It was a homecoming of sorts for Lt. Col. Paul Larson, returning to this remote corner of southern Afghanistan at the twilight of America’s longest war. He was back to take stock of a slice of the battlefield that seemed brimming with possibility when he last led soldiers here a decade ago.

In 2005, Larson was zealous about counterinsurgency, convinced that irrigation projects, agrarian reform initiatives and new schools would plant the seeds of peace, rendering this impoverished, barren area inhospitable to an insurgency that appeared on the brink of defeat.

As he flew to his former outpost late last month, commanding the last U.S. battalion conducting full-spectrum combat operations in Afghanistan, Larson’s mission was narrower, less ambitious and without altruistic impulses.

“It’s a pleasure to be here to help you finish off the last little pockets of Taliban,” the American officer told Col. Gada Mohammed Dost, the Afghan commander who for the past two years has muddled through in this contested sector of southeastern Afghanistan with virtually no American help.

The 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers under Larson’s command have been tasked with dropping into contested areas to examine how Afghan troops are faring as U.S. forces have thinned out and to deal a few final blows to militant groups that have withstood nearly 13 years of American firepower.

The mission has given them a rich vantage point on the state of a war the United States will largely disengage from by year’s end — and the soldiers here have divergent outlooks about the odds that this nation stymied by a rocky political transition, a stubborn insurgency and an anemic economy will somehow stabilize.

As the conflict’s final lethal act, Larson’s men hope to tilt the scales, even if just slightly.

Turmoil among militants

Civilians have been killed and maimed at a growing rate this year as insurgents have sought to make inroads in populated areas where foreign troops have left, according to figures compiled by the U.N. mission in Kabul.

The lion’s share of the fighting is being done by Afghan forces, who have struggled to hold key terrain in recent weeks in southwestern Helmand province as well as a few key districts and roads. Larson’s men have seen relatively little fighting on this deployment, which leads some to believe that Taliban factions are less inclined to fight the Americans.

“If I was an insurgent, I would wait until the Americans left and try my luck with the ANSF,” said Capt. Michael Wallace, 29, who is on his third Afghan deployment. “When we’re with them, they can make us have bad days, but they’re never going to win.”

Just how strong the Taliban remains is somewhat of a mystery. Senior American commanders say the group, like much in this country, finds itself at a crossroads. Some of its international funding sources have dried up as jihadist movements in Syria and Iraq have shown more promise to those who underwrite Sunni insurgencies, U.S. military intelligence officials say.

After the Taliban failed to make good on its threat to foil this spring’s presidential election through violence, several leaders were ousted or sidelined, most significantly Abdul Qayam Zakir, who had been the group’s military commander in Afghanistan. Divisions among hard-line factions and those interested in joining the political process in Kabul have sharpened, U.S. military officials say.

“These rifts have tactical implications,” said Capt. Rick McCuan, 31, the battalion’s intelligence officer. “A fighter on the ground knows he has been loyal to a certain individual in a position of authority, and now there is confusion about whose guidance they should be following.”

The group is militarily weaker than it has been in several years due to the headway Afghan forces have made in securing urban areas and major transportation routes, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the war’s tactical commander, said in an interview. But they remain a potent threat in the south, as displayed by the intense fighting this summer in Helmand, where numbers of U.S. troops have been reduced most dramatically.

“It was a big deal, because it showed that if they want to do something, they still have the capability,” Anderson said of the Taliban assault there. “The question becomes who has the greater capability to beat who.”

A suspected insurgent spared

Returning to his old base, Larson said he was struck by the professionalism and discipline of the Afghan soldiers there. “What we have seen is that the Afghan security forces are holding their ground,” he said.

As the American team sought to make the most of its short stay in Zabul province, Larson leaned on the Afghans for actionable intelligence on senior insurgents.

“Attention in the TOC!” Maj. William Canda bellowed, silencing the couple of dozen soldiers crammed into the makeshift tactical operations center they established within one of the few concrete buildings of a former American site called Forward Operating Base Sweeney.

A platoon from the battalion had just gotten into a firefight with a band of suspected Taliban fighters during their first patrol in Zabul. Canda, the battalion’s operations officer, was working the phones and hammering away on his dusty laptop looking for intelligence and options.

Surveillance drones transmitted grainy, live black-and-white video of the platoon’s position, along with footage of suspected militants nearby. Signals intelligence analysts relayed intercepted communications from the militants.

“They just did another call-up,” one analyst said. “They reported that they saw infidels along the wall.”

There was palpable excitement in the room when radio intercepts confirmed that the Taliban commander leading the fight was a fairly senior fighter on the Americans’ target list. Known only by his alias, this was a man the Americans very much wanted to kill.

“Strike him,” Canda said, as his team worked to ensure that an airstrike on the man complied with rules that require a finding of “hostile intent” and assurances that bystanders wouldn’t be hurt. “Smite him.”

The suspected Taliban leader was spared because he was traveling with two other men who didn’t meet the hostile-intent criteria.

A similar frantic effort began the following day when the infantrymen at Sweeney spotted a man traveling on a motorcycle carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

The soldiers spent hours monitoring his movements on the screen. They called Afghan officials in the area to rule out that he could have been a policemen. In the end, they again refrained from ordering a hit.

“He lives to ride his motorcycle another day,” Canda said with some resignation.

Hemmed in by mines

Without drones and increasingly infrequent American air support, the experience of the Afghan soldiers under the command of Dost, the Afghan colonel Larson’s men came to help, offers an instructive window into what happens to contested areas once the Americans leave. A couple of years ago, the Afghan officer said, Taliban fighters in the area threatened to take over his base.

“When the Americans left, the Taliban fought us very strongly,” Dost said, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his modest bedroom on the post.

His men fought exceptionally hard, Dost said, and he also made peace with some former Taliban members or supporters who live close to the base, which has kept the immediate vicinity relatively safe.

Over time, the Taliban changed strategy. Instead of fighting for control of urban areas or trying to overrun the base, the group focused on maintaining access to smuggling routes used to ferry fighters, bombs and weapons from Pakistan. To keep Afghan soldiers at bay, Dost said, the Taliban has heavily mined areas around Afghan army bases and the routes their trucks must use to travel, leaving them largely constrained.

“The big problem has become IEDs,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices. Lacking the sophisticated equipment the U.S. military uses to spot and defuse roadside bombs, Dost’s men must rely on eyesight and instinct to find them and bullets to blow them up “If I’m going from one district to another, I find 50 or 55 IEDs along the route,” Dost added.

Of the smuggling routes Dost’s men are unable to shut down, a corridor in the Dawazagai Pass near the Pakistani border remains a major concern to U.S. military officials. Larson dispatched 100 paratroopers aboard Chinook helicopters there on a recent morning hoping to shut it down — if only for a few days.

‘They’re waiting us out’

Walking silently in single file, the American infantrymen were near the peak of a winding mountain stretch when the first ominous sighting of the day brought the formation to a halt. An Afghan soldier thought he had spotted a white cloth fluttering from a hilltop as the first hints of daylight revealed the valley’s stunning lunar landscape. “The ANA say they see a Taliban flag,” one of the Americans said.

The flag sighting turned out to be a mirage. As morning gave way to a smoldering afternoon, the soldiers perched on the peak of a range overlooking two tiny villages but found few signs of enemy activity — except, possibly, for three men who sped away in motorcycles.

“They’re waiting us out,” Sgt. Adam Letnom, 28, said as he looked down the valley, where a lone shepherd was tending goats. “They know we’re leaving, and they’ll start back up. Since there’s been so much focus on the pullout, it’s probably just smarter to wait.”

Sitting nearby, Staff Sgt. Kenneth Ventrice, 34, who served three tours in Iraq and is on his second Afghan deployment, said he had come to terms with the prospect that the Afghan war will be lost.

“It’s going to fall a lot faster than Iraq did,” Ventrice said. “Nobody fights like the Taliban.”

A few feet away, an Afghan soldier, Staff. Sgt. Jam Shid, appeared dejected as he agreed with those conclusions. Afghan security forces will start losing ground as more American military resources vanish, he predicted, and could quickly lose control. As his comrades nodded in agreement, Shid said he feels strongly that the American withdrawal time frame is premature.

“If we become weak, all the world will say America failed in Afghanistan,” he said. “If we become strong, all the world will say America succeeded in Afghanistan. One way or another, it will be a good lesson for the enemies of America and Afghanistan.”