US Army SPC Andy Le of 82nd Airborne Division at camp Clark in Madozai district, Khost province, Afghanistan, on July 10, 2011 (image credit Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty)
JAG CHENA, Afghanistan (written by Carmen Gentile/Special for USA Today) -- On a dusty, narrow lane in this remote village, U.S. soldiers call over a couple of young men, who appear for a moment to consider complying, then flee into a gated compound.
"I don't know what's worse: getting shot at or playing hide-and-seek with them," says U.S. Sgt. 1st Class Jonathon Wells, a veteran of three tours in Khost province.
Here, low-lying mountains covered in scrub vegetation give sanctuary to entrenched militant groups like the Taliban and Haqqani network.
Wells and his men from the Army's 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division are here to tamp down the persistent militant presence in an area 7 miles from the Pakistan border. They are also tasked with training Afghan forces.
The work is important if the Afghans are to take over security responsibilities in the province once U.S. combat forces leave for good, an exodus scheduled to happen at the end 2014.
It is here and in other eastern Afghanistan provinces where the Taliban and assorted militants coming in from Pakistan are making a stand in safe havens, and it is here that the U.S. military hopes to dislodge the remainder of an insurgency that threatens to derail plans for a U.S. withdrawal.
So far their efforts have brought some successes, soldiers here say, though militant bombings are an everyday reality and training for an eventual turnover to Afghan security forces is far from complete.
In the village of Jag Chena, a small collection of seemingly ancient mud-brick homes, interlaced with winding footpaths and surrounded by farmers' fields, Americans soldiers seek out adult males for registry in a high-tech biometric database that digitally scans fingerprints and irises. The data are cross-referenced with that of known escapees or previous suspects.
It's tedious work for the troops, who during a recent mission scanned more than 50 men in Jag Chena, an area that informants tell them is rife with militants and bombmakers.
"Some of the guys get frustrated" with the grind of gathering biometric data, Wells says. "But I tell them, 'We might be on the lowest rung, but you need that rung to get off the ground.' "
Most Afghan males willingly submit to biometric registration.
"It's ultimately good for the (Afghan) people here," says Aktar Wali, 30. "Once you're in the system, they know you are a good guy. It's the bad people that make it difficult for the rest of us to live here."
There are reports of teenage boys being recruited by militants for suicide attacks on U.S. and Afghan troops, U.S. troops say. Recently, soldiers found a 13-year-old boy carrying a pistol and two grenades, they say.
Mohammed Ayoub, the principal of a nearby school, says that none of his students are associated with Haqqani or the Taliban. "It's very important for our students to get a good education so they can stay away from the bad guys," he says.
The threat of improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, is ever present. More than 20 have been uncovered since the beginning of the year. Seven heavily armored vehicles have been damaged by IEDs.
Last month, two of the company's soldiers were killed in a blast that sheered the front off the 35,000-pound vehicle and sent its engine block flying.
"No road here is safe," says Lt. Connor Flaherty. "We get a tip on a possible IED just about every day."
On Wednesday, a suicide bomber attacked a checkpoint in Khost, killing several people, including three U.S. soldiers. Earlier this month at nearby Forward Operating Base Salerno, a van full of explosives was detonated against one of its walls.
While the Afghan army often takes the lead in operations elsewhere, in southern Khost the Afghan Border Police appear to be the strongest branch. ABP members conduct plainclothes missions to find out who is planting IEDs and where militants are hiding.
Maj. Aziz, who like many here goes by one name, says his border patrol is ready to take control once the Americans leave.
U.S. Capt. Jibriel Means, the commanding officer at Bowri Tanah, says the patrol still needs to learn a few things, like the importance of maintaining a supply line for food, fuel and ammunition in a remote region.
"They say, 'We need this and we need that,' but we tell them they need to do it themselves," Means says. "We're still teaching them the process of doing things constantly and consistently."