but they won't come out and fight us."
It's not that these men are itching to pull their triggers. But nobody wants to feel like they are wasting their time, particularly in a largely forgotten war where more than 80 US soldiers have been killed in the past six months alone. These men simply want to feel they're making a difference here.
The past four days of this mission have been grueling. Yet most men of the Charlie Company work without complaint. Walking up mountains beats sitting around a garrison all day, these men say. But knowing that the Taliban are so close, refusing to fight, still eats them up inside.
In the village of Kata Shang, village elder Abdul Bare tells the Americans that he's happy to see them. The Taliban never come to this village, he says. "OK," the elder alters his story a bit, "sometimes the Taliban do come to this village. But they just pass through town. They don't talk with us."
Just a few houses away, ANA soldiers discover 100 rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition, even though none of the villagers has a gun. The owner of the house says the ammo is old, probably from the time of the Soviet occupation. But it's visibly shiny, not even tarnished by one season in the elements.
In the next village, the men take a break in the shade of pomegranate trees and wait for the heat of the day to pass before they press on to their final objective of the day: the village of Spitut.
All along the way, the Taliban play mind games. They get on their radios, knowing that the Americans are listening, and boasting, "we are on the hilltops above them, we can see them, I have an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade)." The Americans used to chase up the hills when they heard such chatter; now they ignore it.
Most of the men of the weapons unit find it incredibly difficult to understand the lives that local Afghan villagers lead.
"Ninety percent of the people here are good, they want their country to be good," says Pvt. Mike Patraw of Platteville, Wisc.
The problem is that it only takes a small percentage of bad people to stir things up in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he was in Fallujah, some Iraqis fired on US troops from within a crowd. The Americans returned fire, killing the gunmen and several unarmed protesters. "I feel sorry for some of them," says Private Patraw. "They were human shields."
Here in Afghanistan, he sees the same dynamic: powerless people prodded along by Taliban gunmen. If this patrol helps to encourage villagers to work a little more with the Afghan government, Patraw says, then it will be worth it.
Yet some of the men privately express doubts that their tactics are making a difference. "The problem is that back in the States, people get real upset when one of us gets killed," says one veteran soldier. "So they give us this body armor and all the stuff that keeps us from getting killed. As a result, we can't chase the Taliban up the hills if they run away."
He goes quiet a moment. "Don't quote me on this, but it's not the way I would fight a counterinsurgency."
Some of the men keep their distance from Afghans. Telling the difference between friend and foe, in villages where everyone seems to be friendly but where US soldiers still get killed, can be difficult.
Yet some soldiers do reach out. Specialist Kris "Doc" Tyte of Charlotte, N.C., distributes candy to children in every village. When on base in Qalat, Pvt. Brian Martin of Trenton, Mich., and Pfc. Shain Hahn of Rush City, Minn., drink green tea at a local restaurant every morning.
"All the people in the market know us by name," says Private Martin, one of the squad's designated sharpshooters. "They're really good people ... [You] want to see things get better here."
What worries Lieutenant Wisnioski, a West Point graduate in military history, is that Afghanistan resists change, particularly imposed change. The US has tried to bring its democratic system to other countries without much success.
"At the turn of the century, the US was down in Cuba doing a lot of the same stuff, for three years," he says, referring to the placement of pro-American government officials and the training of military and police. "But as soon as they left, corruption took over. They've got to do something cultural about corruption here."
"I get worried that when we leave," he adds, "this place is going to revert" to the way things were - chaotic.
At the end of the day, we hike into Spitut. ANA soldiers have already discovered a large cache of explosives in the largest home of the village. The home is abandoned, but only in the sense that no one is home. The windows are brand-new, the compound well swept. The owners have left suddenly, and recently.
In one room, the men find two powerful antitank mines, the sort that recently killed four American soldiers in a fully armored Humvee near Deh Chopan.
Sgt. First Class Jason Nelson of Charlotte, N.C., tips one of the land mines on its side to determine its age. "I think we just saved a life today," he says.
Perhaps this long trek hasn't been so pointless after all.