"I've heard," I eventually said, "that the ANA guys smoke a lot of hash."

"Oh, of course," said Captain America, without missing a beat. "They're all huge hash eaters. No question. But the thing is, when you're out on a mission, that shit is a no-go. You have to make that clear."

My personal contact with ANA forces was pretty limited. Yet at Salerno, I was very aware of their presence. That's because they kept getting blown up.

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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There are audio speakers mounted everywhere that broadcast alerts whenever a medic chopper is inbound with casualties. If I was standing with a photographer, he or she would usually sprint toward the hospital.

Later, I would run into the photographers in the chow hall.

"Who was it?" I'd ask. The answer was almost always the same.

"Just some ANA guys. They got blown up."

The chow halls in Afghanistan stand as testament to the bounty of America.

Food is piled everywhere. Burgers and grilled sandwiches. Steam trays brimming with meat, vegetables and starches of every description. Pasta bars, burrito stations, build-your-own sandwich tables. Pies and sundae bars.

The dining facilities are run by KBR, a spinoff of Halliburton. Every meal costs the U.S. military $17. Multiply that by the 10,000 people living on Bagram and it costs more than $500,000 a day to feed one base.

And that's pocket change compared to the cost of equipment. The MRAP vehicle is the hottest thing going in Afghanistan. If a Brinks truck and a Tonka truck had a child, it would look like an MRAP.

It was created in response to the failures of Humvees in Iraq, which proved to be death traps for roadside mines. The MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) has a V-shaped hull that deflects bomb blasts. More than a few soldiers have walked away from direct hits thanks to this creature.

But it is expensive, with a price tag of $600,000 to $1 million a truck. And most MRAPs are flown in — at an additional cost of $135,000 per vehicle.

Yet it's cost-prohibitive to fly much else into Afghanistan. Roughly 80 percent of coalition supplies come via roads from Pakistan through some of the most dangerous territory on Earth. The cost of these trips has risen sharply as the Taliban steps up attacks on the supply line, blowing up convoys and recently destroying a key bridge through the Khyber Pass.

It all leads to a mind-blowing tab for U.S. taxpayers. The monthly bill is estimated at $16 billion, more than the annual budgets of all but 13 states. And that doesn't include the $500 billion we spend each year on the Defense Department and the so-called "black ops" budget for the CIA.

Is it worth it?

The problem with Afghanistan is figuring out what we're buying. Are we buying security for the Afghan people? They'll say no, since they're just as likely to get robbed by police as they are by criminals.

Stability in the region? We've definitely taken away al Qaeda's ability to strike the United States from Afghanistan. But we accomplished that nearly eight years ago.

Democracy? Kind of. President Hamid Karzai was indeed elected, but his administration is awash with corruption, and Afghans are losing faith. That means we'll have to shell out more to make them happy.

"So why are we in Afghanistan?" I asked a young specialist from Nebraska.

She pursed her lips and squinted, as if looking off behind me.

"Umm... Osama bin Laden?" she said hesitantly, more questioning herself than answering me.

It was something I asked many soldiers, and the answer still eluded me. Maj. Sieber cited infrastructure projects, security, democracy. The rank and file echoed these sentiments; that was the mission as explained to them.

When we first invaded Afghanistan, the goals seemed clear: Topple the Taliban, destroy al Qaeda, and kill Osama bin Laden.

The Taliban ceded power almost overnight. Al Qaeda loyalists still mount attacks on U.S. supply lines and troops, but their training camps are gone. As for bin Laden, he could be anywhere. Meanwhile, security has deteriorated, and the people of Afghanistan don't seem thrilled to have us around.

So what are we still doing there?

I finally got an answer on Thanksgiving Day in the chow hall at Salerno. I was with Sgt. Jason Lyke, an Army intelligence analyst. We had stuffed ourselves with turkey, roast beef, and trimmings served up by officers, an Army tradition during holidays.

We talked about football, his boys back in Tennessee, and the complexities of running an office in a war zone. I asked him why we were having this conversation in Afghanistan instead of back home.

The sergeant looked down at his plate in silence. "That's a political question, sir. I can't get into that."

"No," I pressed, "it's a strategic question. Why are we here?"

He kept looking at his food. Then, using the irrefutable logic of a soldier, he raised his head and said: "I'm here because I was told to be here."

P.J. Tobia is a former New Times writing fellow and has returned to Afghanistan to work as a freelance writer for the New York Times.

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