Kandahar, Afghanistan • Fifteen U.S. soldiers huddle in a circle. A blue Toyota packed with explosives has been reported somewhere in the city. The troops bow their heads and clasp hands.
"Dear Lord, protect us and protect those entrusted to us as we help the Afghans protect themselves," says Lt. Col. Patrick Michaelis, their gangly 41-year-old commander.
"Amen," say his men.
Every trip outside the wire begins the same way: a quick check of the latest intelligence, then the prayer, which never varies. When Michaelis forgets, someone stops him: Sir, the prayer.
In America's longest war after a dozen years, a yearning for peace comes wrapped in a prayer for survival. Both are unfulfilled, incomplete.
This bustling southern crossroads, conquered and reconquered for centuries, must withstand a resilient Taliban if Afghanistan is to avoid falling back into outright civil war. But with U.S. troops already pulling out and most due to depart by the end of 2014, no one is sure it can.
Michaelis and his men climb into armored vehicles, fasten their helmets and drive into the crowded streets, alert for a blue Toyota. Swerving around loud motorbikes and bleating herds of sheep, they head for the home of Haji Hakim, a former guerrilla commander who helped drive the Soviet army from Afghanistan two decades ago.
"Don't leave Afghanistan," the graying fighter implores Michaelis through a translator as they sit cross-legged on carpets and pick at plates piled with rice, lamb and chicken. "The enemies are still around. You have the main role to play."
"Haji Hakim, we're not going anywhere," Michaelis replies. But they are.
When President Barack Obama ordered 31,000 more troops to the war in late 2009, nearly half were sent to retake Kandahar and nearby villages from the Taliban. The city had become a combat zone, with bloody firefights against the Islamist insurgents on its west side, where rutted streets and mud-walled compounds give way to fields of poppies and ditches of fetid water.
The U.S. reinforcements left last summer, and Afghan police in baggy green uniforms took over lead responsibility for security. Now the only Americans left are Michaelis' 500-strong battalion, a small team of special operations troops, and a few companies of military police to train the Afghan security forces.
Already the number of U.S. outposts in the city has shrunk from 13 to five. Michaelis' battalion will leave in January, which will shrink the American presence to a token level.
So their orders are explicit: Pull back. Let the Afghan army and police do the fighting. Don't take unnecessary risks. Keep U.S. casualties down and end Afghan dependence on American power and largesse. Let the Afghans rise or fall on their own.
But some U.S. troops say hunkering down just doesn't feel right. Although insurgent attacks have fallen since last year, the idea of letting the Afghans take the lead often feels more like abandonment than training.
On Sept. 14, Lt. Faruq Mirwaz, police commander on the west side, was driving along Highway 1, the main paved road through the city, when two remote-controlled bombs exploded under his pickup. The blast peppered Mirwaz with shrapnel and left him bleeding from the neck by the side of the road.
At a small U.S. outpost nearby, Capt. Terron Wharton heard the boom before receiving an urgent call from Mirwaz. He and several men jumped in their armored vehicles to help. But when they radioed Michaelis to say they were leaving the base, he told them to halt.
The Afghans need to learn how to handle these attacks on their own, Michaelis said.
After an hour of pleading, Wharton was finally permitted to go. By then, Afghan police had taken Mirwaz to a hospital. His injuries were too severe for him to return to duty.
"It felt like we left our partners out there," Wharton said. "I gave a man my word I would come to his aid, and I couldn't keep it. That was one of hardest things I've had to do."
A day later, another roadside bomb attack killed Mirwaz's deputy. Four days later, a buried bomb killed the deputy in a neighboring district. Two more of Mirwaz's officers were lost in October.
Sometimes, the winding down of the war can seem surreal.
Lt. Col. Terry Nihart, head of the U.S. training effort in Kandahar, was in a second-floor office in the Kandahar police headquarters last July when a huge explosion shattered the windows, slicing his face with glass shards and knocking him unconscious.
Insurgents had blown a hole in the concrete wall outside, and were pouring into the compound, firing rifles and tossing grenades. When he awoke, Nihart chambered a round in his pistol, the only weapon at hand, and waited anxiously with others in the office as the firefight raged outside.
They heard an insurgent come up the stairs, and feared he would throw a grenade into their office. "Unfortunately, we were waiting to die," Nihart recalled.
They survived because another American shot the insurgent in the stairwell.
In all, six Afghans were killed and five Americans were wounded in the five-hour battle. Afterward, the police celebrated by smoking hashish, the sweet-smelling aroma wafting across the compound.
"It was like a Cheech and Chong concert," Nihart said.
Afghan police still ask the Americans for help finding and dismantling bombs, and to help transport their wounded. Hard as it is, Michaelis has issued orders not to help without his permission.
Michaelis also gave orders to stop giving gasoline to Afghan police, despite their constant complaints that they cannot patrol without fuel. The gas often ended up for sale on Highway 1, a source of illicit cash for Afghan officers.
Not long ago, he learned a junior lieutenant had violated his orders and given a tankful to an Afghan policeman, who had been refusing to leave the base unless he was given fuel. Michaelis transferred the combat officer to a headquarters staff job as punishment.
"It's a big gamble," says Michaelis, who has a Harvard University graduate degree in public administration. "I've got officers out there who want to [do more] and I have to say, 'Stop, slow down.' "