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The American military has two main jobs now in Afghanistan: sweeping the remaining Taliban from safe havens and getting Afghan security forces to take charge in the fight.
On a recent day, the Afghan National Army, or ANA, is to be out front on a joint Afghan-U.S. patrol in the countryside outside Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. It may seem like a small thing, but it's actually a big deal.
Sgt. Matthew McMurray lets his platoon know.
"ANA is going to lead, too. If they don't want to lead, just stop and make them walk ahead of you," he says.
McMurray and his soldiers are based at a combat outpost in the village of Zangabad, outside Kandahar. Its nickname is "Zangaboom" because of the roadside bombs around an open stretch of grape orchards and mud-walled compounds.
The mission this day is to probe just to the south of a Taliban-controlled village. The soldiers squeeze into their armored vehicles — called Strykers — and roll down the region's one paved highway to meet up with their Afghan counterparts.
Pfc. Dylan Reece, like the other Americans, has been in the area for only a month. He already has a mixed view of the Afghan troops.
"They know that they're going to be here forever. So they'll sit around and be like, 'No, we're not going to clear over there today; we'll do it tomorrow.' You can't do that, you got to go," he says with a laugh. "But then when you start taking rounds, their head's back in the game. Then they're warriors again."
There are some tough Afghan units. They fight hard but have trouble planning and supplying themselves in the field. Other Afghan units are reluctant even to go on patrol, the Americans say, and are led by timid officers.
'Still Working On Fundamentals'
The soldiers say the day's patrol is one more test. The convoy continues to roll down the one paved road. Suddenly, word squawks over the radio: There might not be any Afghan troops going on patrol with the Americans this day.
A collective sigh, but no one is surprised — until the Afghans do show up, driving old Humvees and troop carriers, topped by tattered Afghan flags.
At last, the Americans and Afghans have teamed up. The armored vehicles head down the road, kicking up dust — until one of the American Strykers gets stuck in the mud. And all the troops pile out.
The American soldiers flop on their stomachs against a dirt berm on the side of the road, pointing their weapons toward a village on the horizon. The men scan for any threat.
The Afghan troops are not as concerned. They take off their helmets and stand around in clusters, smoking cigarettes and pulling out their cellphones.
Capt. Chris Longto of Schenectady, N.Y., is leading the mission. He stands on the road watching the Afghans, and smiles.
"We're still working on the fundamentals of pulling security," he says. "We're still working through a lot of that with them."
The Afghan platoon sergeant, Hyatulla Hakimi, stands with his soldiers. When asked why his soldiers seem so relaxed, he says there's no danger in this area — the security is good on this stretch of road — but it's a bit more dangerous ahead.
On Foot, Still Following Orders
The next time the Americans and Afghans stop, it's time to go on patrol — on foot.
The Americans prod the Afghans to go out front. With an Afghan minesweeper in the lead, a long, snaking line of soldiers crosses a stream. They head toward an encampment of nomadic herders, which Taliban fighters often infiltrate.
The homes are a collection of huts with no doors. Reed mats and blankets cover the floors. Sheep, chickens and small children dart across the dirt. An American fighter plane keeps watch high overhead.
Longto sends the Afghan soldiers to search the camp.
"We don't go into people's homes. So the Afghans will go into the homes by themselves," he says.
The Afghan soldiers search the huts and help the Americans question a tall, bearded man. He is the only military-aged man there, so the Americans wipe his hand with a swab. The man tests positive for nitrates, a key ingredient in roadside bombs.
It's supposed to be an Afghan patrol, but Longto is giving the orders.
"The ANA should do a slightly more thorough search. See if they can find something," he commands.
Soon the Afghans emerge from the hut with something more interesting, a plastic bag full of a black, tarlike substance: heroin.
It's quickly confiscated, and the patrol moves on.
The pattern repeats itself all afternoon: The patrol arrives at a mud compound. The Afghans lead the search. And the Americans tell them they didn't do it right.
Will They Be Ready?
Finally, the sun is starting to set. The patrol is over.
McMurray, the platoon leader, has been in the area for a little over a month; he says that he is already frustrated. Training the Afghan troops, he says, will take a long time.
"We have to keep pushing them," McMurray says.
And when will the Afghan troops be ready?
"The ANA is a new army," says Afghan Brig. Gen. Ahmed Habbibi, who commands the Afghan army in this area. He adds that they need training and equipment.
But he never answers whether his troops will be ready when the American combat mission ends in 2014.
When the same question is posed to Lt. Col. Wilson Rutherford, the American commander at Zangabad, he has this reply: "The answer for that is they'll have every opportunity to be successful."
Rutherford is pushing that process along. He was able to get Habbibi to fire two Afghan army commanders for incompetence.
"They understand they have to win," Rutherford says. "They have to get it right."
The Afghans have two more years to make that happen.