The Americans could be spotted waiting for the Chinooks in the 2 a.m. darkness only by the shape of their night-vision goggles, as they shared a cigarette with glowing embers in quick drags among the kneeling assaulters in the chilled dark.
They would be on the first two helicopters to drop into the villages of the Khogyani district in the shadows of the Tora Bora mountains, kicking off a four-day operation against the Taliban by roughly 175 Americans and 1,250 Afghan troops, in a teeth-clenching test of U.S. mentoring and training.
The Afghans were lined up behind the Americans, leaning back on their 130-pound backpacks, saving their strength to carry the loads onto the Chinooks for their first air assault, and without the Americans' high-tech goggles, letting their eyes adjust to the dark for the assault to come.
They didn't talk much.
A Predator drone feed showed the groups landing in the darkened district — dark spots trudging slowly up hills and sometimes falling into ditches — U.S. and Afghan alike. They set up a post to oversee the insurgent-ridden villages they would be guarding for the next four days as Afghan police cleared them out house by house.
Intelligence intercepts showed most of the insurgents already had fled to the farthest village just beneath Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden escaped his American pursuers, after watching the Afghan troops and police mass the day before.
The Afghans and their American security advisers from the U.S. Army's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, were less interested in pursuing them than in making sure they could not return, making way for the Afghan local police who would take their place.
In the daylight, village elders were invited to meet with the Afghan general who led the attack, and they said they welcomed the troops because they were Afghans, not foreigners.
The U.S. brigade's commander, Col. Joseph "J.P." McGee, sat quietly in a corner, making the briefest of comments. This was an Afghan-to-Afghan conversation.
Overall in the operation, there were tactical missteps that Americans pointed out privately to the Afghan commanders, tactfully out of earshot of their subordinates. There were shortfalls in supplies, and requests were sometimes denied for U.S. air support for nighttime bombing runs or medical assistance.
But in The Associated Press' visits to Khogyani district and some of the country's most contested southern and eastern provinces — Helmand, Nuristan, Kunar and Nangarhar — multiple operations were led or carried out mostly by Afghans. Their officers were doing the bulk of the planning and execution, responding without U.S. aid to large-scale Taliban attacks or choosing targets the Americans sometimes disagreed with, if the U.S. advisers were consulted at all.
The uneven but steady progress is encouraging for the U.S. commanders trying to hand off responsibility ahead of the December 2014 drawdown of most U.S. forces, from roughly 66,000 Americans at the start of this year, to an as-yet-undetermined residual force of NATO troops that have been estimated will be around 8,000 to 10,000.
The Afghans are paying heavily for that lead role, with casualty figures rising steadily, more than doubling from 550 Afghan soldiers and police killed in 2011 to more than 1,200 last year, according to data compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
This year is bloodier still, with 300 security personnel, mostly police, killed in March alone, according to a top Afghan security official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was unauthorized to discuss the unpublished figure. That monthly average is roughly equivalent to the total number of U.S. forces lost in 2012, according to AP's own count of 297 U.S. troops killed, out of a total of 394 coalition forces.
About 660 militants were reported to have been killed by coalition and Afghan forces so far this year, compared with close to 3,000 militants last year. The NATO command does not issue reports on the number of insurgents its troops have killed, and Afghan military figures, from which the AP compiles its data, cannot be independently verified.
Still, there is little public outcry over the Afghan losses.
While the Afghan army's attrition rate spiked to 4.1 percent in January, it has dropped back closer to the annual average of 2.6 percent. The combined Afghan army and police roster remains in excess of 332,753, according to figures provided by NATO's training mission, and the combined forces are clawing back some new ground from the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan officials say.
Arrayed against the green Afghan forces is a still-formidable force of Taliban and other militants. Their numbers are small, at an estimated 20,000 to 30,000, compared with the Afghan security forces' strength.
But they are knitted into the rural fabric of much of Afghanistan, well-versed in guerrilla tactics and local terrain, well-supplied with explosives and ammunition and plugged into enough local tipsters to ambush Afghan security forces when they are at their most vulnerable.
By summer's end, the U.S., the Afghans and the Taliban should know whether Afghan forces have what it takes to hold their ground, Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the AP.
"If the Afghans perform in a manner that we expect them to, that's going to have a demoralizing effect on the Taliban," he said in his headquarters office in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
"It's going to reduce the capabilities of the Taliban psychologically, and as importantly, it's going to cause the Afghan people to be more confident" in their forces and less likely to support or join the Taliban, he added.
Senior administration and coalition officials said the goal is to reach a sort of bloody equilibrium, where the Afghan security forces hold the populated areas and major trade routes to allow commerce to grow, and thereby slowly diminish the ranks of the Taliban by providing other employment opportunities for would-be fighters.
"What they need to be able to do is to secure key areas ... and eventually wait out and let the insurgency wither away," said McGee, at his headquarters in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar province.
"It would be folly to try to roll up into every valley and fight these guys. It is what we used to do," McGee said. "I think (the Afghans) will pursue a very different approach than we did .... more patient, more focused on endurance as opposed to attrition of the enemy, and I think eventually the Taliban will lose relevance and support over time," he said.
The Taliban know this is a make-or-break season for the Afghan forces and are targeting accordingly.
From November 2012 through the end of January, 75 percent of attacks were against coalition forces and only 25 percent were targeted at Afghans, according to a senior coalition intelligence official, who spoke anonymously as a condition of discussing the confidential statistics.
This past winter, the numbers were reversed, with 75 percent of the attacks now striking Afghans and 25 percent targeting coalition or coalition and Afghan joint patrols.
The police remain the Afghans' most vulnerable target. They're usually in lightly defended posts, in remote areas and still considered far less trained, with incidents of drug use and corruption still common.
But NATO deputy commander Lt. Gen. Nick Carter said five of Afghanistan's 26 army brigades, each with 450 to 600 troops, can operate independently, and an additional 16 are capable of operating with limited advice from the U.S.-led international coalition.
U.S. military officers who monitor performance say they've tracked a marked improvement in Afghan army units during the past 12 months, with 101 units improving and only seven dropping in the ratings.
One of those newly independent Afghan army brigades is in Helmand province, scene of some of the fiercest fighting, and worst losses, for U.S. Marines.
Now the once-bustling Camp Dwyer, a satellite base a 20-minute flight south from the larger Camp Leatherneck, has shrunk from some 5,000 Marines and support staff to roughly 800. About 60 of those Marines are living in a smaller base, next to the Afghan National Army's 1st Brigade, 215th Corps headquarters.
The last time Marines there went on joint patrols with the Afghans was in the fall, said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Philip Treglia, who leads the security force adviser team.
"We're shrinking from 60 to 24 advisers," this spring, Treglia said. "This summer I'm recommending we go down to five," he added. "The Afghans just aren't going to need us."
Treglia's Afghan counterpart, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Sujai, bolstered that prediction only weeks earlier by conducting a four-day, 650-man army and police operation to clear insurgents and opium-producing poppy fields out of Trek Nawa, a known Taliban safe haven.
He only told the Americans about the operation when it was done.
"It was a test," Sujai said. "I wanted to prove we could do it alone."
Treglia described another incident, this one watched by the Americans on aerial surveillance.
About 80 Taliban fighters approached the town of Marjah from the north, stopping at a mosque to let the locals know they were coming back to take over.
By the time they'd reached a second mosque, residents had called the Afghan security forces — army, police and the militia-like local police, who happened to all be interrelated by marriage. Some of them were even former Taliban, Treglia said. A 400-man force headed north and intercepted the would-be invaders.
The Americans counted at least 30 bodies left on the battlefield, all Taliban, according to Sujai. The rest fled.
Treglia said sometimes the Afghans don't want the Americans there, because they don't want them watching, such as when the police shake down local farmers for bribes, in return for burning only part, instead of all, of their poppy crops.
The police then demand the farmers turn in the Taliban when they visit to collect the drugs, thus both lining their pockets and bumping up their arrest record, Treglia explained.
"We used to try to stop it. Now, we let the Afghan general know — and he knows — and it's up to them to sort it out," the American said.
In some cases, the Americans are forcing the Afghans to take charge before they want to, hoping to wean the Afghans of support that soon won't be available as the U.S. forces shrink in southern Afghanistan in the coming months.
If the Afghans are wounded on an operation, the Marines get them to describe the injuries and only send a U.S. aerial medevac crew if the wounds are life-threatening, explained U.S. Marine Maj. Christopher Bourbeau, deputy commander of the mission.
Bourbeau traded flying combat helicopters over southern Afghanistan to join the adviser team and has watched the Afghans develop over a four-year period of rotations through the area.
Bourbeau has enlisted Marine medics and the doctors and nurses at the U.S. medical facility at neighboring Camp Dwyer to teach the Afghans how to transport their less severely wounded troops by road. The troops got a grim reminder to pay closer attention when they were hit a few months ago, however, and failed to tie tourniquets on the wounded men.
"They lost guys because no one did that simple thing," Bourbeau.
He launched a brigade-wide refresher course after the losses and demonstrated the results by staging an impromptu pop quiz of one of the Afghan bomb technicians as he walked around the Afghan base. He tossed a tourniquet at the man, said, "Go," and the Afghan had tied a tourniquet on the American officer's leg in just over 30 seconds.
There was a similar spirit of just-say-no tough love at Forward Operating Base Joyce in Kunar province. When the U.S. refused to supply a remote Afghan guard post in the hills above their side-by-side bases, the Afghans built a road to it themselves.
"They secure the camp better than we do now," said U.S. Army security adviser Lt. Col Bryan Laske.
By the numbers, they are finding 20 percent more improvised explosive devices, or IEDs on average than the Americans did, Laske added.
When Col. Hayatullah, who uses only one name, agreed to clear the Pech Valley, he addressed the villagers before the operation alone.
"I told them I am a fellow Muslim," said the commander of the Afghan army's 2nd Brigade, 201st Corps, gesturing to the Arabic inscription "God is great" on one shoulder of his uniform. "I told them I come with a Quran in one hand and a sword in the other. Your actions determine which one I use."
The troops took the valley and are holding it, something the Americans never could in a decade of battle, Laske said.
In a planning meeting for another clearing operation to come, the Afghan army commanders and a group of police and intelligence chiefs argued over how the operation would unfold, with the Americans sitting silently at the far end of the crowded conference table.
"We're not going to leave the enemy sitting a kilometer away from us and do nothing," shouted Afghan Maj. Mahboob, who also goes by one name, leaping to his feet and straining across the table for emphasis.
"The coalition is going to leave, and we have to be able to do this!" he said. The officer's words were translated by a U.S. military translator, but he later repeated what was said in English when asked.
In the operation McGee oversaw to the south, the 1,250 Afghans took and held the towns, leaving Afghan local police in their stead, McGee said.
"There were no civilian casualties, and the villagers are supporting it and at least 100 local police have started work," said Khogyani district's administration chief, Abdul Wahab Momand.
But even as that operation was going ahead, up to eight suicide bombers hit a police headquarters in nearby Jalalabad, about 75 miles east of Kabul, killing least five officers. On the same day in Helmand province, a car bomb struck a British base, killing one of the coalition troops. Those are grim reminders that militants intend to keep fighting.
"Do we still have challenges? Sure we do," Dunford said. "Literacy, logistics ... technical capabilities. ... But in terms of their ability to provide security to the Afghan people in 2013 and beyond, I'm confident that they'll be able to do that," he said.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
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