As the American military winds down its efforts in Afghanistan, grand plans for nation building are giving way to limited, practical steps: building up the Afghan forces and denying the Taliban key terrain, especially the approaches to Kabul.
About an hour south of the capital Kabul, one Green Beret team returned to a village where American forces had pulled out.
Lt. Col. Brad Moses, who was in the Sayed Abad district four years ago, wandered around the government center and expressed disappointment at the scene.
Glass is shattered at some buildings. The roof of one has caved in. Across the yard are stacks of scorched and twisted cars. All this damage is the work of a truck bomb in 2011 that killed five Afghans and injured nearly 80 U.S. soldiers. After that, the American forces pulled out.
"This was the agriculture building over here, and the women's affairs and all the line ministers that were working out of here," Moses says. "It was nice ... the glass fronts, that was all civil affairs projects put in there, the flag pole, demonstrating their resolve."
The small team of Americans here now is riding around in all-terrain vehicles and large armored trucks, wearing body armor and carrying weapons. One of the Afghan government workers greets them.
"I'll pray for you guys to be successful," the Afghan official says.
Col. Moses thanks them and walks away. He's lean and intense, a New Jersey native who has served multiple tours in Afghanistan.
"It's a little disheartening to see a lot of time and effort and a lot of teams ... have been through here and this is where we're at," he says.
He points to a small green trailer tucked near one of the ruined buildings. That's now the local governor's office.
"I'll give him credit. He's still trying to be the district governor," Moses says. "I don't know how many people would do that."
Time Is Running Short
The Americans returned to this district in Wardak province just a week ago and they don't have much time. The team is scheduled to pull out this fall as part of the U.S. troop drawdown.
One of the main goals this summer in eastern Afghanistan is to work with the Afghan forces to secure two key provinces: Wardak and Logar. Both provinces curl under Kabul like cupped hands and serve as a staging area for Taliban attacks on the capital.
The surge of American troops several years back never made it to eastern Afghanistan in large numbers. So units like this Green Beret team have been shifted here to help hold back the Taliban forces that rise from the local villages or drift in like a fog from nearby Pakistan.
Moses commands all the Green Beret teams in eastern Afghanistan. He's hopeful his soldiers will improve things in this district, which straddles Highway 1, the crucial artery that connects Kabul to Kandahar, the country's two largest cities.
At midday, the highway is clogged with cargo trucks, fuel tankers and small pickups. It's too dangerous to drive at night because of bandits and Taliban roadblocks.
"I think the time is right to get the team to help empower the local population to stand up and defend themselves," Moses says.
That Green Beret team is building its base within yards of a previous team's base, now occupied by Afghan National Police. As the colonel and his staff tour the area, it's clear the new team has its work cut out for it.
An Ineffective Afghan Force
The Afghan Army battalion nearby is being replaced because of a poor track record and suspected ties to the Taliban. And the armed neighborhood watch here — called the Afghan Local Police or just ALP — is short on officers.
The Americans drive up a hill to the police checkpoint, which is little more than a shipping container stacked with sandbags. It overlooks the shattered district center and the surrounding valley. A tattered flag flies above.
This outpost is headed by Capt. Daoud, a small man in a drab military coat topped with a white and black checkered scarf. His curly black hair is streaked with red henna. Daoud says before the Americans returned last week, his forces were under constant Taliban threat.
"We were getting attacked every day [by] mortars," Daoud says, "but now with [the Green Beret] team we don't get any attacks."
This raises the question of whether the Afghan National Army could help. Daoud says his police are willing to work with the Afghan military. But, he adds, "the enemy is scared [of the Americans] — the ANA can't do what the Americans can do."
The Taliban just aren't afraid of the Afghan army, Daoud says. Senior American officers in Washington and Kabul routinely tick off statistics about the growing number of Afghan forces, about how they are in the lead. But that's not true here.
Later this fall, the American forces across Afghanistan will drop by as many as 15,000 troops, about a quarter of the current force. The roughly 20 Green Beret teams in eastern Afghanistan will be cut by half.
Lt. Col. Moses says that in Sayed Abad, the previous American withdrawal allowed the Taliban to slip back in.
From the hilltop police post, Moses points to a village a half-mile away. It sits on a slope, a collection of walled compounds. Next to the village is a three-story building, constructed by an international aid group.
Back in 2009, there were almost no Taliban there. But now the compound built by the aid group is controlled by the Taliban, according to intelligence reports.
Moses thinks the Green Berets will be able to team with Afghan forces to retake that village.
But in the short time he has left, he has serious doubts about the more ambitious goal of pushing into the surrounding valleys and rooting out the Taliban in their hiding places.