Jan. 12, 2010 -- In Afghanistan, the convoys, mortars and battles are constant reminders of the American military presence on the ground. But 15 miles from here, across the border in western Pakistan, people associate American force with the sky, and one distinctive sound: the buzz of a Predator drone.
In western Pakistan that low buzzing hum, like a distant lawn mower, lets people on the ground know of the lethal machine overhead. And when they strike, the aftermath often brings public and frenzied anger.
Back in Afghanistan, Predator video feeds come into tactical command centers, like the one found at Combat Outpost Michigan, on the floor of the deadly Pech Valley in Kunar province. On Monday, soldiers from the 2-12 Infantry, Dagger Company, tracked movement on a six-foot screen, watching the ghostly silhouettes of five individuals carrying heavy objects through an area known for sniper fire and rocket attacks.
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As they huddled together looking down on an American patrol, the soldiers in this room showed remarkable restraint, insisting that a squad on the ground make visual confirmation. Moments later, it's confirmed. Those five silhouettes turned out to be children gathering firewood.
"We cannot replace those guys on the ground. And that's an essential piece that's been amplified by the engagement that we're in. We can't rely on technology as much as we thought," says Capt. Tim Eastman.
Eastman says that killing those children would have undone months of work winning over local elders.
Winning Hearts and Minds
Despite its menacing moniker, several members of a battalion known as "Lethal Warrior" have said that in order to win, they have to be less lethal and more helpful.
The best example is Lt. Mark Zambarda. In the last week, the 24-year-old West Point graduate has marched his men into fighter-infested mountains under a blazing sun and on an airborne raid under a freezing moon. Zambarda has been awarded a Silver Star, the Army's third highest honor, for once bringing captured insurgents through a day-long ambush with no water or radio contact.
But Zambarda's most important mission involved a trip to a local village, where he promised to help the school obtain flush toilets.
"We'll do that bathroom first, then that one," Zambarada says, during a tour of the premises.
"500 kids go to this school and some hike four kilometers to get there. If they can spread the message that 'Hey, the coalition forces built new toilets,' it makes us seem that much more legitimate and makes them more willing to work with us."
U.S. to Afghanistan villagers: 'You Scratch My Back, I'll Scratch Yours'
Commanders here believe that 90 percent of the fighters in the mountains along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan are not driven by jihad, but by the need for a job.
They are paid $5 to $10 per attack by local and Pakistani Taliban, with approval from village elders, the U.S. says.
The American soldiers hope to win over those powerful elders over one well, or road, or cup of tea at a time.
The brigade commander of the 2-12 Infantry, Lt. Col. Brian Pearl, attends town hall meetings, called "shuras", as often as he can, sitting with known enemies. He expects his officers to do the same.
"They won't look like diplomats, they'll say they are battle hardened soldiers and the bravado that goes with it, but they are really warrior diplomats. "
We went along as members of the Dagger Company visited a nearby village called Wadigarem in the Pech Walley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province, its bridge covered in bullet holes from a recent attack on the company. The soldiers enter cautiously, in a full defensive crouch, but after meeting with the elder, they accept his offer to walk them out across the open fields, a perfect example of the "risk-reward" decision the modern soldier has to make every day.
"Everything comes with a reward," says Christopher Capasso of the Alpha Company. "The big saying here is 'You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.'"