Sgt. Gary Waugh, a soldier on his second Afghan tour, takes a stab at answering the question. "Us not doing a thing," he says. "Not firing our weapon."
A few of the soldiers rest their chins on the butts of their rifles. A diesel generator drones in the background as the platoon sergeant surveys his men.
"Right answer," he replies.
America's war in Afghanistan has consumed close to $500 billion and cost more than 2,000 American lives. By December 2014, the last American combat troops are scheduled to leave the country. American-led combat operations are expected to finish by the middle of next year. But the war is already ending at little outposts throughout Afghanistan as the U.S. military thins its ranks and tears down bases.
How does a war end? In Jaghatu, these soldiers are learning one way. It ends with resignation, isolation, boredom, and the soldiers of Third Platoon striding out of the chow tent and into the bright light of a warm September day. Now that they had defined mission success they had another question: What exactly was the mission anymore?
The U.S. troops at Jaghatu are about as isolated as soldiers can be in Afghanistan. Surrounded by mountains and enemy-controlled terrain, the Americans receive almost all of their supplies by helicopter and weekly parachute drops.
Six months ago, before the current soldiers came, the troops' mission was clearer: to rout the Taliban from the area. In May, a platoon of Americans in Jaghatu fought a four-hour battle with the Taliban for "Antennae Hill," a large outcropping of rock, scrub, and dirt with a commanding view of the valley to the south of the outpost.
When Third Platoon, part of Second Battalion of the 173d Airborne Brigade, arrived this summer, its members watched the shaky, helmet-cam footage that their predecessors had taken as they cursed, sprinted and fought their way to the top of the hill without serious casualties. Pfc. Dillon Guillory, 24, played and replayed the video on his laptop, anxiously waiting for his moment.
Except for occasional patrols, Guillory has spent most of his deployment manning a guard post that overlooks a tattered Afghan flag and the crumbling government building.
The Americans' main mission is supposed to be training the Afghan army soldiers with whom they share the base, but Guillory is one of only a handful of Third Platoon soldiers who interact with Afghans.
In his three months in Afghanistan, Guillory has experienced only one moment when the war seemed real, immediate and dangerous. In late July, the platoon was sitting on a ridgeline watching some Afghan army troops when a burst of enemy machine-gun fire exploded around them. Guillory threw himself on the ground.
"The whole thing only lasted 15 or 20 seconds," he recalls.
One of the enemy rounds ricocheted off a rock and struck Pfc. Adam Ross, 19, in the back of the head just below his helmet. The medic worked to stanch the bleeding and called out the details of the injury to Guillory, who scribbled the information on his hand and then radioed the outpost.
The soldiers did not learn that Ross was dead until they were back in their tent. There was no cursing or screaming. Just silence. Guillory, who had not known Ross well, snapped a picture of the writing on his left hand. He had been so shaken that instead of writing "Back of Head" he had scrawled "Head Back."
The next day the medic carved Ross' last name and the date of his death into a piece of wood in Guillory's guard shack. Guillory added the 173d Airborne's winged insignia in white marker and wondered how he had not been struck as well.
Second Lt. Andrew Beck, the leader of Third Platoon, calls his men together to brief them on their next patrol, which involves sitting on a ridgeline while Afghan police search a small village.
They meet in front of Beck's hooch, a windowless metal container ringed by six-foot-tall barriers. Beck, 25, urges his men three times to be cautious. "The general in charge of Afghanistan's intent is not to destroy the Taliban," he says, unintentionally overstating the top commander's guidance. "I know that sucks. His intent is to minimize civilian casualties."
Beck's platoon sergeant speaks next: "You guys have been here more than two months. Just keep doing what you are doing."
What exactly are they doing? Even their commanders are not sure. The Jaghatu outpost was built in 2010 to interdict Taliban fighters who were believed to be moving weapons through the area and into Kabul. But there were never enough U.S. or Afghan troops to pacify the district or find the enemy weapons caches.
It is a little after 11 a.m. when Beck and his platoon return from three uneventful hours of watching the Afghan police search the village to the west of their base.
On a Friday in which no patrols are scheduled, Beck pays a visit to America's longest-serving and most loyal ally in Jaghatu - the district's 24-year-old police chief. He walks through Guillory's gate and into an adjoining, walled compound that houses the government center building with the hole in the roof.
Beck and a few of his soldiers have come to take pictures of the chief's men decked out in new body armor, helmets, and goggles that the Americans had given them that morning. The Afghan police stand stiffly between a flower bed and a wall scorched from rocket-propelled grenade blasts.
"A picture with your gun?" the police chief asks one of Beck's men.
So far this year, Afghan soldiers or police officers have been accused of killing more than 50 U.S. and allied troops. There's an awkward pause as the soldier glances at Beck for guidance and then strikes a last-second compromise, popping the magazine out of his gun, checking the chamber for a stray round, and handing it to the police chief.
The chief doesn't seem to register the soldier's move as a slight, but it bothers Beck. "He is the guy we trust most, and we have to take the magazine out of the rifle," Beck says.
Beck hands the young police chief his loaded M-4. "One more picture by the truck," he says.
"When you guys leave, you are going to take everything?" the chief asks. "All of the helos and the armor?"
"I don't know," Beck replies. "You'll probably know before me."
"I think your army is tired," the chief says.
Finally, after weeks of waiting, Beck's soldiers get word that at last there is going to be a mission. More than 100 Afghan soldiers, 15 police, and about 40 Americans will return to the area where Ross was killed. Everyone is expecting a firefight.
By 3:30 a.m. they are gathered in front of their trucks. The platoon sergeant double-checks the soldiers' body armor, thumping the ceramic plates with his fist and tugging on loose straps.
The platoon's trucks roll through the outpost gate, pausing on the edge of the desert. One by one, they test-fire their heavy machine guns as the sun peeks over the mountains.
The armored trucks lumber down the deeply rutted dirt road past a handful of wary-looking Afghan families.
Over the radio, there is an order to halt the convoy. The armored vehicles edge to the side of the road and wait for more instructions. A few minutes later, they receive a second order: Return to base.
Hundreds of miles away in Helmand province, Taliban fighters dressed in Army uniforms have penetrated Camp Bastion, where they killed two Marines and incinerated six U.S. jets. Senior military officials in Kabul are advising their field commanders to scale back missions with Afghan forces for a few days.
The soldiers who had steeled themselves to fight are once again preparing to sit.
"We look really bad to the Afghans right now," the platoon sergeant says to Guillory. "We are supposed to be supporting them, and we left them."
"I don't understand why we aren't just going out anyway," Guillory replies.
Instead, Guillory returns to his war: A view of the mortar hole in the government building and a guard post with little to do. He chews through a pack of gum. There are six months left in his tour and 26 months left before U.S. combat troops leave Afghanistan. "I am sure there are people that have a bigger understanding of the war than us little guys," he says. "But at my level it seems so stupid."
On the other hand, they didn't fire their guns at the enemy. They didn't do a thing. The mission was a success.