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Will US exit strategy work in Afghanistan? Brutal valley emerges as test.

US forces have had to return to a key outpost they left to Afghan forces in March. Now, the US commander there is trying to forge a new partnership to bring the Afghans up to speed.

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It was a pattern of hostility repeatedly encountered by US forces. “We really had to reoccupy the base,” says Maj. Glenn Kozelka, executive officer for the 2nd battalion, 3rd brigade combat team of the 25th Infantry Division.

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Security had deteriorated rapidly after US forces departed. Within weeks, the Afghan battalion commander at Nangalam could not safely get to meetings in a Asadabad, Kunar’s bustling capital 25 miles east. The Taliban overran and occupied the capital of a nearby district center.

At the same time, insurgents routinely attacked Afghan National Army (ANA) patrol routes. By May, the Afghan commander stationed at Nangalam had abandoned the outpost, along with his top staff.

“It was better before” the US left, says Afghan commander Col. Adam Khan Matin. “When the coalition forces left, the [insurgent] training camps came back.”

Lt. Col. Colin Tuley, the top US commander at Nangalam, grappled with how to address the regression. His battalion now had responsibility for an area that had previously needed two. His 800-plus soldiers were spread out across multiple forward operating bases and command posts.

Simply holding that ground would be challenge enough. After evaluating the capabilities of the ANA at Nangalam, Col. Tuley came to a conclusion. “We needed to do something else.”

In his idea is a hope central to the American exit strategy: If US troops focused more intently on creating a workable partnership with the Afghans, perhaps the mentoring could make up for the diminished number of US troops and ensure that a decade's worth of US battles are for not for naught.

So began what Tuley calls a “permanent embedded partnership” – or PEP – an experiment that could hold lessons for the American war effort in Afghanistan.

The PEP will revolve around 40 US troops at Nangalam working with multiple companies of the Afghan Army. Most immediately, with a stronger base here, Tuley hopes US forces “can come in and do operations as necessary,” allowing NATO to extend its reach farther into the valley. Perhaps more long-term, he adds, the PEP “is a great kind of interim phase to get the ANA to where [the transition is] not as abrupt.”

The US platoon will run workshops on basics from marksmanship to first aid – lessons that have been taught before, Tuley acknowledges, but bear repeating.

“If you think about it, this [Afghan commander at Nangalam] never had a partnership, Tuley adds. “It was. ‘Here’s your battlespace.’ ”

The first order of business – and lesson for Afghan commanders – is to bolster base defenses. When the US was here, Nangalam had early-attack warning systems, including towers with cameras that sent images to screens in a base defense center, which allowed troops to monitor the perimeter.

When Tuley returned, no vestige of those defenses remained. “The security definitely wasn’t at the level that I would ever feel too comfortable having my soldiers out there,” he says.

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