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 next day the MPs gather for another patrol, and – to everyone's surprise – Olberding emerges from his tent and approaches with several Afghan policemen.

"So, we've got some work to do," he says. His voice booms as though from a hidden speaker. He plans to join the patrol, he says, as do the Afghan police, whom he introduces by name. And – strange – the captain carries several prayer rugs rolled under his arm.

"What we're doing here matters, guys," he says. He explains the historic significance of Malajat, and how Petraeus himself asks for news from the village each week. And in this hard-won little town, in one of the most critical provinces in all of Afghanistan, the local mullah is the most important figure.

The group files into the street, and Olberding leads them back toward the mosque – in daylight, this time – waving and nodding. "Salaam alaykum!" he booms to everyone who passes. An old man peeks from his doorway as Olberding stops at the mosque and asks to meet the mullah. The young man comes to the door again, looking hesitant. Olberding apologizes for the confusion of the night before and offers the prayer rugs as a small gift. The man's posture opens a bit, and as time passes he warms to the two squad leaders, American and Afghan. Then a particularly Afghan thing happens: From a doorway across the street the old man emerges and approaches the knot of soldiers. He introduces himself: He, not his young helper, is the village mullah. And thank you, he says, for the prayer rugs.

Lujan watches as the conversation grows, and finally Olberding poses a question Lujan had suggested earlier: Some of the Afghan partners have no place to pray. Would the mullah mind if they came here, to the mosque?

Not at all, the old man says. They are welcome.

In the background, Lujan beams. A night ago the squad had blundered through Malajat, manhandling the very villagers who could help expose the Taliban. And now, after a gentle nudge from Lujan and Sam, they've gained entry to the town's central mosque. A search-and-destroy mission could never have opened that door.

Back at the compound, Lujan reflects on this small victory. He sacrificed a comfortable career as a West Point professor to come here, to a place where he spends most nights sleeping outside. But war has changed, possibly forever, and he couldn't keep teaching young officers outdated lessons. "Consider the way we operate," he says. "Even when we construct our small operating bases in the middle of nowhere, our units are quick to separate themselves from Afghan counterparts, to build up infrastructure – Internet, satellite TV, their own living quarters, et cetera – to surround themselves with reminders of home and Western society. We construct a tiny 'bubble' wherever we go."

That's the ideological ambush that waits in the space between traditional training and David Kilcullen's beautifully clear view of the Afghan war, with circles and arrows. It's so clean, so simple, that the average 19-year-old can grasp it. Then he arrives in Afghanistan, where beggar children may or may not pose a threat and the village mullah has two names. Suddenly there are degrees of Taliban-ness, and the messiness of motivations, and hesitations at every turn. And his training fails him.

Counterinsurgency is more than the thinking man's war, as John Nagl said. It is war that requires a man to keep two discrete minds: He must befriend with his left hand and kill with his right.