New US Military strategy in Afghanistan
Full-Metal Research: Lieutenant Jeremy Jones, a member of the human terrain team, gets some rare time with the locals during a public ceremony.
Credit: Photograph by Jason Florio
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."