It was a mission like so many others I've been on throughout Afghanistan: assailants unleash rockets, mortars and small arms attack on U.S. soldiers in a remote corner of Afghanistan that the Taliban and other militants groups call home. The ordnances drop, machine gun fire clatters, then American troops return fire in the direction they think their enemy might be.
On this day I'm in Achin District, in Nangarhar Province, just a short distance from the mountainous border with Pakistan. Earlier that morning, a rocket landed a couple of hundred yards from the platoon with whom I'm embedded, creating a giant ball of flames and smoke before a thunderous boom and shock wave.
Soldiers scatter and climb into their heavily armored vehicles and start discussing their next move over the radio. Officers in charge of the mission are debating the next course of action. One captain wants to send American troops to a nearby mud-walled compound where the rocket attack emanated.
Others object. "Today is the day we stop doing everything for them," says Capt. Derek Zotto referring to the Afghan National Army whose forces are leading the mission to clear villages in Achin of militants and establish relations with local tribal elders. "We're not putting our soldiers at risk."
The soldiers remain in the rear, and though their Afghan counterparts are heading up this operation, the local force declines to approach the compound from which the Americans were taking fire.
In this the next to last summer fighting season, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is decidedly different from years past. Though soldiers remain in harm's way, their Afghan counterparts are supposed to be leading every conventional military operation throughout the country. June marked the official handover of all security responsibilities to the Afghan National Security Forces. Though special operations forces like the Green Berets and Navy SEALS still conduct their own missions, they are always joined by Afghan soldiers.
Opinions on the ability of the Afghan forces to handle their country's security demands are mixed. While the force has swollen in size to 350,000-plus in just a few short years, and shown signs of improving their ability to conduct small operations, ANSF forces are handicapped by Kabul's failure to keep its soldiers supplied with basic necessities like ammunition, fuel for vehicles and food.
In fact, says one Afghan commander, if it weren't for their continued reliance on U.S. military to provide them what their own leaders won't provide, they'd rather operate alone.
"This is a good opportunity for us to work with locals (in Achin) and improve our relationships there," says Afghan National Army Maj. Zubair Ahmad, a head of the mission. It's also an ideal opportunity to show both Afghan locals and militants like the Taliban that ANSF isn't merely a smokescreen for the will of U.S. and NATO forces.
Over the last year I've spoken to numerous ANSF commanders across Afghanistan who claim their men possess the will to fight the Taliban and any other challengers, be they homegrown, Pakistani or al-Qaeda.
Despite their professed willingness to take on all comers, Afghan commanders inevitably admit, albeit sometime reluctantly, that they simply cannot conduct large operations involving hundreds of soldiers like the Achin mission without help from the Americans. Whether it's U.S. helicopters flying overhead, a huge advantage when rooting out hidden gunmen, or basic necessities for survival, they need the Americans' help.
Hoping to curb ANSF's need for U.S. overwatch on missions, Washington recently announced it was spending almost $600 million on Russian helicopters for the fledgling Afghan air force. The choice of Russian models was made due to the Afghans' familiarity with the Soviet-era aircraft. But concerns persist that the Afghans will not be able to maintain the aircraft in the long term, ultimately rendering them useless.
The seeming inability to maintain both its equipment and ranks -- the attrition rate from desertion and those that don't re-enlist is estimated to be about one-third a year -- will make standing on their own exceedingly difficult for Afghan forces following a U.S. drawdown. Concerns persist that with less U.S. oversight of Afghan forces and the Ministry of Defense, the entire rank and file of ANSF will break down: soldiers will increasingly desert their posts if their paychecks stop coming (and increasingly join the ranks of the Taliban).
In a post-American presence Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army, comprised largely of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, could splinter, according to some experts, and join the ranks of gunmen already loyal to respective warlords throughout the country.
Even now, those who remain already appear to sometimes lack motivation. During the fighting in Achin, I watched a group of soldiers just moments after the firefight load cases of water into the bed of Afghan soldiers' pickups because they hadn't brought enough to sustain them in the scorching afternoon sun. Later that night, with the mission reaching the 20-hour mark, Afghan troops were seen lounging beneath their vehicles, visibly spent by the day's operation, while U.S. forces maintained a watch for would-be attackers.
Their attitude toward the fight exasperates some American soldiers, as does the new supporting role U.S. forces are playing to Afghans' lead in the last throes of American combat operations here. "There is no commitment to victory," says one soldier following the attack, shaking his head knowing they couldn't retaliate by pursuing their attackers.
Some Afghan soldiers and civilians express the same sentiment, saying that the drawdown planned for 2014 shows that America's resolve in Afghanistan is leaving the country in the lurch, making it only a matter of time before civil war once again breaks out, as it did following the Soviet withdrawal.
Their frustration is further exacerbated when Washington recently threatened to pull every soldiers from Afghan soil at the end of 2014 instead of leaving behind, as previously planned, several thousand trainers to continue working with ANSF for years to come. But the so-called "zero option" is unlikely -- removing all American troops would likely spell the unraveling of ANSF and result in the civil war some analysts are already predicting as an inevitability, perhaps even a return to Taliban rule.
Without U.S. troops in Afghanistan, missions like the one in Achin would probably never get beyond the planning stage, leaving large swaths of Afghanistan susceptible to extremist rule and give the Taliban and others a comfortable foothold for launching attacks on the country's larger population centers, like nearby Jalalabad and the capital, Kabul.
That's a scenario both the Obama administration, and the soldiers who worked so hard to train Afghans to take up their own fight, can't allow to happen.opinion_commentary