Reporter's Notebook: Endless Supply of Insurgents in Afghanistan

PHOTO Lieutenant Dave Womack, commander, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, talks to men in the rural Paktika Province in southeastern AfghanistanPlayAaron Katersky/ABC News
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At 3 a.m., when a frigid wind blew through a moonlit sky, several dozen bundled up soldiers stood shivering on the flight line.

"Sergeant Roberts," barked Sergeant First Class Jamal Jenkins, a platoon leader taking roll call. "Here Sergeant!" came the reply.

Members of 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment jostled for position in the airlift line hoping to avoid the front of the Chinook near the open window where the gunner sits.

It's the coldest place in the helicopter.

Eventually the twin-rotor choppers came roaring in, kicking up a hurricane of gravel and dust. The troops ran toward them, welcoming the intimidating blast of heat they emit.

A few minutes later the troops scampered down the ramp onto dusty, rocky terrain at 8,700 feet in the middle of nowhere. Actually it's some of the most restive turf in the country.

Rural Paktika Province abuts North Waziristan in Pakistan, where militants fighting in this country maintain their hideouts.

They pass unseen through the mountains to wage an unyielding battle with troops trying to secure this country.

The 101st Airborne Division, in charge of eastern Afghanistan, estimates its troops have captured or killed 3,500 insurgents this year. There are estimated to be twice that waiting to join the fight, a seemingly unending supply.

The battalion had some intelligence that enemy fighters were staying in a remote village made of mud and straw.

This pre-dawn endeavor, known as an air assault mission because the troops get dropped into a location as opposed to driven in through potentially bomb-laden terrain, was meant to capture the bad guys.

"What the enemy likes to do is take these areas and exploit them and use them as safe havens," said Lt. Col. Dave Womack, battalion commander. "We're trying to disrupt that."

It's freezing. Under the cover of darkness the troops surrounded the village, sealing exits and entrances. They peer through night-vision goggles and step with their guns ready, taking a knee whenever they stop.

At sunrise they start knocking on doors, inquiring whether the suspected militants might have taken up residence.

"They're not from this village," Womack said. "They do probably have ties to Pakistan."

At one suspected hideout there were no people but live birds and rabbits. At another house there was evidence of militant activity.

"An RPG," said Cpt. Todd Tompkins, using the acronym for rocket propelled grenade. The troops also found ingredients for a roadside bomb and guns.

"We know they've been here," said Womack. "They're certainly going to know that we've been here."

This battalion has already lost three soldiers from direct fire so the initial moments of the search were tense.

As it becomes clear the suspected militants are nowhere to be found the mood relaxes as wide-eyed children emerge from behind walls.

"You think they left before we got here?" Womack asked one of his men, who replied "Yes, sir. They basically just locked up and called it quits."

He seeks out village elders. Instantly this mission has shifted. What started as a hunt for militants has turned into an opportunity to engage the locals. In this war each and every soldier needs to be versed in both.

"The goal of this mission isn't always to get into a fight with bad guys," said Tompkins. "A measure of success is just getting out here, interacting with the people and making a positive impression."

In many ways this is the harder part. Womack and his Afghan interpreter began a conversation with the men in this village. Women are nowhere to be seen.

"How many of your sons are in the ANSF?" Womack asked, using the acronym for Afghan National Security Forces. When the men said none were involved Womack urged them to join.

Building up the army and police is key to the American exit strategy.

The exchange makes for an amusing scene: In full battle gear Womack is an imposing figure surrounded by men draped in blankets wearing sandals.

Eventually a herd of goats runs through the scene. When a man complains about having his shotgun taken away Womack gives it back.

Then, as another gesture of goodwill, Womack offers the elder a wad of cash. He said it's for all the locks his soldiers have broken today.

The mission's seamless adjustment to public relations is judged as successful.

The hike to the landing zone where helicopters will swoop in for pickup is long and hilly. The terrain and the landscape never change.

For as far as you can see in any direction there are mountains and valleys and seemingly countless places an insurgent could pass undetected. For all of its difficulty and sacrifice required Womack said he believes the war is winnable.

"I think so, I do. I wouldn't be here. We've paid to high a price for me not to believe in this mission."

A soldier releases a can of yellow smoke to give the helicopter pilots a target and the troops jog toward the Chinooks with a feeling they'll be back to do the same thing tomorrow.