The portal to America's war on terror is gate three at the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, a six-and-a-half-square-mile blast-wall fortress surrounded by a wasteland of dust. From inside, up a long alley of concrete barriers and out of the haze, comes the visual equivalent of space aliens: flak-jacketed, helmeted, sunglassed, digital-camo-wearing National Guardsmen from Mississippi, who motion for me to get into their air-conditioned white SUV. We soon pull up to a plywood shack, where I hope to get my first look at America's latest instrument of warfare: anthropologists.

A lady press officer is professionally happy to see us. "We didn't even know what a 'human terrain team' was until you called," she chirps as another soldier carefully cleans the Afghani dust out of her nose with rolled-up Kleenex. Then she adds, kindergarten-teacher style, "You are helping us to learn about these people."

The idea behind human terrain teams, or HTTs, is to put a small army of civilian social scientists (ideally anthropologists) and intel-savvy military officers into the field to give brigade commanders a better understanding of local dynamics. The teams are charged with "mapping" social structures, linkages, and priorities, just as a recon team might map physical terrain. By talking to locals the teams might help identify which village elder the commander should deal with or which tribe might be a waste of time; which valley should get a roads project and whether a new road might create a dispute between villages. It's all part of General David Petraeus's doctrine of a smarter, management-style counterinsurgency.

There are now six five-to-nine-person human terrain teams in Afghanistan and 21 teams in Iraq. If the concept proves successful, the $120 million-plus program would grow to 700 HTT and support staff in those countries and other hot spots. The man charged with managing the program is retired special operations colonel Steve Fondacaro. He is so passionate about it that when I interviewed him back in the States, he held forth for nine hours straight. Seven hours in, he walked into a door, breaking his jaw, but resumed talking. Fondacaro freely admits that one of the biggest obstacles to injecting social science into the military will be the military itself. "We are like a virus infecting the host," he told me. "Either the army will be inoculated and be stronger, or they will expel us in a torrent of puke."

Already there have been problems. The academic community has been critical of giving traditionally "do no harm" anthros combat uniforms and letting them carry guns. It hasn't helped Fondacaro's recruiting efforts that in the past nine months two HTT civilian scientists have been killed on the job, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq. Another HTT scientist was booted from the program after joking that if America invaded Iran she might "switch sides."

Still, getting a handle on the human landscape made a dramatic difference in Iraq. It helped Petraeus and his Ph.D. cadre convert enemies into allies, recasting a conflict that looked as if it would drag on for decades into one that could essentially be over within a year. Now the white-hot center of the war on terror is once again Afghanistan. U.S. forces there gets 20 "tics" a day – or Troops in Contact with the enemy – compared with one or two in Iraq.

But Afghanistan is not Iraq. It's a fractious nation whose dirt-poor people are scattered mostly outside of cities, across a harsh landscape of deserts and mountains, making it much harder to win hearts and minds. This is a country, remember, that some of the most daunting forces in modern history – the Russians, the British, and now the Americans – have been unable to conquer. The recent refrain from even our own retired generals is that not only are we losing the war, but we don't even know what's going on there.

So could Fondacaro and his army of eggheads solve this? That's what I'd come here to find out. But what I would get over the next two weeks would be a much larger, more bizarre, and in many ways more disturbing glimpse of what happens when 21st-century warfare is waged in a Third World country.Before i can get started, though, the military has to actually locate its own human terrain team, and right now the folks in Bagram are having some trouble with that. So after checking into my bunkhouse, a "hooch" cheerfully labeled "Hotel California," I go for a stroll on base to kill time.

Bagram is on the site of an old Soviet air base, which long before that was the camping spot of Alexander the Great. The American version is a massive dust-blown shanty and trailer-town city of 18,000 soldiers and contractors. It is a war-fighting support hub, an air base, ops center, insurgent prison, and one of the more zealously regulated sites in Afghanistan. Notices and signs, rules and warnings are posted on every wall. Military police use radar guns to catch speeders, and uniform standards are imposed in a grim fury that would make the Taliban jealous. Our little outpost of freedom is the kind of place where there are carefully typed notices telling you how to use the numbered toilet stalls ("for a good flush put your paper on top") and what to do if you need to take a leak ("don't forget to lift the seat first").

There are many tribes at Bagram. The dominant ones are easily identifiable by their digital camo, bad haircuts, and guns banging against their butts even in the chow hall. The other main tribe, the contractors, are recognizable by their Fu Manchu mustaches, Realtree camo, and crushed KBR baseball caps. These groups are augmented by an invisible population of about 600 prisoners. The only Afghans we spy during our Burger King, DQ, and Subway meals are those who clean tables and scrub toilets.

My first night in the Afghan countryside is made more exotic by the sound of the amplified Jazzercise instructor yelling encouragement from inside a giant inflatable tent, and I am pleased to find that despite the Taliban's best efforts at instilling modesty in Afghanistan, premium cable is available for $115 a month here and massages from young Kyrgyz ladies for $15. Bagram is America's duty-free space station in the war on terror and may be the most culturally isolated outpost on the planet. The world's most effective killing machine has ensconced itself in a hastily constructed replica of a Midwest strip mall.

The press office eventually finds the human terrain team of Task Force Warrior sitting literally across the street in a cramped 15-by-25-foot makeshift building. The team's own terrain is filled with laptops, maps, pens, notebooks, and cluttered desks. The unit consists of one social scientist, three research managers, an IT guy, and three translators, or "terps."

The scientist, Jim, is easy to identify as he is the one who begs not to his have his photo taken or last name used. It seems that within left-leaning academic circles, hanging out with the military is the equivalent of a movie star doing infomercials. He's a 50-something anthro who worked in Afghanistan two decades ago but seems more preoccupied with the subject of how unique the genetic makeup of Laotians is. (According to one of the research managers, the scientist spends much of his time in Kabul and has authored exactly three reports: "one on Ramadan, the Muslim holiday; another on funerals; and some other on Afghan and Islamic influences.")

Two of the research managers are reserve officers, and the other is an ex-soldier who served in Kurdish areas of Iraq. Of the two civilian interpreters, one describes himself as "Persian," which I take to mean that he's a Shia Iranian-American working in an environment mostly hostile to Shias, and the other, Gulam, is an Afghan mechanic from Colorado who hasn't been here since he left in the '70s.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Rotzoll is the man in charge. He is 5-foot-2 and Buddha-like in demeanor and shape. A former analyst for the CIA, his special skill is that he is fluent in Chinese. "I would have been a civil affairs officer flipping PowerPoint charts in Baghdad's green zone," he admits. "So I chose this."

So that's a Laotian DNA expert, a Chinese speaker, an ex-army grunt, and an auto mechanic.

The other thing I quickly size up is that Rotzoll's team doesn't have a specific mission or even any vehicles, so they are left to tag along on other missions out of Bagram. The team works for Colonel Spellman, the brigade commander, who, as Rotzoll puts it, "owns" the nearby northern provinces of Kapisa, Panjshir, Parwan, and Bamiyan. "He gives us an overarching idea for 180 days," Rotzoll says. The best he can sum up their job is this: "to understand what is happening on the ground and advise the brigade as to the best path." Rotzoll's team is relatively new but he credits more established HTTs with reducing "kinetic" operations in this war by 40 to 60 percent. "Kinetic" is mil-speak for violence, which in Afghanistan typically begets more violence.

What kinds of things do the Afghans want the most? "Its pretty much always the same thing here," says Rotzoll. "Security, water, schools, and roads."

The civilian scientist seems as chatty as a Mafia don at a federal hearing, so I focus on the uniformed side of the team. From what I've gathered so far, when it comes to getting out in the field and talking to locals, the research manager who seems to do much of the heavy lifting is Lieutenant Jeremy Jones. From Indiana. And therefore "Indiana Jones." He has sandy brown hair, with an eager face and pink cheeks, and, like Rotzoll, is very short: 5-foot-4 in this case. He will turn 26 in two weeks. The son of missionaries, Jones went to a lower-tier liberal arts college and got a bachelor's in history. His last civilian employment was selling weight-loss products and waiting tables at a Cheesecake Factory in Indianapolis. "I was an engineer in the reserve army, and I couldn't get a job," he says. "So here I am." As an army lieutenant Jones makes about $30,000 before danger pay, while a top-tier scientist can make $250,000 a year in the program. Even Gulam, his interpreter, makes four times what Jones does.

But Jones does have cool toys. During our initial chat he is constantly pulling his Beretta pistol out of his belt, playing with it, putting it on the desk, then back in his pants. He has a custom-made cowboy holster and a tricked-out assault rifle. "No one who is cool carries an M16," he says. "The army owns this" – he points to the standard base – "but it doesn't own this" – he points to the multiple accessories, such as an optical sight and the collapsing light stock, that convert his M16 into an M4. "It gives me more credibility."

Jones explains his scientific approach to doing his human terrain thing on Afghans: "I try to take my helmet off. I don't wear sunglasses. The eyes convey emotions. Give me an hour with someone and I can get anything out of them."

The enterprising Jones comes up with a trip for us to a forward operating base about two hours northeast. FOB Morales-Frazier covers the bottom part of a valley that provides a smuggling corridor into Pakistan. Depending on where you go, it's either a calm Tajik area or a hostile Pashtun one.

As we load up the MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles – better-fortified replacements for Humvees, designed to survive IEDs), a large blond soldier from the Pennsylvania National Guard whom we'll call "Krieger" is enjoying a pre-trip cigarette and wants to know whom our tiny lieutenant works for. "Human terrain," Jones answers with panache. Krieger leans back and cocks a puzzled eyebrow. "You aren't one of those HT assholes who wants to talk to the locals while I sit in my MRAP for 10 hours?"

Krieger is on a roll. "Hey, I talk to the Afghans. The last time I talked to an Afghan?" – Krieger launches into a violent pantomime of beating someone up, throwing him down on the ground, and zip-tying them – "was like that."

Pretend-dusting himself off, he goes for the punch line. "Hey!" He whips around. "I told you to stay the fuck down!!!" And here he mimics crushing the invisible Afghan's skull with his boots and then cutting his throat with his knife.

"Fuck that shit." Krieger chuckles, folding his knife and shaking his head.

This is my first sense that the farther Jones gets from Bagram, and the deeper into hostile territory, the less touchy-feely this war is going to get. We put on flak jackets and helmets and climb into a convoy of a half-dozen 20-ton, 12-foot-high, tan-colored MRAPs. The heavy rear hatch thunks shut with an added hydraulic hiss, and once inside the belly of our mastodon-size steel steed we are instructed to put on noise-reduction headsets. Then air-conditioning from 12 vents blasts us into an arctic stupor. Our only connection to the outside world is through four-inch-thick glass portholes, which add a green tinge.

Morales-Frazier, the base we're headed to, was originally named after its Afghan location of Nijrab but now, in the curious American cultural overlay, takes its name from two U.S. soldiers killed in action. It houses a State Department-run provincial reconstruction team tasked with supervising regional development projects, a 12-man marine team training the local Afghan army, a 400-man French paratrooper unit, and a revolving door of various military and intel units. It's a mishmash of nations, groups, goals, and activities – the perfect petri dish for culture clash and confusion. It's also a dangerous place. A week earlier a French patrol was ambushed nearby and lost 10 men. And a few days before that three marines were killed in an explosion.

The armored vehicles lumber and sway up switchbacks and through narrow village streets. The top gunners on the MRAPs give alternating fists, waves, or verbal threats to scatter the locals – mostly waving children and indifferent donkey herders. The contrast between our futuristic ride and the mud-village Tatooine-type poverty makes us look like the ultimate Imperial Stormtrooper, made-in-America, million-dollar-a-copy, fuck-you occupation parade.

After a long, hermetic ride we finally snake around blast barriers and through foot-deep waves of powder to enter the sprawling cocoon of FOB Morales-Frazier. Other than a fine coating of dust from the open gunner hatch above, we have managed to avoid seeing, smelling, or touching a single bit of Afghanistan.

Jones is eager to find some human terrain to map, so he's psyched to learn that there is a mission forming out of Morales-Frazier. But first he has to check in with the provincial reconstruction team commander. The PRT commander is an air force lieutenant colonel who wears a tan T-shirt with "FUBAR" (as in "fucked up beyond all recognition") printed in large black capital letters across the front. FUBAR is playing cards with his team in what looks like a boys club, complete with a crude plywood door that carries a sign: knock before entering.

Without looking up he says to Jones in his nasal midwestern twang, "We've had some pushback on the human terrain teams from the Afghan nationals. I gotta respect that. So the PRT cannot be associated with the human terrain teams."

Jones asks FUBAR if he knows what HTT is. "Yes, I do," the commander says brusquely as he slaps down his hand of cards, still without looking up.

I excuse myself and walk outside. Near the porch of my hut I see Jones talking to a team of three burly, geared-up men. They introduce themselves as Peter; an Afghan-American translator, Joseph; and Peter's partner, who introduces himself as "Paris." "Paris Hilton," to be exact. The trio are heading out on a midnight mission, and we chat with them as they snap on and check their night-vision goggles, extra magazines, pistols, and other tools.

I ask Paris what they do. "We are the HTT," he says.

Confused, I ask him if his HTT is related to Jones and his HTT. "No, no, we are HUMINT tactical collection teams." HUMINT is mil-speak for "human intelligence." So what's the distinction?

Peter purses his helmeted brow. "I s'pose we are the shooty-shooty guys rather than the talky-talky guys," he says.

He explains that their job is essentially to sneak around at night and yank Afghans out of their bed and interrogate them or even bring them back to Bagram. And if these Afghans make the mistake of fighting back...well, then there isn't much to talk about. It has been a good month for Peter and Paris. They and their cohorts have managed to wipe out half a dozen high-level Taliban.

Jones is impressed with the arsenal of man-gear Paris and Peter carry, but soon relays to them the problem he just had with FUBAR. He suggests that Peter and Paris call themselves THTs, or tactical human terrain teams, to avoid confusion. Paris insists that Jones should call his group CTTs, or cultural terrain teams. After a while they give up concocting acronyms and go back to admiring and adjusting their gear.

Their backup team is ready, and Paris and Peter excuse themselves, then their convoy disappears into the night.

Jones, his interpreter Gulam, and I climb up the Hescos – the wire-mesh dirt baskets used as blast barriers – to enjoy a smuggled nightcap under the canopy of stars. Off to the north we watch silent bright white flashes outline the jagged mountains.

"Imagine if dudes with guns like that come into your house at 2 a.m.," Jones says. He has stumbled across the dirty secret of "human terrain" mapping. In order to snip the connective tissue between the network of evildoers, someone has to figure out who they are. Whether you snip the web by being nice or nasty is irrelevant. The information Jones and his team collect with good intentions is all part of a massive database that may eventually lead to Paris Hilton knocking on someone's door.My wake-up call the next morning is a fighter bomber screaming over our hooch. It's 6:30 a.m. The odd effect of living on a base is that you are relegated to reading intelligence reports to understand what's happening outside the walls. More news comes from Googling on my BlackBerry than from the soldiers around me, who are focused on their specific tasks. Simply not being able to see over the base walls, to the valley below, is disorienting.

Which is what makes Jones's news so welcome: Today we are going outside the walls with Colonel FUBAR and his Pennsylvania guard team after all. Apparently all is forgiven after the colonel is enlightened by the base commander that Jones's HTT is not that HTT.

We find Krieger, the zealous guardsman, and his team loading up the MRAPs. Krieger saunters over to us, smack-tapping a new pack of Newports, and drains a Miranda orange soda for breakfast. "Hey, which terp is coming with us?" he yells, cigarette dangling and not taking his eyes off of Jones. "Jamsheed," says the lead Afghan politely. Krieger yells back, not looking over

His shoulder, "Who the fuck is Jumpshit?" To make doubly sure we get it, he sings "Bombs over Baghdad" while tossing his gear into the MRAP.

Our elephantine convoy rolls out the gates and picks through villages, snapping off mulberry branches and leaves. Little kids give the vehicles a practiced thumbs-up while older Afghans just stare expressionless. We squeeze up the rough road and across boulder-strewn creeks to make it to the first site, a recently built school where the governor is holding a shura, a public meeting to announce yet another U.S.-backed development project: a paved road. As the governor drones on, Jones is using the time to interview locals outside. One man, a teacher who doesn't like the pot-bellied provincial governor, is quite vocal about corruption and the politics of post-Taliban Afghanistan. As Jones begins to fill up his green notebook, an armed Afghan cop comes up and tells the outspoken man to start walking.

Our next stop, at the highest point of the valley, is for another shura, this time for the opening of a U.S.-funded, Afghan-built micro hydro dam. Jones disappears to talk to more Afghans while I walk up to the largest member of the Pennsylvania guard, there to provide security for the meeting. The name tag says "Lehr," and he's a blond, easygoing Germanic giant. His belly hangs over his belt, but he's introduced to me as one of the fiercest fighters on the team. He is smoking a cigarette under a tree, and when he sees me walking up with my camera he says, "You want pensive and thoughtful? Or tough and vigilant?"

Another blond middle-aged guardsman chimes in. This place may look peaceful, he says, but over the next valley is still a war zone. "We were the freakin' lead in the Afghania valley. We freakin' decimated their leadership. We killed their IED guys. We fucked them up pretty good. We used to go in there and try to get them to attack us. Then they would send in the rest of their force and the birds" – the gunships – "would come and finish 'em off."

This group of a few dozen men has had 14 casualties in their efforts to clear these valleys. They see the Afghans here as former enemies and so view the human terrain much differently, far less optimistically than does Jones.

Another National Guardsman has taken his helmet off and is chatting with his terp. "A lot of Pennsylvania looks like this," he tells him. "You come over, we'll have some fun. We will go to Atlantic City, gamble, chase women, and get drunk." The terp responds: "I will be a little more infidel?"

The American laughs, "Yeah, that's right, buddy." It seems the divide is not so wide.

Suddenly there is a boom, but someone says it's just someone blowing rocks from a quarry. Then there are two gunshots, and so the Pennsylvania boys turn the MRAPs around in case the governor needs a hasty retreat. Lehr lets out a cynical chortle. "The governor looks a little nervous. The locals tried to blow him up last time he came out here."After badgering the marines for two days, Jones finally convinces them to take us on a foot patrol. The commander, Major Simmons, is sending a team into the sometimes-hostile, sometimes-friendly village of Kuhi in the river valley just below Morales-Frazier. A small group of marines who are embedded with the Afghan army will enter a village with about two dozen Afghan soldiers to try to learn more about a group of Taliban moving around. Simmons explains that he wants this to be an Afghan-led effort because eventually the Afghans will need to learn how to handle this kind of thing themselves. "Teaching the Afghan army how to do counterinsurgency is..." says Simmons, looking for the polite word, "challenging."

We split into two groups. Our group will make contact with the village while the other circles around to provide cover. Above us, on the hill, the Afghan military have their armored vehicles with heavy guns trained on our positions. That morning the marines had called in a U.S. fighter jet to fly as low as possible over the valley at ear-shattering volumes. "Force projection," Simmons calls it. "That way they know what will happen if they engage us."

The "carrot and stick" approach is to build rapport with the locals by providing basics – something akin to the conquistadores bringing shiny trinkets for the Mayans. The big stuff like wells, schools, and roads are held back until the area shows a willingness to work with the Americans. If the locals remain hostile they get the "stick," which can be anything from being ignored to suffering an air strike.

The initial intel said that the situation was potentially volatile, with 40 armed insurgents, a car bomb, and a high potential for an ambush, but when we get there it's just locals working in the fields. Our group leader, Sergeant Aguilar, holds us up while we wait for the other half of our group to get in place. Upon hearing this command, the Afghan soldiers immediately flop down and start to nap. Aguilar scans the opposite bank for movement or glints. Despite the bucolic setting, the feeling is tense – and then a cell phone rings. It's Aguilar's. "Hey, master sergeant, can I call you back? I am in the middle of a patrol? Yeah... Thanks. Bye." He turns to Jones: "I get calls all the time during firefights."

The radio crackles. "Move forward." Crossing the river we reach the outskirts of the village. It doesn't take long for a gaggle of kids to gather around. One red-headed tyke, who looks like an Afghan Opie, carries a slingshot and cups a tiny frightened sparrow. "Cute," says Aguilar, as he hands out Bic pens from a bag.

Opie proudly pulls over a young friend with a swollen right eye. "You did that?" Aguilar asks, then points at the slingshot. "With that?" Opie nods eagerly. They pose for pictures, and then Opie starts trying to twist the sparrow's neck. "Hey," Aguilar says, "don't kill the bird."

Opie hunts around for a rock, breaks it against another rock, then uses the sharp end to decapitate the sparrow.

"Jesus, he just cut the bird's head off," says Aguilar. "No pens for you." Opie shrugs. He holds up the freshly severed head for photos.

The kids are tasked to get the elders. Soon four very old men shuffle down the path. The Afghan soldiers drive a pickup truck into a shaded square and before they hand out any goodies, the marines coach them to ask whether there are any Taliban here. "No, no, no... no problems here," one toothless old man mutters as he scans the sacks of rice and tea in the bed of the truck. The Afghan intel officer reports that the elder's biggest complaint is: "We never get anything from the government."

As the Afghan soldiers smack the kids away from the truck with branches, a marine has to remind his Afghan counterpart to keep asking questions and to write down the answers. What do they need? The elder, not taking his eye off the truck, rattles off a practiced list in a dull monotone, "Security, electricity...a well...and a road." Where are all the fighting-age males? "Most of the men are working in Iran."

What the marines fail to grasp is that rural conservative Pashtun elders are, by any definition, Taliban themselves. And the Karzai government they complain about is exactly what the Taliban is seeking to destroy. Any Afghan who has survived to the ripe age of 40, let alone 70, has learned to not only get along with all sides but to play those sides against one another, which is precisely what makes mapping the human terrain here so tricky. It is completely normal for an Afghan to support both the Taliban insurgents coming over from Pakistan and the occupying forces at the same time. These villages will still be here after both groups have long disappeared.

Finally the villagers are given 500 grams of Vietnamese tea, two kilos of rice, a prayer rug each, and odd bits of Pakistan-made clothing. Jones busies himself by asking the marines questions about the Afghans asking the Afghans questions.

Sergeant Aguilar carefully hands out the rest of his Bics, one to each boy or girl, but quickly the pens start to consolidate under the control of Opie and his gang. Aguilar then calls for the medic to come in and look at the older people, which he does for a while, but then the Afghan interpreter gets hungry. "Oh, come on," he says to Aguilar. "Let's go. Stop bullshitting with old people. Let's go before we get swamped with more fake sick people."

As we pull out of the village, Opie knocks down another bird with his slingshot. Elated, his Bic-rich gang make cutting motions across their necks and dance around. Clearly Opie's generation will require either a larger carrot or a bigger stick.Jones has run out of Afghans to talk to, so our next task is to escape Morales-Frazier. Our only hope is to bum a ride on one of the helos leaving the airfield. As if summoned on command we are greeted by the aerial circus of four inbound skull-adorned black helicopters. A pair of hot-rodded Black Hawks land while two Kiowas circle in an angry dance above. From the massive brown wall of rotor dust comes a line of camo-wearing bodyguards flanking General Mark Milley. The deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division is on a whistle-stop tour of the front, and his helos keep the rotors running while he dashes into the head shed for a meeting with the French.

Sitting outside the main operations center, one of his aides spots us in our dirt-caked splendor. "Shit. Journos," he says with disgust. I ask if the general hates journos. "No, he loves journos. That's good for you. Bad for us. He is so gonna bump us."

Sure enough, 20 minutes later we catch the slipstream of the general's whirlwind grin-and-grip tour and strap into one of his helos. But moments after we lift off I realize that we are not heading southwest back to Bagram but southeast, farther down the valley and deeper into enemy territory.

We arrive at FOB Kutschbach (officially named Pathfinder), in the district of Tagab. As soon as we land, "Big Milley" (as it's written on his team's patches) and his bowling-pin guards charge around the camp, pumping hands and slapping backs. "The Cooch" is the end of the line, a hastily constructed firebase deep in the heart of "Indian country," as American soldiers call hostile regions.

Though the landscape outside the base is scenic, inside it's surreal. Near the gate are bits of blasted Humvees from IED attacks. Jumbles of abandoned rust-colored shipping containers are set off by mountains of blue water bottles, all interspersed between primitive plywood shacks. The sandbagged roof of the command bunker is littered with thousands of brass shell casings. And the entire base is perfumed by the foul smell of sun-baked Porta-Potties mixed with cordite from the thumping guns. There may be people here, but they must be inside the windowless buildings sleeping, saving their energy for nightstalking.

The only activity seems to be an American Humvee crew trying to kill the mountain. Their turret gun is thumping away at the steep valley walls, sending clouds of dust and howling ricochets ripping the quiet of the valley below. At night the mortars from insurgents rain down on the base, and so many high-explosive and illumination rounds are fired back that the sand-and gravel-filled Hescos are bleeding from the constant concussion. Even when they are not under attack, the troops randomly mortar the surrounding hills. "Terrain denial" the military calls it. Special forces teams, French commandos, and other groups operate out of here, mostly at night, selectively capturing or "erasing" insurgent leaders from the surrounding valleys. Jones has found himself in a place where the whole goal seems to be to harass the Afghans, not try to understand them.

We get distracted watching a bad movie in a mess hall shack and miss the general's return to the airfield. We hear the sound of choppers and dash out of the wood shack just in time to see the general taking off, leaving us behind, along with half his security detail. Payback's a bitch.

The security team is now very nervous that their one-day PR tour may turn out to be a multiday holiday in hell. The beefiest officer gets on his cell phone and starts calling around to see if he can get a helo ride out, while his posse leans against the blast walls to try to get some relief from the midday sun. Jones, as usual, is gear-talking and comparing M4 goodies.

I ask them who the "good guys" are in this war, since from what I've seen you can't put much daylight between the "Taliban" and the locals.

"Let me see," says a large black sergeant, "we have ISAF, OEF, ANA, ANP, ANSF, MOI, OGA, and MOD."

That is: International Security and Assistance Force (a.k.a. NATO), Operation Enduring Freedom, the Afghan national army, the Afghan national police, Afghan national security forces, Ministry of Interior, other governmental agencies, and Ministry of Defense.

What about the bad guys?

"That takes a little longer to figure out." He thinks hard and uses his fingers to count off: "ACF, AAF, ACM, Taliban...Little T and Big T," he reminds me, "HIG, HQ, AQ, MAM – well, we aren't supposed to use that one – and, of course," he laughs, "JAG."

That is: anti-coalition forces, anti-Afghan forces, anti-coalition militias, local Taliban, and the more ideology-driven Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group that the Taliban dislike), Jalaluddin Haqqani network (from across the border in Pakistan), Al Qaeda (foreigners but not Pakistanis), military-age males, and Judge Advocate General (the U.S. military's investigation unit).

The phone calls are not panning out, so one of the sage-colored storm troopers, one with a large Mohawked skull on his backpack, comes up with a plan: "Okay, if we get stuck here, we are going to give everyone weapons, lock and load, take that large white fuel truck there, throw a man dress over our armor, I will hold a gun to the head of the Afghan and make him drive us out of here." Gulam, Jones's interpreter, looks around and realizes he is the only Afghan and thus must be the one Rambo is referring to.

The sound of rotor blades echoing up the valley brings a sigh of relief from him – and from us. We grab empty seats for the helo's return flight to Bagram.After I bid farewell to Jones, I try to get some perspective on what I've experienced the past few weeks. So in Kabul, on my way out of Afghanistan, I take a page from Jones and talk to an Afghan. I meet with Masood Karokhail, a 30-something MBA grad. He has leveraged his direct connections with Pashtun tribal leaders into his own "human terrain mapping" business. Three countries (but not the U.S.) are paying him to carefully map hostile regions and the fault lines between tribes. Karokhail points to the giant satellite maps on the wall with overlays of grazing areas, creeks, and tribal boundaries. He lays out the very common-sense idea that small tribal land disputes are open sores that the Taliban exploit, gaining more and more toeholds as the government fails to do anything. Pushing them back is a matter of getting in and resolving these conflicts before they expand into an insurgency.

That said, he thinks that the Americans may have missed their window to understand the region. "Today we have hundreds of researchers in Afghanistan but with no access. If the social scientists had been here in 2001 they would have a lot more access. Now everyone is interested in the Pashtuns, and the Pashtuns don't want to talk with the foreigners."

I ask him if he ever works with the U.S. Army's human terrain teams. "I try to stay away from them," he says. Anthropologist Michael Bhatia, the HTT member who was killed by an IED in Afghanistan, was his friend. "I talked to him three weeks before he was blown up. I said, What are you doing, driving around in a Humvee? You can't be in the military and expect to work with the very people they are attacking."

Karokhail has captured the crux of the problem. My time with Jones taught me more about how Americans think and operate in Afghanistan than how Afghans think and operate. The resurgent Taliban is thrilled to see the Americans make many of the same mistakes the Russians did here: worn-out troops isolated in hardened forts defending a weakened central government promoting a foreign agenda. HTTs are supposed to bring down the cultural barrier between the military and the locals, but the biggest enemy is the natural inclination of troops to be troops, not social workers. Strangely enough, the Taliban is far more expert at meeting the basic needs of Afghans: namely, by fighting the corrupt central government and providing justice and security. Until that changes the Afghans will be more inclined to identify with the "enemy" than the well-intentioned guests.

After I returned to the states I felt almost bad informing Fondacaro that my experience with the human terrain team hadn't quite lived up to his shining vision. But my skeptical observations were outdone by the HTT's own nightmarish trajectory. In November team member Don Ayala, a former security contractor, was with social scientist Paula Loyd, asking Afghans about the price of fuel, when a local, apparently angered that Loyd was not covered, threw burning gas on her. The Afghan was restrained, but when Ayala heard how severe Loyd's injuries were – she suffered second- and third-degree burns on more than half of her body – he allegedly walked up to the prisoner, put a pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger. Ayala is facing second-degree murder charges. Then later in the month HTT took another blow when a team member was arrested on charges of once working as a spy for Iraq.

It's not exactly the interaction with the locals the U.S. military had in mind for the human terrain teams. In an uncharacteristically succinct and downbeat moment, Fondacaro admitted to me that he is "building an airplane in flight." Considering Jones's noble efforts to bum rides just to find Afghans in Afghanistan, it might be an improvement if the teams even had an airplane.

Read the U.S. Army's response to this article.