Children tended cows and sheep in fields. At 10:30 we linked up with a group of Marines who would take us the rest of the way to Aynak. Dozens of their vehicles were parked off the dirt road on plowed fields, crushing cornstalks. "This farmer is not gonna be happy," one corporal said. The Marines had paid damages to farmers in the area. Today they accidentally set one field on fire, then ran around trying to put it out. The shura in Aynak was canceled because it was clear we would be getting there too late. Marines lay about in the shade. A young specialist sat atop a Humvee. "We came, we parked, we relocated, then we parked," he beamed.
A Marine captain named Andrew Schoenmaker arrived and told Contreras that when his men had first asked people in Aynak about the Taliban, they got only complaints about the police. He estimated that there were about 150 cops. "It was uncomfortable when we met them," he said. "They were all high."
We wouldn't be leaving for Aynak until 4:30 in the afternoon. That concerned Sergeant Verdoorn: "It seems like the Marines want to get in a firefight — 5:30 pm is the beginning of fighting time." I asked Contreras about the delay and he said, "Because it is fucking hot." The Marines had to walk, and in the past few days dozens of them had collapsed from heat exhaustion.
We finally began to plod along once more, the Marines in front of us. Kids stood motionless in front of homes and glared at the Americans. Men with black beards and black turbans also stared, expressionless, standing ramrod straight.
A boy emerged from behind a metal gate and mud walls to talk to the ANCOP, but none of them spoke Pashto and he didn't know Farsi. The Americans' interpreter translated. There was an IED on the road up ahead, the boy said. His father came out wearing a green shalwar kameez and nervously fingering red prayer beads. The IED was planted near their house. Several days before, Taliban had been hiding in a house about a few hundred feet away, he said, pointing to it. He worried locals would inform the Taliban that they had warned the Americans. McGuire walked right up to the IED and saw it partially buried and concealed by shrubs. The minesweepers ahead of us had missed it. A robot was dispatched to destroy it; the explosion sent up a huge cloud of smoke and debris. Rocks rained down on us hundreds of feet away. The men speculated whether it would have been a catastrophic kill. McGuire thought it would have just tossed us up a bit in our armored vehicle. But it would have obliterated the ANCOP.
We made it to Aynak after nightfall. It had taken an entire day to go 14 miles. We slept under the stars, the men taking turns on guard shift. We heard explosions and gunfire in the distance. The next morning the police used an abandoned mud compound as a bathroom, and so did I.