"This is one of the most complex nuts to crack in terms of the overall campaign," says French, whose men are being replaced by the second brigade of the 101st Airborne. "It would be a massive psychological blow to the Taliban if … follow-on forces come in here and establish persistent security. I don't think there's any greater effect we could have on the Taliban's ability to pursue the war."
The commanders of the second brigade, 101st Airborne have been told their most aggressive operations will have to wait until September because the Afghan soldiers who were supposed to have arrived last month simply haven't materialized yet.
"We could clear Zhari in seven days with our own guys and no Afghans. But what would be the point?" asks a senior U.S. commander in southern Afghanistan. "We have to wait and do it with the Afghans, even though it will be slower and more difficult."
But the Americans say attacks against the newly arrived forces have already increased. Lt. Col. Johnny Davis, who is based just a few miles down the road from Lak-o-Khel, will soon have six times the number of American and Afghan forces in Zhari as were there in May.
"The enemy knows," he says from Forward Operating Base Wilson, referring to the newly arrived troops. "They are testing us."
"Our main purpose is to find the Taliban and kill them"
The shortage of forces meant Alpha Company was only partially following the counterinsurgency guidance created by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the leader of all coalition forces here until President Obama accepted his resignation. Alpha Company knew so little about this place when it arrived, many of their missions were "movement to contact" -- basically, patrolling until they were shot at.
The point was to see where insurgents were based and how they responded during a fight. Dealing with the population was, at least at the small Lak-o-Khel base, secondary. Lt. Chris Murray, McComie's platoon leader, got so used to being fired at, he expressed frustration during a recent lull in the fighting.
Speaking to a group of young men in the village closest to the base, he turned to his translator and said, "Tell them our main purpose is to find the Taliban and kill them. But when they're not around, we ask people questions to figure out what they want."
What they want is nothing less than a sea change in their lives. Anybody who can afford to has left this area and moved a few miles to the north, on the other side of Highway 1, closer to Alpha Company's headquarters and where insurgents have fewer places to hide.
Those who haven't moved have to face not only Taliban intimidation but also the destruction that insurgents have wrought. There might be a dozen mosques in the immediate area but the only school in is abandoned and filled with IEDs. The Americans don't even bother going anywhere near the single building; they know if they cleared it out -- an extremely dangerous proposition -- there would be little stopping insurgents from rigging it again, and there would certainly be nobody volunteering to teach at the school because of Taliban threats.