FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- The paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne's 4th Brigade, deploying to Afghanistan later this month, are headed into a unique and delicate mission that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hinted at this week:
They are going as much to talk as to fight.
And that includes talking with the Taliban.
"The Taliban are going to have a role in post-war Afghanistan,'' said Col. Brian Mennes, who commands the 3,300 troopers of the 4th Brigade. "They are Afghans. They are there -- it's just physics!''
When the brigade later takes up positions south and west of Kandahar, where the Taliban presence has been strong and violent, Mennes will have a simple message for the Taliban: "We'd prefer not to have to kill you ... what do you need not to fight?''
Make no mistake: His paratroopers are trained and ready to kill, and have proven themselves over multiple combat tours in Afghanistan. Mennes, a tall muscular man with a booming command voice, has led special operations units on counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan since 2001 and commanded a battalion of paratroopers there on a 15-month deployment in 2008.
He knows many Taliban are sick of fighting and are not strong idealogues. But they plant deadly IEDs, ambush patrols, take down American troopers and Afghan government officials with sniper fire. Nonetheless, Mennes will want to know: "What's it going to take for us not to kill each other?''
His intent, he told The Huffington Post, is "to help create a security environment so folks can have a dialogue without trying to kill each other.'' Day to day, that means partnering with Afghan army and police units, training them where needed and advising them on counterinsurgency operations, sitting down with village elders, understanding civilians' needs and helping where they can -- and encouraging the Taliban to renounce violence and join in.
"The less we kill, the better,'' Mennes said. But when his troops meet the hard-line Taliban, the irreconcilables, he added: "We will kill them.''
That tricky and dangerous dual mission is how American troops are straddling an uncomfortable divide. As public support for the war plummets -- a majority of Americans now want troops back home immediately -- the Obama administration is simultaneously holding high-level negotiations with the Taliban, drawing down U.S. combat power on the battlefield, and rotating fresh combat troops into what is, after all, still a hot combat zone.
Just this week, two Marines were killed in Afghanistan's Helmand Province: Lance Cpl. Edward J. Dycus, 22, of Greenville, Miss., and Sgt. William C. Stacey, 23, of Redding, Calif., the Pentagon said.
Even as the fighting goes on, Panetta told reporters Wednesday that the dwindling number of troops in Afghanistan will increasingly shift from a direct combat role to training and advising Afghan security forces. "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013,'' he said. Under the Obama administration's plan, the current force of about 90,000 will shrink to about 68,000 by the end of this year.
But the transition is already well underway.
Marking that shift, the 4th Brigade took the unprecedented step last fall of training more than 150 of its young soldiers to speak Pashtun -- not just learning phrases from a book, but taking a four-month immersion course. That enables young privates and junior sergeants to chat casually with the young Afghan men who inevitably cluster around a patrol or checkpoint, many of them Taliban or Taliban sympathizers.
"For the guys who are 20-year-olds, there's not a lot of options for them out in these villages, so they're going to grow poppies or work for the Taliban,'' said Maj. Tom Spahr, the brigade's intelligence officer. "There are a lot of them who are fence-sitters, so if we can offer them a better life...''
There are huge barriers in the way of soldiers who are trying to offer the Taliban and non-Taliban Afghans a better way of life, notably the pervasive corruption that seems to infect every facet of Afghan life. A typical farmer, for instance, may have to bribe a dozen different officials and local power brokers to get his crops to market. He pays no taxes to the Afghan government -- and gets few services in return. In areas ruled by the Taliban, by contrast, the farmer pays one "tax'' to the Taliban and gets security and justice, a system that U.S. officers acknowledge is swift, transparent and efficient.
To counter that, a key U.S. goal is to help local Afghan government become more effective, an uphill battle given the scarcity of trained government officials and frustrating gaps and delays in getting local services approved and funded by the central government in Kabul.
As for security, the Afghan army and police are vastly improved, but still depend on U.S. and allied forces for air support, intelligence and logistics, 4th brigade officers said. Notably, Afghans rely on U.S. forces to clear paths and roadways of IEDs.
Improvements come over time -- the one thing that U.S. forces in Afghanistan no longer have. Because of the drawdown ordered by the White House, the 4th Brigade's troopers will come home after a short eight months rather than the traditional 12-month deployment -- and under current plans will not be replaced by another full brigade.
"Time is our most precious commodity,'' a brigade staff officer said.
The shortened tour has been welcomed by soldiers and families -- but leaves many with a sense of frustration, knowing that progress in Afghanistan takes time.
"There's still a lot to be done,'' said Lt. Col. Guy M. Jones, commander of the brigade's 2nd battalion. He has spent 57 months on combat tours in Afghanistan and understands the value of presence, of being there. He has seen "tremendous,'' but slow, progress from the bleak days in 2002 when there was virtually no Afghan army, police or government.
Jones described Washington's decision to drawn down troops, shorten their deployment and shift away from a direct combat role as "a political shifting of what is best for our nation'' in conducting the war in Afghanistan and as "political decisions'' made outside the military. "But we are there to do a mission and until we are told not to do it, we will do it,'' he said.
But their shortened tour adds a sense of urgency to the mission. "This is our last chance to help train the Afghans [soldiers],'' said Lt. Wallace Rollins, a scout platoon leader. When the brigade leaves for home in September, the Afghans will be more on their own.
"We'll be making sure their guys are ready, that we've done everything we could to have a good battle hand-off,'' Rollins said.
Or as Sgt. Patrick Kelhi put it, "Personally, I'd rather go for a year. We would get more accomplished ... but I just work here.''
To prepare his soldiers for this difficult deployment, Mennes has rammed them through months of intense study of Afghan culture, history, village life and the intricate structures of tribes and their governing structures. "Afghans are good people, they have some problems, and you are going to help them out,' he recently told one group of new troops.
But he knows how easily good intentions can explode in wartime. "Just by being there, by acting with sensitivity to their culture, by asking 'How can we help?' -- that helps calm the violence,'' Mennes said. "Until an IED goes off.''
"I know how quickly things can spiral into a vortex of violence,'' he said, "just the kind of thing we hope to avoid.''