There's just a sliver of light in the eastern sky as the patrol leaves the American compound through a thick metal door.
They scamper across Highway 2, a narrow asphalt road that leads to Kabul, just an hour's drive away — if not for the war. They cross an old graveyard and head toward the silhouette of a tree line, all seen through the eerie green glow of night-vision goggles.
They are heading to the village of Kasan, less than a mile away in the darkness. Taliban fighters cross the nearby mountain passes at night, slip into the villages and plan attacks that target Kabul. So today's mission is to shore up the defenses — working with the Afghan local police, sort of an armed neighborhood watch.
It's the Afghan special forces, Capt. Nasir and Sgt. Hadi and their team, who are taking the lead today.
Hadi is skinny with a scruffy beard and a wad of tobacco wedged in his lower lip. Two months ago, his quick action helped save the lives of Americans and Afghans. An Afghan national policeman had opened fire, killing two American Green Berets and two Afghans. Hadi ran to a nearby truck, grabbed a machine gun and shot him dead.
Hadi stops next to a river, just before the patrol crosses into the village.
He seems undisturbed about the U.S. leaving, noting that his men have the same weapons as the Americans.
"We are good in here," he says.
Hadi is among the most highly skilled Afghan soldiers. He serves on one of two-dozen Afghan special forces teams in eastern Afghanistan. The Americans want to train six more teams.
"I'm lucky because the guys I work with are doing the right thing, but there may be other areas that aren't as lucky as me, for sure," says the American Green Beret captain whose job it is to advise the Afghan forces.
For security reasons, we can't use his name.
Still, they are a small fraction of an Afghan Army that is still spotty in its performance. Some Afghan Army units are aggressive; others just hunker down, or worse — make truces with the Taliban to avoid fighting.
The patrol crosses the river — over a concrete bridge and up a flooded dirt road — into the village of Kasan. The sun is just coming up. The soldiers find themselves in the middle of a flock of sheep.
"They have everything under control. Everything's going smoothly in there, so we're just going to push forward a little bit and see what's going on just so we know what's actually happening," the U.S. captain says.
They walk past mud-walled homes and enter a small square lined with trees. Village elders are preparing for a meeting. Bright-red carpets are spread over the earth. The elders — all with turbaned heads, and most with white and peppered beards — begin to take a seat on the rugs.
The Afghan special forces — Capt. Nasir and Sgt. Hadi — join the meeting and sit cross-legged among the circle of elders. The meeting is about security. Right now, a half-dozen men from this village serve in the Afghan local police. They man checkpoints along Highway 2. They screen for insurgents who might be traveling along the main road. The problem: The Taliban know enough to avoid the checkpoints. So the Afghan special forces tell the elders to move a security post inside the village. That would prevent the Taliban from using Kasan as a safe haven.
The elders listen without expression. Suddenly, a middle-aged man stands up. He becomes more and more agitated, shouting at the elders, waving his arms.
He says the Taliban come here, but no one reports them to the security forces.
"At the mosque, they are giving them chai and food," he says. "They are playing both sides."
This is a central problem. The elders may be providing local men to serve with the police, but they are also working with the Taliban.
Nasir, the Afghan commander, tries to reason with the elders, tries to get them to help him. He tells them that if they provide the security forces with information, they will guard the village.
That's the bargain: The government can provide security and protect the village. In exchange, it needs information about what the Taliban are up to. But they're not getting that information.
The deputy chief of police, Lt. Col. Allahuddin, says villagers either support the Taliban or are afraid of them. He says the Taliban come to the village every night, and residents are helping them.
"If I will call you guys ... the Taliban will kill me," he says through a translator.
The American captain packs up his radio, and the Afghan and American soldiers head back down the flooded road and once again over the bridge.
They walk back to base together. Come the fall, the American team will leave and won't be replaced. By November, Capt. Nasir and his Afghan soldiers will walk this trail alone.
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