Sgt. John Hunt from Blackshear, Georgia, left, and Spc. Brian Kolessar from Middletown, New York, right, both from the 293rd Military Police Company out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, U.S. play jump rope with local children during a patrol in Kandahar City, so
Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

A dozen figures shuffle through a false darkness, most wearing night-vision goggles that no one needs. In Afghanistan's dry autumn air, even a slender scimitar moon casts sharp shadows. But the younger soldiers feel twitchy. And this village, called Malajat, has just become a proving ground for America's new approach to war.

Malajat lies south of Kandahar and dead center in the conflict. The road courses with dust a foot deep in places, so fine it ripples away from boot heels. "We call it moon dust," murmurs a Special Forces major named Fernando Lujan. Unlike the other soldiers, he wears a long black beard that frames a lean, dark face and black eyes. He speaks Dari. He could duck down any corridor and blend into the village if he wanted. Instead he follows in silence as the younger soldiers – mostly military police, fresh from home – make a spectacle of night patrol, fidgeting with their goggles and signaling each other with absurd bird noises. Up, down. Off, on. Coo-ee! Coo-ee!

Lujan exhales through his beard. The 33-year-old Texan leads a separate, elite team of just three men who regularly insert themselves into Afghanistan's worst battlegrounds, by whatever means, often alone. They are dispatched by General David Petraeus himself, commander of the war in Afghanistan, to size up whether his counterinsurgency tactics are working. Those tactics have triggered an identity crisis within the military and have divided some of the thinkers and strategists who plan America's wars. Counterinsurgency is widely credited with turning around the Iraq campaign, but traditionalists nonetheless consider the approach dangerous and delusional. Unlike conventional tactics, it calls for field diplomacy as much as firepower. If American soldiers can win over the Afghan people, the theory goes, the Afghans will stand up for themselves against the Taliban. Now Lujan's team will watch that theory in action and return to Kabul to stand before Petraeus and report success or failure.

So this platoon in Malajat is a test case, in a sense, and so far Lujan doesn't like what he sees.

The MP squad's leader, a young sergeant, wants to introduce himself to the most important person in Malajat: the new village mullah. Having set up a security perimeter at both ends of the block, the squad leader knocks on the door of the central mosque.

A teenage boy opens the door and gapes at the small crowd of American soldiers on the stoop, each bristling with weapons, radio antennae, rifle magazines, and grenades, with eyes illuminated by the green glow of nocturnal vision.

"HELLO!" the MP bellows.

His translator offers, "Salaam alaykum."

The teenager nods back, and the MP sergeant launches into a memorized set of questions. Is the new mullah home? When will he be in? What's his name? Where did he –

Before long, the translator and the boy speak between themselves. The teenager speaks Pashto, and it turns out the translator, unbeknownst to the MP, is a Dari-speaking Hazara. He struggles with Pashto. Eventually, he turns to the MP. "He says this is not a good time. It is time for evening prayers. Maybe if we could come back in an hour?"

The MP freezes for a moment, searching his mind for a contingency plan. Finding none, he moves back to the top of his list: Is the new mullah home? When will he be in? Where is –

A man in his 30s joins the young man at the door. The new mullah, according to the translator. Maybe. It's complicated. The MP frowns. "What's your name?"

"Al-Abdul."

The MP frowns harder. "We had another name."

The young mullah stares. "It's time for prayer," he says. "Please."

The sergeant hesitates, but he returns to his script. "Welcome to Malajat!" he says, and fires new questions. He is the conversational equivalent of an assault rifle. Between bursts, the stars seem to spin overhead, so long and awkward are the silences. Lujan drops back from the scene and leans close to his civilian teammate, a former SEAL and black-ops specialist who goes by the name Sam. "So this is going well," Lujan whispers, and Sam offers a wincing smile.

At the mosque doorway, the MP continues what has become Operation Small Talk. The young mullah, clearly torn between his religious responsibilities and the intimidation of the soldiers, finally breaks away in the middle of a question. He storms off to issue the evening call to prayer. As his voice rings out over Malajat, the squad seems unnerved by the sound and falls into disarray. Some soldiers lag behind, while the others move down the street. Coo-eee!

Lujan shakes his head. His work lies ahead of him with this crew.