BULA MUGHAB, Afghanistan March 26, 2010— -- "I'm an old guy, but I'll try not to get in the way," said the soldier, addressing a group of Afghan, American and Italian troops in this small, green district near Afghanistan's western border. Some of them chuckled.
"You're in charge. I'm the junior guy here," he added, to a few more chuckles, but mostly blank stares.
"OK? Let's go."
And so started a common foot patrol with a very uncommon guest: Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the four star commander of all American and international troops in Afghanistan and one of the army's most decorated soldiers.
He had come here, an area that is partially controlled by the Taliban, to do what the 125,000 foreign troops currently in Afghanistan do so often every few hours, every day: take a walk through a population center to show that their presence is constant, hopefully keeping the militants and criminals who used to run this place away from the local population.
ABC News was invited to accompany McChrystal on his walking patrol, a rare but not uncommon event. He recently patrolled west of Kandahar City, but had never before invited media with him.
"There's always a frustration that you can't do it as often as you want," McChrystal said about the chance to get onto the front lines, which in this case were chalky, thin alleyways of dust surrounded by high mud walls.
"If you don't go do it, you do risk forgetting exactly what [the troops] are doing. And it's important for me to look them in the eye and understand, as best you can, what they're thinking," he said. "It's also important for them to have me do it. I realize this probably isn't the most dangerous foot patrol going on today, but the willingness to come out is important, I believe."
McChrystal has been here twice before, but Bula Murghab has not been a priority for him or United States troops. Western Afghanistan is led by the Italians and is still, as McChrystal himself admitted, an "economy of force operation."
In this district center that translates to just a few hundred American, Italian, and Afghan troops trying to clear and hold what some troops recently joked to a visiting reporter was a "Taliban vacation spot." There are not enough foreign troops here to secure the entire area, nor will they be many more coming anytime soon.
Gen. McChrystal Goes on Patrol
And so Noor Jan, a man in his 30s who McChrystal passed during the patrol, complains that his life is not what he wants it to be.
"What security? There's no security," he said to ABC News, his 5-year-old son holding his hand. "U.S. troops go one way, the Taliban comes in from the other way. What security are you talking about? I'm scared of both you and the Taliban."
Jan's sentiment has been a common one in Afghanistan over the last few years. But American troops have made headway into vast stretches of the volatile south, and many areas where residents used to find themselves caught in the middle of a small contingent of western troops and Taliban fighters have now improved.
Bula Murghab, however, is still not cleared of the Taliban, and an Italian soldier warned McChrystal during the patrol that, "We need more troops. Otherwise it's not possible also to hold."
"I don't think that the insurgency appears hugely strong" in the area, said McChrystal, who carried a handgun strapped to his chest and received extra air cover for his visit.
"But because we've operated as an economy of force here, it's relative strength. So it's going to take us some time to continue to build up capacity and move forward… We could absolutely use more force here: [Afghan Army], [Afghan police], all coalition types. We just don't have enough right now. So what we're doing is as we build force [across the country], we'll increase it [here]. And as we reprioritize from other areas. But we have other priorities right now. And you have to follow your priorities, or you're not strong anywhere."
During the patrol, the distinct sound of AK-47s could be heard from less than a mile away. Insurgents were apparently targeting McChrystal's helicopters, which flew over the entire patrol. He was nonplussed. He shrugged his shoulders and joked, "Someone's shooting at someone!"
Around the same time, an unmanned predator drone circled above and spotted what were believed to be eight insurgents in a nearby building, though their identities were never confirmed.
U.S. Troops Occupy Old Russian Fighting Position on Afghan Hill
Things in Bula Murghab are better than they were just a few months ago, thanks to Marine special forces and the men of the 82nd Airborne's 1st battalion who captured a key objective over New Year's: the high ground that overlooks the Bula Murghab valley.
"Six months ago this was an old Russian fighting position. Nothing but a hilltop and sand and grass," says Staff Sgt. Jason Holland, who now lives on the hilltop in what is likely one of the most spartan American bases in Afghanistan.
Twelve Americans, nine Italians, and 10 Afghans share a couple of wooden rooms surrounded by cement barriers. They have a beautiful view, but not many amenities. Half sleep on mattresses on the floor just inches from each other, and there is no running water. Thanks to the Italians, a generator supplies power about 10 hours a day.
The nearly weeklong fight for the hilltop was well worth it, McChrystal told the men. Before seizing what the troops call Pathfinder, the U.S. soldiers were regularly getting shot at just a few hundred feet from their nearby base. Now, the local bazaar is beginning to fill with shop owners, at least during the day.
"We virtually just cut the Taliban supply lines right down the center of the valley, pretty much restricting their movement," Holland said, overlooking a massive valley while sitting on a sandbag not far from the front door to the room the Americans and Italians share. "Any drug trade or weapons trafficking, they can't do anymore."
The operation to seize the hilltop grew, in part, out of death. In November, two 1st battalion soldiers drowned in the river that bisects the valley. The U.S. launched massive operations to recover their bodies, and that allowed them to interact with local residents who they hadn't spoken with in the past.
That "created a crack in what had been sort of solid wall of resistance between the two sides," McChrystal said.
"Once you get dialogue and interaction going -- and people are flexible -- then suddenly, a lot can happen," he said, walking next to the river in which the two men died. "Because half of this is misperception. If [local residents] have never dealt with coalition forces, we look like we're from Mars. And yet just the ability to break down some of that and interact as a human -- some words in Dari or Pashto -- just makes a huge difference. And then you find out what they want. They find out what we want: we don't want to conquer Afghanistan. We want them to own Afghanistan."
Gen. McChrystal Says Winning Confidence of Afghans Can Take Years
Local residents do not yet own this part of Afghanistan. McChrystal says they -- and his troops -- have to be patient, and have to work together in order to bring stability in an area long ignored by the United States.
"It can take months," he said. "It can take years."