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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. military in Afghanistan has a couple of main jobs right now: keeping pressure on the Taliban and getting Afghan security forces to take the lead in the fight. NPR's Tom Bowman went on a patrol in the countryside outside of Kandahar to check on the progress of the Afghan army.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: It might seem like a small thing but it's actually a big deal. The ANA, or Afghan National Army, will be out front on today's patrol. Sergeant Matthew McMurray calls out to his platoon to let them know.

SERGEANT MATTHEW MCMURRAY: Hey, ANA is going to lead too. So, make sure - if they don't want to lead just stop and let them walk ahead of you.

BOWMAN: Sergeant McMurray and his soldiers are based at a combat outpost in the village of Zangabad. The place's nickname is Zangaboom because of all the roadside bombs around this open stretch of grape orchards and mud-walled compounds. The mission today 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. Private First Class Dylan Reece, like the other Americans, has only been here for a month. He already has a mixed view of the Afghan troops.

PRIVATE FIRST CLASS DYLAN REECE: 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. Like, you can't do that. You got to go. But then when you start taking rounds, their head's back in the game. Then they're warriors again.

BOWMAN: Warriors. There are some tough 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. The soldiers say today is one more test. The convoy's still rolling down that one paved road.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SPEAKING ON RADIO)

BOWMAN: Suddenly, word squawks over the radio. There might not be any Afghan troops going on patrol with the Americans today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SPEAKING ON RADIO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sir, ANA is not coming.

BOWMAN: 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. A long line of armored vehicles heads down the road, kicking up dust. That is until one of the American Strykers gets stuck in the mud.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SPEAKING ON RADIO)

BOWMAN: All the troops pile out. The American soldiers flop on their stomachs against a dirt berm on the side of the road. Their weapons are pointed 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 cell phones. Captain Chris Longto of Schenectady, New York is leading today's mission. He stands on the road watching the Afghans and smiles.

CAPTAIN CHRIS LONGTO: We're still working on the whole fundamentals of pulling security. We're still working through that with them.

BOWMAN: The Afghan platoon sergeant - his name is Hyatulla Hakimi - is standing with his soldiers. I asked him why his soldiers seem so relaxed.

SERGEANT HYATULLA HAKIMI: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: 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 where we're headed. Once the Stryker is pulled from the mud, the Americans and Afghans get back in their armored vehicles, ready to move on. Twenty minutes later, the convoy comes to another halt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SPEAKING ON RADIO)

BOWMAN: This time it's to go on patrol on foot. The Americans prod the Afghans to go out front. With an Afghan mine sweeper in the lead, a long snaking line of soldiers crosses a stream. They head across an open flat of ground toward an encampment of nomadic herders. Taliban fighters will often infiltrate these camps. The homes are a collection of huts with no doors. Reed mats and blankets cover the floors. Sheep and chickens and small children dart across the dirt. A tied-up dog barks at the patrol. An American fighter plane keeps watch high overhead. Captain Longto sends the Afghan soldiers to search the camp.

LONGTO: We don't go into people's homes. So, the Afghans will go in kind of into to the house (unintelligible) by themselves.

BOWMAN: The Afghan soldiers search the huts and help the Americans question the tall bearded man. He was the only military-age man there, so the Americans wipe his hand with a swab.

LONGTO: That's red.

BOWMAN: The man tests positive for nitrates, a key ingredient in roadside bombs. It's supposed to be an Afghan patrol, but the American - Captain Longto - is giving the orders.

LONGTO: The ANA should do a slightly more thorough search, see if they can find something.

BOWMAN: Soon the Afghans emerge from the hut with something more interesting.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, wow. That's not poppy, that's heroin.

LONGTO: This is pure opium, fellas. Do not touch it.

BOWMAN: It's a plastic bag full of a black, tar-like substance. It's quickly confiscated, and patrol moves on. The pattern repeats itself all afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

BOWMAN: The patrol arrives at a mud compound. The Afghans lead the search and the Americans tell them they didn't do it right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You did not search it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Right now, my guy is searching.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: All right. Well, bring 'em all back then.

BOWMAN: Finally, the sun is starting to set, and the Americans call the Afghans to head back through the stream to the vehicles. The patrol is over. Sergeant McMurray grades the Afghan soldiers.

MCMURRAY: I think it'll take a long time. We have to keep pushing them.

BOWMAN: Is it frustrating.

MCMURRAY: It is very frustrating.

BOWMAN: And you've been here how long?

MCMURRAY: A little over month. I'm frustrated now, so.

(SOUNDBITE OF TROOPS CHANTING)

BOWMAN: When will the Afghans troops be ready? We put that question to Brigadier General Ahmed Habbibi. We caught up with him the next day, as he was reviewing his troops. He commands the Afghan army in this area. He spoke through an interpreter.

BRIGADIER GENERAL AHMED HABBIB: (Through Translator) Our ANA, that's new way. That's new army.

BOWMAN: He says they need training and equipment. But he never answered whether his troops will be ready when the American combat mission comes to an end in 2014.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL WILSON RUTHERFORD: Will they be successful when we leave?

BOWMAN: That's the American commander at Zangabad, Lieutenant Colonel Wilson Rutherford.

RUTHERFORD: And the answer for that is they will have every opportunity to be successful.

BOWMAN: And Colonel Rutherford is pushing that process along. He was able to get General Habbibi to fire two Afghan Army commanders who were incompetent.

RUTHERFORD: They understand they have to win. They have to get it right.

BOWMAN: The Afghans have two more years to make that happen.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

SIMON: NPR's great photographer David Gilkey went on patrol with Captain David Longto. And you can see photographs from the mission on our website, NPR.org.

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