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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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In response, he has assigned a US platoon of about 30 soldiers to patrol the surrounding area, and he stationed a single US soldier with night-vision goggles at each Afghan guard post along the perimeter of the base.

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Beyond base defenses, Tuley must help the Afghans carry out their own missions more effectively.

The PEP's first big test: A humanitarian mission into one of the more isolated and government-averse areas of the country.

Testing a new partnership

The mission was an Afghan command idea, and US officials are pleased to see Afghan soldiers taking a page from the US playbook: following violent operations with aid for villages, in the hopes of mitigating hard feelings and demonstrating the reach of the Afghan government.

The plan is to convoy from Kunar up north into the neighboring province of Nuristan, an area where US troops have not been since 2009.

“We’re doing this really to show that the government and the military and the civil authorities can provide for the people, even in the most separated and disparate areas, areas,” says Lt. Col. Pat Stich, the brigade operations officer.

A few hours into the mission, as Afghan and US commanders touch base during a battlefield update, Afghan mission leaders want help in the form of close air support (CAS).

“We definitely need more CAS, because they are trying to shoot our convoys,” one Afghan commander points out.

Then, as nightfall comes, the convoy troops have decided to stop. “It’s dark, so we’ll stay here,” the Afghan commander explains.

By the basic rulebook of modern warfare this is a bad idea, leaving the convoy vulnerable to attack. US officers gently press them to continue in spite of the dark.

“It would be good if you could make it up to Chapadara” – a district center in northern Kunar.

“We’ll keep trying,” comes the reply. “But if there are some obstacles, or IEDs, we’ll stop.”

Without question, Afghan security forces face a tough fight. In addition to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), insurgents have shaved down dirt on the side of the roads, for example, to make them too narrow for US armored vehicles to traverse.

Afghans also lack equipment, including night-vision goggles. “That’s a pretty critical piece of equipment to provide security,” says Tuley. US officials worry, however, that if they give night-vision goggles to the Afghans, particularly with ANA attrition rates remaining high, they could fall into insurgents’ hands.

At the same time, US commanders are trying to ease the Afghans' reliance on American assets, from close-air support to medical evacuations – to help them become self-sufficient. “A lot of these things it makes them hard to wean them off of, because then they don’t want to do the missions without them,” says Lt. Col. Mark Simpson, 3rd brigade, 25th Infantry Division officer in charge of mentoring Afghan forces. “We don’t want to do the missions without them.”

Deciding precisely when to cut off the Afghans from the US equipment and supply chains will require some “very, very hard decisions, in my opinion, from the top,” says Simpson.

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