'Warrior-Diplomats' on the Front Lines in Afghanistan

U.S. forces on a mission to fight the enemy and reach out at the same time.

May 12, 2010— -- American forces on the front lines in Afghanistan are on a dual mission -- to fight the enemy and reach out to him at the same time.

In a single week, Lt. Mark Zambarda, 24, marched his men into fighter-infested mountains under a blazing sun, led them on an airborne raid under a freezing moon, and was given the Silver Star for bringing captured insurgents through a day-long ambush with no water or radio contact.

It's all heroic work, but the most vital mission he made in the week was a trip to a local village, where he promised to help the school get flush toilets.

"If [soldiers] can spread the message that, 'Hey, coalition forces built new toilets,' it makes us seem that much more legitimate, and makes them more willing to work with us," said Zambarda, of the 2-12 Infantry, Dagger Company.

Commanders believe that 90 percent of the fighters in these mountains are not driven by jihad but by the need for a job. They're paid $5 to $10 per attack by local and Pakistani Taliban, with approval from the elders.

Winning Over the Elders

So, soldiers in Afghanistan hope to win over those powerful elders by building one well and one road at a time.

Brigade commander Lt. Col. Brian Pearl attends town halls called "shuras" as often as he can, and he sometimes finds himself sitting with known enemies. Still, he expects his officers to do the same.

"They won't look as diplomats," Pearl said, "they'll say they are battle-hardened soldiers and the bravado that goes with it. But they are really warrior diplomats."

The balancing act is on display up close on a patrol to a notoriously hostile village. ABC News traveled with the soldiers across a bridge that was pocked with fresh bullet holes from a recent attack on the company.

The soldiers entered in a defensive crouch, trying to pry information from a tribal elder. Initially, he wasn't much help, but as a gesture of good faith, offered to walk the soldiers across an open field. He promised the Taliban wouldn't fire while he was by their side.

Warrior-Diplomats Work with Local Tribal Elders

It was a perfect example of the kind of risk-reward decision the modern soldier has to make every day. The gamble paid off, as the group crossed safely, even though intercepted radio chatter confirmed that the Taliban were monitoring the group the whole time.

On the other side of the bridge, the elder hit up the company for a new retaining wall.

"Everything comes with a price," said Lt. Christopher Capassano, of the 2-12 Infantry, Alpha Company. "The big saying here is, 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.'"

It is a dangerous balancing act, but commanders say the strategy is starting to pay off with noticeably fewer attacks in a place long known as the valley of death.