With bandoliers of bullets wrapped over both shoulders, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Seth Little knelt in a trench, his machine gun pointing toward a clutch of farmers in a field who stared silently back.
The 23-year-old from Bremen, Ga. was scanning the horizon for Taliban gunmen who were maneuvering unseen somewhere across this rural battlefield, ordering civilians out of their homes in apparent preparation for a fight.
Eight months after U.S.-led forces launched the biggest operation of the war to clear insurgents from the southern poppy-growing district of Marjah, it wasn't supposed to be this way. Today, the world's most powerful military is still struggling to rout guerrillas staging complex hit-and-run attacks relentlessly, every day.
The ongoing conflict here comes as another massive American-led clearing operation is under way 100 miles to the east in neighboring Kandahar province. NATO commanders are touting recent successes there in seizing ground from Taliban militants who, as in Marjah, once roamed freely.
The Kandahar operation, launched last month along the Arghandab River Valley northwest of the provincial capital, has so far produced stunning results. NATO and embedded journalists say many Taliban have fled or gone underground in the face of withering air power. Gunbattles have markedly declined _ in some places they've ended altogether _ and the biggest threat is hidden, homemade bombs. Farmers have returned to plant once-abandoned fields, and new allied outposts are being set up to hold ground.
The gains, though, come at a time when Afghanistan's fighting season was winding down anyway with the arrival of cold weather, which erodes the vegetation insurgents rely on for cover to stage attacks.
Winter is traditionally the time when Taliban militants disappear into the mountains to rest and regroup before resuming the fight in the spring. The challenge for coalition forces will be to maintain their gains before then.
Previous operations hailed as successes in the same area in 2006 and 2007 saw Taliban fighters re-infiltrate in the months that followed _ mainly because there weren't enough coalition troops to stop them.
American commanders argue that this time, there will be.
The daily fighting in Marjah, however, offers a grimmer image of what the security landscape in Kandahar could look like next summer, when President Barack Obama has said he hopes to start a drawdown of U.S. forces. Extra troops do not automatically equate to success.
The February assault on the poppy-growing hub in Helmand province was supposed to be the first stage here of the counterinsurgency strategy, "clear, hold, build." But Capt. Chuck Anklam, who commands 2/9's Echo Company in a northern swathe of Marjah, said all three stages are now going on simultaneously _ and none of them is complete.
The initial clearing during the allied assault, he said, had only been "of the most stalwart enemy fighters who stayed to fight" when U.S. and Afghan forces poured in.
"Due to the nature of the insurgent activity and the way that the enemy fights _ disguising themselves as farmers during the day and having weapons caches hidden throughout ... we don't truly clear the area, we hold the area," the 34-year-old native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. said.
And holding it all is not an option, either. Only two Marine battalions are stationed in Marjah, and Echo Company's area of operations alone is an 18-mile-square grid of rectangular farms intersected by irrigation canals, hedgerows and islands of trees _ all of which insurgents use to stage attacks.
"It's impossible for us to physically hold all that terrain," Anklam added. "I cannot put a Marine element everywhere."
Instead, he has maximized the American presence here by spreading forces out as much as possible, basing them at 13 small outposts occupied by only a squad or two of Marines each, and a similar amount of Afghan soldiers. The strategy mimics the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, which saw American troops leave large bases en masse and set up small outposts in the center of populated areas.
The goal is to cover and stabilize as much ground as possible ahead of Obama's year-end review of the conflict in December. With the 30,000-man surge here bringing the American troop total to about 100,000, Obama is hoping to reverse the tide of the increasingly unpopular war, which entered its 10th year this month.
Even if gains are made in the Taliban's southern heartland, though, the insurgency is steadily spreading elsewhere in Afghanistan, making pockets of the once-safe north precarious. Attacks are also reportedly on the rise in the east, where U.S. forces abandoned some outposts last year because they were too hard to defend.
Marines in Marjah are spread thin not only on bases, but on patrol, when they typically split squads up into two or three even smaller teams. The strategy, they say, has proven effective, allowing troops to cover more ground and reduce the number of attacks _ almost all of which are initiated by Taliban fighters.
The insurgency in Marjah is crude, but effective: Militants use wires or kite string to set off homemade bombs fashioned mostly from ammonium nitrate, commonly used here as fertilizer.
Squad leaders say the Taliban typically operate in teams of four to six gunmen and launch attacks from multiple locations simultaneously _ as they did twice when The Associated Press accompanied them on several patrols.
"When we spread out, they have a hard time determining where all the Marines are, and where we're going to pop out," said Sgt. Jeffrey Benson, 34, of Medina, Ohio. "They might have eyes on four or five of us at one time, but they don't know where the other four or five are ... and I think that's why they've had a hard time ambushing us."
NATO officials argue the strategy in Marjah is working, albeit slower than they'd hoped. A fledgling local government has been installed in the district center, and the first police station opened in September. In some parts, children have begun attending school and markets have opened; in others, they've closed and parents don't dare send their children to class.
Success, however, ultimately rests not on winning outright _ few American commanders speak of that anymore _ but on the ability of Afghan forces to take over the fight after the U.S. military inevitably leaves.
In a telling sign of the challenges ahead, one American captain in Kandahar's Zhari district pulled his troops from a frequently attacked school and left Afghan security forces in charge of defending it. But after attacks continued, he had to station American troops there again in mid-September, tying up combat power he desperately wanted to use elsewhere.
In Marjah, Afghans and Americans are partnered at every outpost and on every patrol. But U.S. Marines typically call the shots and lead movements with Afghan soldiers trailing behind, some insulted for wasting ammunition or ignoring orders to avoid bomb-laden footpaths.
One Marine training Afghan security forces complained he had to wrest them from bed in the morning. "I told them, wake up, this is YOUR country," he said.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects Marine Lance Cpl. Seth Little's age to 23 rather than 22.)