As NATO prepares to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014, Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead against the Taliban and other insurgents. But the results are mixed.
In parts of Logar Province, just south of Kabul, Afghan troops are successfully leading security operations. In other parts of the same province, where insurgents are more active, U.S. troops are still taking the lead.
The sprawling Forward Operating Base Shank is the main hub for coalition troops in this province. It's also one of the most heavily shelled bases in the country. Incoming rockets are a daily scourge, and people on the base are used to an afternoon sprint into a bunker.
U.S. forces were hoping for relief from the daily rocket fire after they killed two insurgents who were spotted by aerial surveillance in the vicinity of a rocket-launching site. Still, the rockets keep coming.
Despite the snow starting to blanket the jagged mountaintops in Logar, the fighting season, which peaks during he summer, carries on.
The main hot spot in the province is the Baraki Barak district. The joint NATO and Afghan base there is a five-minute helicopter flight to the west of Shank.
"We've found Baraki Barak is fairly decisive to the province," says Lt. Col. Whit Wright, commander of the 1-91 Cavalry Squadron, which is in charge of Baraki Barak, or BBK as it's known in military parlance. He says the district has historically been an insurgent stronghold.
"The fight in BBK is here to stay, and that's why we're focusing so much on the capacity development," Wright continues. "Simply increasing the numbers of police, increasing the potency of the Army forces that are here."
Still Reeling From Insider Attacks
A mile or so to the south of the base, 2nd Lt. John Alulis leads an early morning foot patrol through frost-covered fields to the village of Wawakel.
"As of right now, our mission is to kind of help the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] stabilize the district, so that come the final American withdrawal, they can take over," he says.
The Afghan forces include the army, police and the intelligence agencies. Despite the urgency of getting them trained and in the lead, there are none to be found on this patrol.
That's in no small part because of the surge of insider attacks. At least 60 NATO personnel have been killed this year in confirmed cases of Afghan security forces turning their weapons on coalition troops.
The platoon pushes on across a small stream and through the soft dirt of barren fields. Alulis ponders whether having Afghan forces on patrol with them would increase or decrease the level of threat they face.
"It's all based on the personal relationships that they have with locals," he says. "Sometimes they can be unpopular because their fire discipline isn't the same as ours — they like to shoot first and maybe ask questions after that. They perform well and badly, all on the same patrol."
As the platoon pushes through the fields, they spot some suspicious individuals and head over to investigate.
Alulis calls for a few men to set up a security perimeter. As U.S. troops approach the individuals, another man approaches on a motorcycle.
He's not slowing down. Troops yell at the man to stop. He keeps coming. Suddenly a single gunshot pierces the air.
A soldier has fired a warning shot to get the man to stop. In September, a suicide bomber killed two U.S. troops in BBK, so this patrol isn't taking any chances.
The man stops, and after questioning him, they determine he's no threat and simply wasn't paying attention.
The other men they question turn out to be local residents who were returning home. The Afghans say that this area is safe but a mile or two away is full of insurgents.
The U.S. troops ask the man to spread the word in the village for people to stay away from U.S. troops on patrol. The man says he will, and then in typical form invites the troops for tea. They politely decline and continue with the patrol.
Afghan Forces Still Uneven
Back at the base, 2nd Lt. Alex Panosian assesses the Afghan troops in BBK.
"Tactically we've found that they are OK. Not great, but OK," he says.
But Panosian says their planning is very reactive in nature, which is why the U.S. troops are trying to get their Afghan counterparts to focus on planning operations in advance and conducting more intelligence-driven operations to target known insurgents.
Wright, the lieutenant colonel, explains that there are three Kandaks -– the Afghan equivalent of a battalion -– in Logar Province.
"Each of them is staggered in their development," Wright says. "Some have seen growth that is more advanced than others. That can be attributed to a lot of things, I think really decisive leadership, and then the man training and equipping."
Wright says the 1st Kandak, which is in Baraki Barak, is not ready to handle security on its own.
"Number one, they've got the most kinetic environment, there's just more going on down here," Wright says.
On top of that, Wright says their level of training isn't on par with some of their counterparts, and their leadership is not as effective as some of the other units.
The other end of the spectrum in Logar province is at Combat Outpost McClain. Wright praises the Afghans there. He says that about 90 percent of their operations are solo.
"They've got some very good, decisive leadership, very independent leadership, and I think that has further accelerated their growth," says Wright.
COP McClain is the northernmost base in the province and sits next to the main highway that leads to Kabul. U.S. troops and those from the highly-praised 7th Kandak of the Afghan Army are the last line of defense to keep insurgents from pushing north to the capital.
On one afternoon, Lt. Fitzpatrick, a platoon leader with the 1-91 Cavalry, meets with his Afghan counterpart. Fitzpatrick is being briefed about the Afghan-led mission the following morning that his platoon will support.
Logar's Strategic Importance
The next day, the U.S. platoon gathers and crosses the Friendship Wall – the somewhat ironically named barricade that divides COP McClain between the NATO side and the Afghan side.
The Afghans lead the patrol out of the base, and the U.S. platoon follows behind — according to Sgt. 1st Class Casey Mallette, that's something fairly new for these patrols.
"When we first got here, we would [line up] every other man — it would be one U.S., one Afghan all the way back until we ran out of [Afghan] soldiers," says Mallette. "We try not to do that anymore because we can't keep eyes on them."
It's another change driven by the insider attacks.
"Now, we're back to this whole partnered and enabling task," Mallette continues, "so we try to let the ANA run it and we're just here to bail them out if they get in trouble."
Despite all the praise of the 7th Kandak, the Afghan soldiers are still rough around the edges. For example, their impromptu traffic control point leaves a little to be desired among U.S. soldiers like Mallette, ever watchful for car bombs.
"If they're looking for a [car bomb], and it drives up here, it's going to kill a lot of people," Mallette explains to the Afghan platoon leader through an interpreter. "I'm not trying to tell him how to do his job. I want to make sure he's thinking about this kind of stuff when he's out here."
The Afghan lieutenant nods. But, the Afghan troops carry on with their checkpoint, stopping passing cars as school kids and local residents walk by. As he watches the scene, one question comes to Mallette's mind.
"Would 7th Kandak be this successful if they were in BBK or Charkh?" Mallette wonders.
In other words: Are these Afghan soldiers really as good as they seem, or are they just lucky to be in one of the safer areas of Logar? U.S. troops say that despite how well the Afghans here are doing, this area is too strategically important to hand over anytime soon.