JAGHATU, Afghanistan – The platoon sergeant poses a simple question to the men of 3rd Platoon: What do you consider success on a mission?
There is an uneasy silence in the dark chow tent. In a few months, the U.S. Army will bulldoze its portion of the base, part of Americas slow withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan.
All that will remain here in this isolated place is a small Afghan army camp and a mostly empty government building with a mortar hole in its roof, the sum total of 11 years of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in this district south of Kabul.
Sgt. Gary Waugh, a soldier on his second Afghan tour, takes a stab at answering the question.
Us not doing a thing, he says. Not firing our weapon.
A few of the soldiers rest their chins on the butts of their rifles. A diesel generator drones in the background as the platoon sergeant surveys his men.
Right answer, he replies.
Americas war in Afghanistan has consumed close to $500 billion and cost more than 2,000 American lives. By December 2014, the last American combat troops are scheduled to leave the country. American-led combat operations are expected to finish by the middle of next year.
But the war is already ending at little outposts throughout Afghanistan as the U.S. military thins its ranks and tears down bases.
How does a war end? In Jaghatu, these soldiers are learning one way. It ends with resignation, isolation and boredom.
The U.S. troops at Jaghatu are about as isolated as soldiers can be in Afghanistan. Surrounded by mountains and enemy-controlled terrain, the Americans receive almost all of their supplies by helicopter and weekly parachute drops.
Six months ago, before the current soldiers came, the troops mission was clearer: to rout the Taliban from the area. In May, a platoon of Americans in Jaghatu fought a four-hour battle with the Taliban for Antennae Hill, a large outcropping of rock, scrub and dirt with a view of the valley south of the outpost.
When 3rd Platoon, part of 2nd Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, arrived this summer, its members watched the shaky, helmet-cam footage that their predecessors had taken as they cursed, sprinted and fought their way to the top of the hill without serious casualties.
Pfc. Dillon Guillory, 24, played and replayed the video on his laptop, anxiously waiting for his moment. But except for occasional patrols, Guillory has spent most of his deployment manning a guard post that overlooks a tattered Afghan flag and the crumbling government building.
In Jaghatu, U.S. troops dont charge up hills after the enemy anymore. They dont search houses, and they rarely meet with Afghan village elders. Those jobs are supposed to be done by the Afghans.
The Americans main mission is supposed to be training the Afghan Army soldiers with whom they share the base, but Guillory is one of only a handful of 3rd Platoon soldiers who interact with Afghans.
How are you doing? Guillory asks as he checks the badge of an Afghan worker who speaks no English. Done with work already?
‘You feel useless’
The Jaghatu outpost was built in 2010 to interdict Taliban fighters who were believed to be moving weapons through the area and into Kabul. But there were never enough U.S. or Afghan troops to pacify the district or find the enemy weapons caches.
Today, U.S. troop levels are falling, and American commanders are realizing that there are limits to what they can accomplish.
Second Lt. Andrew Beck, the leader of 3rd Platoon, feels those constraints most acutely when he passes through the Jaghatu bazaar and stares through bulletproof glass at the rickety stalls and bearded shopkeepers.
The Americans pull some intelligence from the district police chief, but never enough. You feel useless, Beck says.
At last, a mission
Finally, after weeks of waiting, Becks soldiers get word that at last there is going to be a mission. It will be their biggest since arriving in Afghanistan. More than 100 Afghan soldiers, 15 Afghan police and about 40 Americans will return to the area where a U.S. soldier was killed in July. Everyone is expecting a firefight.
By 3 a.m., the tent is bustling. Boots thump on the plywood floor, and soldiers stuff water bottles and prepackaged meals into their assault packs.
Beck speaks last, and this time he does not preach caution.
It is going to be a good day, he says. The enemy has never seen this much Afghan Army or coalition forces coming at them. We are going to knock them on their a–.
The armored trucks lumber down the deeply rutted dirt road past a handful of wary-looking Afghan families. At first the soldiers joke with one another to stay loose, but as the truck edges closer to the insurgent-controlled villages the chatter ebbs.
Over the radio, there is an order to halt the convoy. The armored vehicles edge to the side of the road and wait for more instructions. A few minutes later, they receive a second order: Return to base.
Hundreds of miles away in Helmand province, Taliban fighters dressed in Army uniforms have penetrated the heavily defended Camp Bastion, where they killed two Marines and incinerated six U.S. fighter jets, each worth about $25 million. Senior military officials in Kabul advise field commanders to scale back missions with Afghan forces for a few days.
The platoon sergeant and Guillory climb down from their armored vehicles and walk back to the outpost. The soldiers who had steeled themselves to fight once again prepare to sit.
I am sure there are people that have a bigger understanding of the war than us little guys, Guillory says. But at my level it seems so stupid.
On the other hand, they didnt fire their guns at the enemy. They didnt do a thing. The mission was a success.