"This has been a Taliban area for years," said Lt. Col. Dave Woods, who commands U.S. Forces in Paktia, one of the eastern provinces in Afghanistan which shares a small slice of border with Pakistan.
In the extreme cold, on un-paved roads that slowed their progress to a crawl, 500 U.S. and Afghan forces fanned out from the village of Zormat, searching for weapons, Taliban fighters and their sympathizers.
"Zormat has had a lot of enemy activity in the past four months," said U.S. Army Maj. Greg Stephens. "We're hitting five different objectives all at the same time. They're all hot spots for IED detonations or discoveries."
Roadside bombs in this area have killed two American soldiers, wounded more than 60, and destroyed as many as 30 military vehicles. They are often pressure plate devices made of anti-tank mines, sometimes stacked two or three high to create more force. They are planted on the very dirt roads the U.S. military hopes to rebuild, to improve the lives of the villagers here and turn them against the Taliban.
Already, 400 local men have been put to work. They line one main road, armed with shovels. U.S. commanders admit the work is labor intensive for a reason.
The workers are paid five dollars a day. The Taliban tried to stop the project, issuing threats over its radio station and through "night letters", which appeared on residents' doorsteps, warning that them and their families would be killed if they participated. But the men showed up for work anyway. In the months ahead, the road will be paved.
It is an important trade route.
"The roads all run through here," Woods said, standing near a heavily bombed bridge where he has just won permission from tribal leaders to remove trees, which provided the bomb planters with cover.
The operation in Paktia comes as senior officials in the Bush administration signal a looming- back to Afghanistan and, increasingly, to neighboring Pakistan.
Tribal cooperation is key to the U.S. Military, but winning their support is not always easy.
"The tribes here don't get along," Maj. Stephens said. "If one tribe talks to the Coalition, the other tribe will talk behind them to the Taliban or bad guys and say 'that guy just gave you up'."
The U.S. is also trying to convince the tribes to support the central government. But at a recent tribal council meeting in Zormat, tribal leaders vented their frustrations with Kabul.
"The people of Zormat don't have any hope from the Afghan government," one tribal leader complained. "No one is trying to do anything in this district." He and others said the government had failed to build roads, schools and clinics.
"If the people saw those projects, they would be hopeful," added another, insisting that despite the violence, Zormat only wants security and stability.
By Cami McCormick