The older man is an Army intelligence analyst. His job is to read reports on everything from enemy movements to the weather and pass it up the chain of command. But on this night, he speaks of the sobering difficulty of bringing peace to this land.

"This country is ruled valley to valley," he says. "Each valley is in many ways its own state. Most people who live in these valleys spend their whole lives there, sometimes never leaving. I've had our guys tell me that when they first got here back in '02, some of these people thought we were Russians. They didn't know that Ivan was gone and that we'd showed up."

I gasp in disbelief.

Rafal Gerszak
Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are in a state of shock after the platoon was ambushed near the Pakistani border on July 2, 2008.
Rafal Gerszak
Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are in a state of shock after the platoon was ambushed near the Pakistani border on July 2, 2008.


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"Believe it. And that's just how these mullahs like it."

Leaders in Afghanistan's remote areas are fiercely xenophobic, he explains. They don't hate Americans; they hate the people from the valley next door.

"They can tell just by looking if you're from their valley or the one just over the hill, and respond accordingly," he says, making a slashing motion across his throat. In his mind, the thousands of little dictators who rule the country equate peace with loss of power. They don't like TV because it gives people ideas about the world outside the valley. They don't like roads because they allow people to leave — and for outsiders to come in. And they don't like the idea of a central government in Kabul because it gives someone far away power over the valley. Their valley.

"So what does the coalition do?" I ask.

He smiles. "We build the damned roads and make sure they're safe for locals to use."

"But what if the Taliban blows them up?"

"Then we fix them."

It was dark now and very cold. He was wearing only shorts and a light jacket, so he shook my hand, turned away, and trudged off into the dark and dusty night.

Every journalist who comes to Salerno receives a briefing from public affairs Maj. Patrick Sieber. He's a gruff, barrel-chested officer with a buzz cut and a look-you-in-the-eye manner.

"The Afghan National Army has come a long way in the past four years," he says. "The Afghan National Police have a long way to go. As soon as we can get them developed, that's our ticket home."

The two forces are perhaps NATO's most pressing issue. Until the United States can be reasonably certain that Afghans are safe — from both insurgents and street crime — our soldiers aren't going anywhere.

The problem isn't just Afghans. One of U.S. soldiers' favorite pastimes is making fun of the French troops.

A lieutenant tells of a dangerous mission in which his unit was working with French soldiers, who led a convoy of Humvees down a rutted, one-lane road into a Taliban ambush. The lead vehicles manned by the French took fire that didn't inflict any damage. But rather than fighting back or driving through to safety, the French tried to pull a U-turn, nearly colliding with the U.S. vehicles behind them.

"I almost shot them myself," says the lieutenant. "We were trapped because the French vehicles were now facing the wrong way. Meanwhile, one of our vehicles in the rear had been hit, so it couldn't move."

But the real challenge is working with the Afghan forces, which are plagued by corruption, incompetence, and lots of hash smoking.

"Everybody knows if you want to get hash in Afghanistan," Gerszak says, "you ask a cop."

Afghanistan has had a national army for most of the past 150 years, but the current, 80,000-plus iteration was started, equipped, and paid for by the U.S. and NATO allies.

Last year, 1st Sgt. Tommy Scott was stationed at FOB Airborne in Wardak. At the time, the base was manned by a small force of U.S. army personnel, some French troops, and a group of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers.

"The ANA guys would pull guard duty on their side of the base," Scott says. "There were nights when I would come and check on them and they'd be asleep at their post. Literally asleep. We're out there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by guys that want to kill us, and the ANA were asleep. That right there just says it all."

U.S. soldiers repeatedly tell stories of ANA troops and Afghan police (ANP) abandoning checkpoints or refusing to leave the roadside buildings that function as their offices.

And then there's the hashish.

I had dinner one night with a young captain, a tall, strapping guy in his early 20s who had spent most of his tour at a small firebase near the Pakistan border. He was enthusiastic about his mission, telling me how proud he was of the work he'd done with the ANA.

"They want to see a better country for their children," he said. "But they know it will take sacrifice."

He talked about how the Afghans had really begun to trust him and how he had come to rely on them. He seemed so positive and enthusiastic that my notes only identify him as "Captain America."

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