AHMADAY, Afghanistan — The men sat on the ground inside a mud-brick barn listening to Capt. Philip Schneider, the air imbued with the scent of manure and a sense of fatalism.
There were about 60 of them, some from Ahmaday, others from nearby farming towns in the Gelan district of southern Ghazni province. They belonged to a group of more than 100 men detained for questioning after a small band of militants attacked U.S. and Afghan soldiers in the village that morning.
"I'll just say this once: There is no future with the Taliban," said Schneider, who commands Company D of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He stood as he spoke, his tone that of a frustrated parent.
"The Taliban are not bringing anything good to Afghanistan. They're just trying to help Pakistan. We need you to get behind your Afghan brothers in the army and police."
A man rose to his feet. Bearded and slightly bowed, he looked to be in his 50s, with callused, dirt-blackened hands that revealed a life devoted to working the land.
"We want our soldiers to get rid of the insurgents, but the soldiers are not always here," he said, voice steady as he faced Schneider.
"We don't know how much they will come in the future. You are leaving; the Taliban are staying. We can't give you any names (of militants) — we can't take this risk."
The exchange exposed a barbed truth that applies in Ghazni and across Afghanistan as American troops withdraw from the country over the next two years. More than a decade into the longest war in U.S. history, Afghans remain less convinced of their military's intentions than the Taliban's.
Summer has deepened their anxiety, delivering a surge of violence in this pocket of the country's southeast as U.S. forces wage what could be their final offensive against the Taliban-led insurgency in the region.
The 1-504th inherited command of southern Ghazni from the Polish military after deploying in March for a six-month tour. The area serves as a transit hub for militants traveling between Pakistan and Highway 1, the main artery linking Kabul and Kandahar, Afghanistan's largest cities.
The battalion arrived with a dual mission to batter the Taliban and prod Afghan forces — who seldom strayed beyond the highway's blacktop — to expand the province's "security bubble" into outlying villages.
Under the Polish army, which had worked with Afghan forces in the region since 2008, the bubble more resembled a baguette, a narrow oval restricted to the highway. By shepherding Afghan soldiers and police outward from Highway 1 to patrol villages where they had been unknown, the 1-504th appears to have reduced insurgent traffic through the province.
Yet with the battalion departing later this month, and the U.S. military ceding the lead security role in Ghazni to Afghan forces this winter, many villagers expect the tenuous stability to fade along with summer's heat.
"The American and Afghan soldiers have fought the Taliban very hard here," Dad Mohammad said. The 58-year-old farmer lives in Mastan Kala, a village that Schneider's platoon visited on the same July morning as the attack in Ahmaday.
"But when the Americans go," he said, "we are worried the Afghan army will, too."
Soldiers with Company D share a similar perspective after working with Afghan forces for nearly six months.
"I'm skeptical of how well they'll do after we're gone," said Sgt. T.K. Martindill, 27, of Van Alstyne, Texas. "I'm afraid they're going to say, ‘Forget getting shot at every day. Let's not go out.'"
Fighting the Taliban's ‘A-team'
Schneider, 31, of Falmouth, Mass., refers to Company D's base as "little Alamo." His soldiers established the so-called joint security station in May in the village of Hasan, occupying an abandoned compound of mud-walled buildings crowned with loosely thatched roofs made of tree branches.
The first artillery rounds landed within 24 hours. "That was the Taliban's way of saying hello," 1st Sgt. Trey Corrales said.
He sat on a short wall of sandbags outside the grotto-like command center. It is the outpost's lone structure with electricity, supplied through an extension cord hooked up to the battery of an armored truck parked a few feet away. To his left, an American flag twitched in the breeze atop a pole sunk into the powdery, ankle-deep dirt common to this region of the country.
"We call it moon dust," said Corrales, 39, of San Antonio. "It's not a lot of fun to walk in, but it's good for absorbing mortars."
Hasan lies about eight miles southeast of Highway 1 and less than a mile west of the Tarnak River in the district of Gelan. Until Company D moved into the village, the Taliban controlled the land east of the river, repelling U.S. and Afghan special forces on at least four occasions in recent years when they attempted to thrust across the water.
U.S. and Afghan platoons began conducting daily foot patrols in villages on the Tarnak's east side in mid-May. Insurgents launched more than 50 attacks against them over the next six weeks while peppering the base almost daily with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Most of the ambushes involved multiple cells of fighters hidden in tree lines or in the deep furrows of grape fields. A common ploy consisted of one or two small groups opening fire on soldiers in an effort to bait them toward a larger group. The militants sometimes rode motorcycles, seeking to outflank troops when they counterattacked.
The complex tactics, frequency of attacks and disinclination to flee match the battlefield profile of insurgents trained in Pakistan. The sophisticated equipment found on one slain combatant — a GPS device, night-vision binoculars, a handheld radio — suggests materiel aid from Afghanistan's neighbor.
"Usually you see the Taliban run; they don't have good equipment, they don't know how to shoot," Schneider said. "Not here. This is their ‘A' team."
His unit has suffered one fatality. Staff Sgt. Nicholas Fredsti, 31, of San Diego, died from a gunshot wound to the chest during a firefight June 15.
The casualty count runs far higher among insurgents. U.S. and Afghan troops killed an estimated 20 fighters in Gelan in May and June, and by early July, enemy attacks were down to one or two a week. U.S. and Afghan special forces inflicted further losses, killing at least a dozen militants in July.
The diminished strength of the insurgency galvanized villagers to reopen a school and health clinic that the Taliban had closed. Meanwhile, the local Taliban leader, Mohammad Farooq, has reportedly taken temporary refuge in Pakistan.
The Company D soldiers credit their counterparts with the Afghan National Army for showing little fear of combat.
At the same time, even after years of U.S. hand-holding, the Afghans remain largely dependent on American forces to plan missions and provide food, water and ammunition. Their willingness to search homes, gather intelligence and patrol on their own approaches indifference.
"There are two main problems with the ANA," Martindill said. "The Afghan government doesn't give them enough logistical support and there's an inherent laziness. They're never on time for missions and they don't like staying out for more than a few hours. You have to make them do it."
Stories abound of Afghan soldiers refusing to join operations, threatening to quit during multi-day missions and smoking hash on patrol. "It's hard to help them when they won't help themselves," said Spc. Jace McEwen, 25, of Las Vegas.
The 1-504th will redeploy within three weeks and turn over Forward Operating Base Warrior, its battalion headquarters in Gelan, to the 503rd Infantry Regiment.
The number of troops the 503rd will station at Warrior has yet to be disclosed. But the ongoing withdrawal of American forces could cut U.S. military manpower in Ghazni by more than half by mid-winter, and it is unclear whether coalition soliders will man the joint security station in Hasan.
Company D soldiers anticipate problems as the security burden in Gelan shifts to Afghan forces.
"I think we've bitten off more than they can chew," said Sgt. Derek Dumas, 24, of South Glen Falls, N.Y. "If we were doing a year here, they would have a chance. But with us being here only six months, they're not going to be able to maintain the gains we've made. Which sucks."
Lt. Kadir Ahmad, 24, a platoon leader with the ANA unit in Hasan, expects the Taliban to unleash an offensive against Afghan forces. He wants to believe the army will prevail.
"We have to stand up for ourselves," Ahmad said. "The U.S. has done enough. We should make our own country safe."
He paused a few moments before continuing. "But we are worried, too. Pakistan is trying to destroy Afghanistan, and they are making the Taliban strong. Our weapons are not very good, we don't have air (support). It will be very hard."
Speculation that Afghan forces will relinquish ground in Ghazni reflects wider concerns over the Taliban reclaiming the country after U.S. forces halt combat operations in 2014. The uncertainty can leave American soldiers questioning whether the war's cause justifies their collective risk.
"Sometimes it feels like we're making a difference here," Dumas said. "Other days you think, ‘What's the point?' That's when it feels like the worst place on Earth."
The tapering of combat has given Company D more time to promote the creation of an Afghan Local Police unit in Gelan. Public support for the idea, however, has proven as elusive as Farooq, the Taliban commander.
Propped up by U.S. funding and trained by American Special Forces, ALP units are, in effect, hometown militias, comprised of men who live in the area they patrol.
On paper, at least, the ALP enables the Afghan military to extend its reach into less populated districts, where the army and national police lack a regular presence.
In practice, the program, with 13,000 members nationwide, has struggled to gain credibility, with some units engaging in extortion, drug-trafficking and other criminal activity.
U.S. special forces in Ghazni have set a Sept. 1 deadline to decide if villagers in Gelan will back a local police unit. Lt. Col. James Salome, the 1-504th commander, contends the ALP abets the country's military and political evolution.
"Getting people to believe in the perception of security is crucial," said Salome, 40, of Clarksburg, N.J. "They're still learning what the government is and who the security forces are. If they feel like they can believe in the military and the ALP, they'll choose the government over the Taliban."
During a recent three-day sweep for militants and caches of weapons across Gelan, Company D sought to persuade villagers to embrace the local police concept.
In the town of Mastan Kala, as sunrise cast a dull purple light, Schneider's platoon entered Dad Mohammad's dirt courtyard. A 20-minute search of his home yielded nothing suspicious.
Schneider sat down outside with Mohammad, who poured sweet chai tea into glass mugs and offered warm naan, fresh out of an earthen oven and made with wheat from his fields.
"We need you and the rest of the villagers to get behind the ALP," Schneider said. "They're the ones who can protect you and your families and keep the Taliban out."
Mohammad's two grandsons, ages 11 and 6, stared at the strangers clad in green camouflage. He explained that the boys' father, his son-in-law, worked as a government official in neighboring Zabul province until his murder in 2009.
"The Taliban killed him because of his job," said Mohammad, a brown blanket draped over his narrow shoulders. "They don't allow the people to have peace."
He talked of a campaign of coercion that persists despite the efforts of U.S. and Afghan troops.
Militants break into homes, demanding food and a place to sleep and stashing weapons, ammunition and materials for making bombs. They enforce a nighttime curfew — threatening to shoot anyone seen outside after 9 p.m. — and impose a "tax" that forces farmers to surrender 10 percent of their harvest of wheat, beans and other crops.
Mohammad predicted that years will pass before trust in Afghan security forces eclipses fear of the Islamist militia.
"People here don't support the ALP because they are scared of the Taliban," he said. "They know the Taliban. They don't know the Afghan army so much, so it is hard for them to believe in something like the local police."
Schneider heard variations on that refrain from other villagers as the day wore on.
Stopping to talk to two dozen men and boys gathered outside a home, he told them how, weeks earlier, villagers in northern Ghazni chased off insurgents in their district. He urged his audience to defy the Taliban.
"We are afraid of them," Sarwar Khan replied. The 48-year-old farmer frowned beneath a white turban. "If we don't give them what they want, they cut our heads off."
"Why are you scared?" Schneider asked. "We've killed a bunch of their guys. They're scared right now."
Khan spread his hands in front of him, palms turned to the sky as if weighing the air.
"We don't support you, we don't support the Taliban," he said. "We are just neutral."