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Charlie Company fights an invisible enemy

US troops meet friendly villagers, but struggle to get help in routing insurgents.

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For the past three days, the men of the 82nd Airborne's Charlie Company have been chasing ghosts. Every time they fly into a valley in Chinook helicopters, the Taliban flee at the thumping sound of the rotors.

Every time they walk into a village, Taliban radios crackle with news of their arrival. It's frustrating, and more than one soldier grumbles this mission is "pointless."

"It's frustrating," says 2nd Lieutenant Ben Wisnioski of Rocky Hill, Conn. "It's like Vietnam, or the French in Algeria. We have the ability to beat these guys militarily, but they won't come out and fight us."

It's not that these men are itching to pull their triggers. But nobody wants to feel like they are wasting their time, particularly in a largely forgotten war where more than 80 US soldiers have been killed in the past six months alone. These men simply want to feel they're making a difference here.

The past four days of this mission have been grueling. Yet most men of the Charlie Company work without complaint. Walking up mountains beats sitting around a garrison all day, these men say. But knowing that the Taliban are so close, refusing to fight, still eats them up inside.

In the village of Kata Shang, village elder Abdul Bare tells the Americans that he's happy to see them. The Taliban never come to this village, he says. "OK," the elder alters his story a bit, "sometimes the Taliban do come to this village. But they just pass through town. They don't talk with us."

Just a few houses away, ANA soldiers discover 100 rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition, even though none of the villagers has a gun. The owner of the house says the ammo is old, probably from the time of the Soviet occupation. But it's visibly shiny, not even tarnished by one season in the elements.

In the next village, the men take a break in the shade of pomegranate trees and wait for the heat of the day to pass before they press on to their final objective of the day: the village of Spitut.

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