As U.S. Troops Draw Down, Can Afghans Take The Lead?

  • An Afghan National Army Special Forces soldier rides on the back of a Green Beret vehicle near the village of Kasan, in Wardak province. As American forces are drawing down in Afghanistan, they are increasingly relying on Afghan forces to take the lead, especially more elite forces like the ANASF who are trained by U.S. Army Special Forces.
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    An Afghan National Army Special Forces soldier rides on the back of a Green Beret vehicle near the village of Kasan, in Wardak province. As American forces are drawing down in Afghanistan, they are increasingly relying on Afghan forces to take the lead, especially more elite forces like the ANASF who are trained by U.S. Army Special Forces.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Afghan National Army Special Forces keep a watchful eye on a potential ambush area while a herd of sheep and goats passes by during a patrol into Kasan. The U.S. Army Green Berets along with the ANASF have been training Afghan local police to take the lead in their village stability and security.
    Hide caption
    Afghan National Army Special Forces keep a watchful eye on a potential ambush area while a herd of sheep and goats passes by during a patrol into Kasan. The U.S. Army Green Berets along with the ANASF have been training Afghan local police to take the lead in their village stability and security.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Capt. Nasir (center) talks with members of Green Berets before a shura in Kasan. The mission of the Green Berets and ANASF is to recruit more Afghan local police to act as an armed neighborhood watch that will serve as the first line of defense against the Taliban.
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    Capt. Nasir (center) talks with members of Green Berets before a shura in Kasan. The mission of the Green Berets and ANASF is to recruit more Afghan local police to act as an armed neighborhood watch that will serve as the first line of defense against the Taliban.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • ANASF soldiers hold down a position as other members of their team patrol nearby. Taliban forces have traditionally used the area as an infiltration route and staging area because of its proximity to Kabul, which is about an hour away.
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    ANASF soldiers hold down a position as other members of their team patrol nearby. Taliban forces have traditionally used the area as an infiltration route and staging area because of its proximity to Kabul, which is about an hour away.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • U.S. Green Berets patrol up a flooded stream with ANASF.
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    U.S. Green Berets patrol up a flooded stream with ANASF.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Villagers in Kasan gather to meet with Afghan local police and the Afghan National Army along with ANASF team members during a morning shura to discuss security.
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    Villagers in Kasan gather to meet with Afghan local police and the Afghan National Army along with ANASF team members during a morning shura to discuss security.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Afghan National Army soldiers search a group of men near Kasan while local elders and local police hold a shura to discuss security.
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    Afghan National Army soldiers search a group of men near Kasan while local elders and local police hold a shura to discuss security.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • An ANASF soldier talks with a regular army soldier while on a patrol in the village of Kasan.
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    An ANASF soldier talks with a regular army soldier while on a patrol in the village of Kasan.
    David Gilkey/NPR
  • Villagers in Kasan gather to meet with Afghan local police and the Afghan National Army along with ANASF team members during a morning shura to discuss security.
    Hide caption
    Villagers in Kasan gather to meet with Afghan local police and the Afghan National Army along with ANASF team members during a morning shura to discuss security.
    David Gilkey/NPR

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There's just a sliver of light in the eastern sky as the patrol leaves the American compound through a thick metal door.

They scamper across Highway 2, a narrow asphalt road that leads to Kabul, just an hour's drive away — if not for the war. They cross an old graveyard and head toward the silhouette of a tree line, all seen through the eerie green glow of night-vision goggles.

They are heading to the village of Kasan, less than a mile away in the darkness. Taliban fighters cross the nearby mountain passes at night, slip into the villages and plan attacks that target Kabul. So today's mission is to shore up the defenses — working with the Afghan local police, sort of an armed neighborhood watch.

It's the Afghan special forces, Capt. Nasir and Sgt. Hadi and their team, who are taking the lead today.

Afghan National Army soldiers search a group of men near the village of Kasan. i i

hide captionAfghan National Army soldiers search a group of men near the village of Kasan.

David Gilkey/NPR
Afghan National Army soldiers search a group of men near the village of Kasan.

Afghan National Army soldiers search a group of men near the village of Kasan.

David Gilkey/NPR

Hadi is skinny with a scruffy beard and a wad of tobacco wedged in his lower lip. Two months ago, his quick action helped save the lives of Americans and Afghans. An Afghan national policeman had opened fire, killing two American Green Berets and two Afghans. Hadi ran to a nearby truck, grabbed a machine gun and shot him dead.

Hadi stops next to a river, just before the patrol crosses into the village.

He seems undisturbed about the U.S. leaving, noting that his men have the same weapons as the Americans.

"We are good in here," he says.

Hadi is among the most highly skilled Afghan soldiers. He serves on one of two-dozen Afghan special forces teams in eastern Afghanistan. The Americans want to train six more teams.

"I'm lucky because the guys I work with are doing the right thing, but there may be other areas that aren't as lucky as me, for sure," says the American Green Beret captain whose job it is to advise the Afghan forces.

For security reasons, we can't use his name.

Jalrez District Chief of Police Lt. Col. Allahuddin talks with elders and the local police in the village of Kasan during a morning shura to discuss security. i i

hide captionJalrez District Chief of Police Lt. Col. Allahuddin talks with elders and the local police in the village of Kasan during a morning shura to discuss security.

David Gilkey/NPR
Jalrez District Chief of Police Lt. Col. Allahuddin talks with elders and the local police in the village of Kasan during a morning shura to discuss security.

Jalrez District Chief of Police Lt. Col. Allahuddin talks with elders and the local police in the village of Kasan during a morning shura to discuss security.

David Gilkey/NPR

Still, they are a small fraction of an Afghan Army that is still spotty in its performance. Some Afghan Army units are aggressive; others just hunker down, or worse — make truces with the Taliban to avoid fighting.

The patrol crosses the river — over a concrete bridge and up a flooded dirt road — into the village of Kasan. The sun is just coming up. The soldiers find themselves in the middle of a flock of sheep.

"They have everything under control. Everything's going smoothly in there, so we're just going to push forward a little bit and see what's going on just so we know what's actually happening," the U.S. captain says.

They walk past mud-walled homes and enter a small square lined with trees. Village elders are preparing for a meeting. Bright-red carpets are spread over the earth. The elders — all with turbaned heads, and most with white and peppered beards — begin to take a seat on the rugs.

The Afghan special forces — Capt. Nasir and Sgt. Hadi — join the meeting and sit cross-legged among the circle of elders. The meeting is about security. Right now, a half-dozen men from this village serve in the Afghan local police. They man checkpoints along Highway 2. They screen for insurgents who might be traveling along the main road. The problem: The Taliban know enough to avoid the checkpoints. So the Afghan special forces tell the elders to move a security post inside the village. That would prevent the Taliban from using Kasan as a safe haven.

The elders listen without expression. Suddenly, a middle-aged man stands up. He becomes more and more agitated, shouting at the elders, waving his arms.

He says the Taliban come here, but no one reports them to the security forces.

"At the mosque, they are giving them chai and food," he says. "They are playing both sides."

This is a central problem. The elders may be providing local men to serve with the police, but they are also working with the Taliban.

Nasir, the Afghan commander, tries to reason with the elders, tries to get them to help him. He tells them that if they provide the security forces with information, they will guard the village.

U.S. Green Berets patrol with Afghan National Army special forces outside the village of Kasan, in Wardak province. The Green Berets along with the ANASF have been training Afghan local police to take the lead in their village stability and security. i i

hide captionU.S. Green Berets patrol with Afghan National Army special forces outside the village of Kasan, in Wardak province. The Green Berets along with the ANASF have been training Afghan local police to take the lead in their village stability and security.

David Gilkey/NPR
U.S. Green Berets patrol with Afghan National Army special forces outside the village of Kasan, in Wardak province. The Green Berets along with the ANASF have been training Afghan local police to take the lead in their village stability and security.

U.S. Green Berets patrol with Afghan National Army special forces outside the village of Kasan, in Wardak province. The Green Berets along with the ANASF have been training Afghan local police to take the lead in their village stability and security.

David Gilkey/NPR

That's the bargain: The government can provide security and protect the village. In exchange, it needs information about what the Taliban are up to. But they're not getting that information.

The deputy chief of police, Lt. Col. Allahuddin, says villagers either support the Taliban or are afraid of them. He says the Taliban come to the village every night, and residents are helping them.

"If I will call you guys ... the Taliban will kill me," he says through a translator.

The American captain packs up his radio, and the Afghan and American soldiers head back down the flooded road and once again over the bridge.

They walk back to base together. Come the fall, the American team will leave and won't be replaced. By November, Capt. Nasir and his Afghan soldiers will walk this trail alone.

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