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
The village of Malajat is famous, in certain circles, because in all the years the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, they never took this small clutch of farmland and mud homes.

It's an infantryman's nightmare. It sits on land irrigated by the Arghandab River, so soldiers face thick plots of corn stalks and whole forests of marijuana. But the worst, by far, is the vineyards; without much wood for trellises, farmers here grow their grapevines on rows of thick mud walls that can reach eight feet tall. The narrow paths through the vineyards are natural sites for booby traps, so every movement becomes an exhausting affair, as soldiers heave themselves and their gear up and over wall after wall after wall.

Lujan and Sam arrive in the middle of the night and are shown to a tent bustling with maps, satellite equipment, radios, and technicians lit by computer screens. They receive a briefing from Captain Ethan Olberding: Coalition and Afghan forces recently cleared Malajat and are now entrenching themselves with the local population.

Olberding is, by all appearances, an action figure. A small flashlight beams from a strap around his perfectly bald head, and when he talks, the features of his face – his eyeballs, his jaw – jut forward. He uses a voice so commanding it sounds like an enormous child has pulled a string in his back to wind him up and make him speak. He is not a commander, in short, who seems inclined to win over anybody's heart or mind.

The next night Lujan and Sam join the discombobulated MP unit and a couple of Afghan paramilitary policemen for the night patrol that leads them through the moon dust to the village mosque. After the bungled exchange with the young mullah, the group pushes forward with worsening results: They stop and search almost everyone they see, from children to an old man bent over his cane. During one exchange with a shopkeeper, the unit's leader doesn't bother to flip up his night-vision goggles, baffling the man. While they speak, gunfire pops about two kilometers away, which in this village is equivalent to a dog barking in the distance. Even so, one of the squad members comes trotting in: "Sir! We've got gunfire! Gunfire, sir!" The leader strides off – away from the gunfire – while the shopkeeper hangs in mid sentence. As the unit scrambles to pull itself together, Lujan approaches the shopkeeper with his hand over his heart, and after a few clarifying words, they chuckle and part ways with a handshake.

When the platoon files back into its compound, one of the Afghan police partners – ignored by the MPs throughout the patrol – pulls at Lujan's sleeve. Then he releases a stream of indignant Dari: The Americans were rude toward the shopkeeper, he says. Who searches old men and small children? Not to mention the disaster with the mullah. "He says it alienates the local people," Lujan translates. "He's embarrassed."

Sam gives a short, curt nod. "Tell him we want him to say all that again, in a moment. Exactly that way."

The MPs toss off their gear and gather to smoke and laugh and discuss the night's adventure. From the darkness, Lujan and Sam approach, then they introduce the Afghan cop, who gives his polite but frustrated report. "Every one of these mistakes could have been avoided if you had just consulted your Afghan partners first," Lujan says. "The partnership has to be real. The sooner we hand off to the Afghan authorities, the sooner we go home." The MPs straighten a bit at the word home. They start asking questions. Lujan has gotten through.

Not every squad reacts that way. During an earlier patrol, an infantry unit had performed fine, but it showed no curiosity about the territory it patrolled. So afterward, Sam, who has decades of experience operating in foreign cultures, stood before them and offered practical tips for gathering intelligence – a brief master class from an expert in the subject. "Think of yourselves as Lewis and Clark," he said. "When Thomas Jefferson sent them to explore the Louisiana Purchase, they weren't sure what to expect. So they took down every detail, filling in the picture for the president."

As he talked, a chubby medic in sunglasses stood near Sam and lit a Swisher Sweets cigar. He then blew long, luxurious clouds of smoke into Sam's face. Sam ignored him. When the brief tutorial was finished, the troops wandered away and someone offered a sarcastic, "Verrry interesting!"

After Sam's talk, I ask the cigar-smoking medic, whom Lujan later dubbed "Mr. Sweets," how he feels about counterinsurgency tactics. "Stupid. They ought to use that money in American schools," he says. He pokes his cigar at several spots around the compass. "What is the point, here?"

His anger illustrates a contradiction in practical counterinsurgency. When an average 19-year-old heads to war and leaves his hometown, mom, girlfriend, dog, and everything else, he has to ratchet up his mind, somehow, to find the ability to kill people. One way is to dehumanize the population. So when it comes time to pull the trigger, that little twinge, that hesitation he might feel back home, doesn't get in the way. It's an effective technique. Not so long ago the U.S. government used it as a matter of outright doctrine, with wartime cartoons and caricatures of Japs and Jerrys. And in a total war, in which all a soldier needs to do is shoot, it might work.

But how does the young soldier unwind that mind-set long enough to give some Afghan farmer a second glance? Because now he can't just accept the Afghan's enmity as part of his base nature; he's got to figure out the man's grievance. Maybe he's growing poppies on his farm only because the Taliban threatened to kill his family. Is he a Taliban sympathizer? Or a supporter? Maybe a potential ally?

After the night patrol, Lujan and Sam visit Captain Olberding – the company's commander – in his operational hub. They offer a candid report: The MPs need help. They need closer leadership. Olberding drops his smooth head into his hands and kneads the skin over his eyebrows. "All right," he says, then looks up again at the bank of computer screens before him. He doesn't have time for fuzzy counterinsurgency advice. "Thanks. I've got some things I need to do here."

Over and out.