Afghans Without Americans: A Preview of Soldiering When the U.S. Withdraws

The curtailment of U.S.-Afghan patrols because of so-called “green on blue” killings focuses attention on how ready local troops are

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John Wendle for TIME

Afghan soldiers observe how to apply a tourniquet during drills at Combat Outpost Garda, Wardak Province.

UPDATED: Sept. 19, 10 a.m.

The jumble of Afghan soldiers stood in the shade of a wall, waiting for orders to prepare for drills from their American trainers. Suddenly the thump of an explosion sent them scattering. The U.S. soldiers grabbed their rifles and a sergeant ordered everyone to a bunker. The Afghans do not listen. Most poked their head over the wall, trying to get a look at the blast. Just 300 meters away a dark brown cloud from an improvised explosive device rose over the village next to the base – Combat Outpost Garda, 30 miles from Kabul. The chatter of heavy machine guns and the clatter of rifles returning fire rolled over the base and then they went silent. More than a quarter of the times the Afghan forces have gone out in the past week, they have encountered IED threats. This time their sappers blew the explosives in place, but other times they have stumbled on them, though none of their troops have been injured or killed.

And then, the U.S. stopped patrolling with the Afghans — which is a big deal since only the American troops here have minesweeping equipment to safely detect IEDs — though Afghan forces elsewhere have the equipment and it is said that Afghan soldiers are being trained. Reacting to a series of setbacks recently, U.S. commanders here curtailed interaction between U.S. and Afghan forces and halted foot patrols – leaving the Afghans to work on their own.

(MORE: Unfriendly Fire: Can the U.S. and NATO Prevent ‘Green on Blue’ Attacks in Afghanistan?)

After protests swept through Muslim countries last week and Afghan security forces killed a number of Coalition troops in insider attacks, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan decided that halting foot patrols would decrease the risk of angering locals. At the same time, limiting interaction between the U.S. platoons and their Afghan counterparts would minimize the risk of further green on blue killings. But while the measures were temporary, they gave Afghan soldiers a glimpse of what it will be like after the U.S. leaves – and the local troops, at least in Garda, did not like the view.

First, with the American minesweepers absent, the Afghans find it harder to spot IEDs in advance — though they have found more than their U.S. mentors. So they had to find them the old fashioned way: with their feet – as one soldier said. And though the Afghan captains continued to meet with the U.S. captains, the Americans stopped training and drilling the Afghan Army in everything from shooting to binding wounds.

What was left – on both sides – was frustration. “We have to do our mission. But the big problem is that we don’t have a mine detector. It’s the big problem we have,” says Cpt. Sayed Abdullah, when he was told that a U.S. squad would not be accompanying the Afghans on a recent, early morning patrol. “It’s very difficult for us,” he told the soldier sent to deliver the bad news. “We know there are lot of IEDs along the main road, that’s why we are asking for your soldiers to go with us and to clear the roads,” he said with a sigh – and then again emphasized that his unit has no way to detect mines and IEDs.

(PHOTOS: Fighting for Afghanistan’s Future)

With the “cooling-off” period over, Afghan and U.S. soldiers can again interact (not that they do, really). U.S. forces in Garda will return to foot patrols – though, for the time being, without their Afghan partners – and to mentoring the Afghan unit here. But they will also continue to strip down their base and make it “Afghan sustainable” – the new catch phrase that entails shrinking this facility so the Afghan unit taking over can hold it without American help. One U.S. officer described the situation as “taking the training wheels off.”

(One other recent change: U.S. forces will no longer be calling in fire support without the approval of a one star general or higher, unless it is in self defense. While the order is temporary, it has no expiration date. The guidance came after NATO accidentally killed eight women in an airstrike targeting insurgents. The regulation amounts to yet another shackle on American war fighting capabilities – though this one may prove beneficial – at least to civilians.)

Now that the Afghan officers at Garda have seen what the battle spacelooks like without their American comrades-in-arms, they themselves may begin to question whether they are ready to handle security on their own once thepull out is complete in 2014. As it stands, while the unit here seems well led and decently motivated, it also seems they still want and need their training wheels.

MORE: Afghanistan Now, Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev