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TATAR, Afghanistan — Lt. Eric Schwirian speaks softly, smiles a lot and shakes many wary hands during his platoon's three-day trek deep into an Afghan valley, looking for a fight with the Taliban.
But while thousands of extra troops have poured into Afghanistan this year in an escalating conflict, this unit in the central Afghan province of Wardak has barely had a sighting of its quarry.
It's frustrating for these infantrymen to feel as though they're chasing ghosts among the villages and terraced fields, but their daily routine — patience, presence, tea-drinking and handshakes — is central to America's counterinsurgency strategy.
The platoon is part of a 3,000-strong brigade from the New York-based 10th Mountain Division that deployed in the provinces of Logar and Wardak, at the gates of Kabul. The brigade came in after the Taliban started wreaking havoc on the roads, ambushing convoys, killing government officials and feeding a perception that the capital was under siege.
The fight in Wardak province now involves more roadside bombs and less direct confrontation than what other troops are facing in the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan and the south. That's where the insurgency is the strongest and where most of the 21,000 extra troops sent by U.S. President Barack Obama will deploy.
The U.S. military expects roadside and suicide bombings to spike by 50 percent this year. Taliban bombings killed 172 U.S. and other soldiers last year, according to military figures, and far more Afghan civilians.
"It is more like playing ‘dodge the bomb,"' says Capt. James McCuney, the 40-year-old Pittsburgh man supervising the platoons that patrol the valley. Almost all attacks on his men have been roadside bomb blasts, but no one has died, McCuney says.
The Taliban have learned that firefights with better trained and armed U.S. troops get them killed. So American units have to go hunting for them, even make sitting ducks of themselves to lure the Taliban out in the open. "It's incredible what one has to do to get into a scrap," McCuney says.
As Schwirian's platoon readies for a night patrol under a rising moon, last orders are given. A few men smoke cigars. Barely in their 20s, the soldiers are already veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Hallelujah, lock and load," is stenciled on the windshield of a heavily armored truck, alongside "Never going home."
The men drive off slowly for several miles along bumpy dirt roads, lights dimmed, night-vision goggles on. Midway, Schwirian stops the convoy. He leads a squad on foot, looking for weapons caches near a village graveyard. Nothing is found.
They're near the spot where weeks earlier a roadside bomb blew up a vehicle of Afghan guards, killing three of them. The twisted and blackened wreck still lies by the road.
At the edge of the bazaar of the village of Omar Kheil, the patrol fords a river and beds down, some sleeping under the trucks, others inside them, curled in fetal position. It's uncomfortable.
Next morning the platoon moves through the Nerkh Valley, stopping to chat with villagers. The squads walk for hours through creek beds and over a punishing terrain of boulders washed down from the high mountains. The heavy guns mounted on their vehicle shadow them all the way.
Each time they reach a village, the routine is the same: First to approach them are children, sent by the grown-ups to check out the strangers. Then the fathers follow, and conversation begins.
Schwirian's gut tells him the Taliban are around. "I can sense they have influence here," says the 24-year-old from Collegeville, Pa.
Few of the villagers hide the fact that insurgents are around. At the mosque in Tatar, a village of mud and stone houses, terraced wheat fields and apple orchards, Schwirian asks Gul Wali Tatar, a 35-year-old father of six, whether the Taliban harasses his people.
"No," Tatar says. "They just come on patrol, day and night, and they do not harass people. They just walk through the fields."
They do more or less what you are doing, he tells the young lieutenant.
"Make sure he understands that we are here to help them, and the Taliban are here only to hurt them," Schwirian tells his translator, an Afghan teen known to all as Rocky. "The security of the village is my priority."
Almost everywhere they go, the Americans are told the women and children are afraid of them. Yet in hamlet after hamlet, children swarm around the troops, asking for pens and candy. A hunchbacked kid in a New York Yankees cap shakes soldiers' hands and smiles. Another offers them a picture of scantily clad Indian movie star, then tries to sell the soldiers hashish, only to be chased away by Sgt. 1st Class Jason Sabatke.
Weeks before the patrol arrived, the Taliban attacked a U.S. special forces team in this valley with machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The villagers say they cannot remember when government officials last visited them. Many of the schoolchildren go to class carrying just one book, the Quran, wrapped in a colorful shawl.
At another village, Haji Mohammad Anwar waves to the soldiers and invites them for tea and freshly baked flat bread. They sit in his large mud-brick compound, the women staring at them through windows.
"The people living in this village have no links to the Taliban," Anwar says. "They are poor farmers. At night we do not go out of our houses."
Anwar is the village malik, or leader. In a roundabout way, when no other villagers are listening, he chides the Americans for coming unannounced and in force.
"It is good to talk to each other," Anwar says. "But it is not good to come on patrol like this, and put the vehicles on top of the hills," he says, motioning to the truck strategically parked above the compound.
A mile or so deeper into the valley, in the village of Sultan Kheil, a half-dozen youngsters in white tunics and brand-new running shoes stand out among a group of grimy old farmers. The older men, some barefoot, seem to defer to them. This is unusual — it's the elders who are venerated and the young who show them obeisance.
Are these young men with the Taliban? There's no way of knowing for sure, but the troops are suspicious.
"They do not like us here," says Sgt. Michael Waxler, a 26-year-old Californian.
The tense moment passes, and then orders arrive to return to base. Awaiting them are showers, hot meals and bunk beds. Soon they'll be back on patrol.