KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Abdul Malik and his fellow Afghan soldiers were driving across the arid and volatile south when their armored personnel carrier struck a roadside bomb. Malik found himself outside the vehicle, dazed but aware of his three comrades nearby. One had a serious head wound.
Help came quickly: U.S. helicopters swooped in and took them to the Afghan military hospital in Kandahar, the largest in the region. Malik lost his leg below the knee. Without the quick rescue, he would likely have lost his life. His three buddies all died.
"I could see his brains on the ground near me," Malik said.
As part of preparations for the final withdrawal of international combat troops by the end of 2014, Afghanistan's security forces are being pressed into service — alone. This year's fighting season is the first in 12 years of war that Afghan troops are responsible for security in 90 percent of the country.
But the Afghans are still heavily dependent on international air support to ferry the wounded to hospitals and for gunships to defend troops who are isolated and under attack.
With NATO and the U.S. military providing only advice and assistance on request, the Afghans' battlefield performance this year will decide how much equipment and training they still need.
After 2014 the U.S. is expected to leave behind a residual force of 8,000 to 10,000 troops, mostly as mentors and trainers. NATO is being asked to contribute several thousand as well, but so far only Germany has promised 800 troops.
Some in the U.S. military see a steep learning curve ahead for the 350,000 Afghan service personnel.
In eastern Nangarhar province where the U.S. 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne division, is advising the Afghan National Army, Lt. Col. Matthew Stader said Afghan troops need advisory teams for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. They lack the drones used heavily by U.S. forces.
Still, Stader said Afghan troops are doing their own patrols, clearing routes and removing roadside bombs.
"I think they are doing well, but it just looks different than the Americans," said Stader, of Annapolis, Maryland.
Afghan forces can resupply themselves with food and fuel and water but are still struggling with planning, logistics, equipment maintenance and contracting, Stader said, adding that the brigade he is currently mentoring in eastern Afghanistan needs at least another year of advising before it will be able to operate independently.
"For years we've created Afghan helplessness, so we as advisers have to reset that," he said, referring to the years that NATO and the U.S. took the lead in fighting and logistics, relegating their Afghan allies to a support role.
Yet Afghans are optimistic.
Sitting behind his oversized desk in a fortress-like compound surrounded by reinforced concrete blast walls and protected by four separate security gates, Gen. Abdul Raziq, southern Kandahar province's police chief, has one of Afghanistan's most dangerous jobs. Even so, he says he is looking forward to the withdrawal of international forces.
"NATO's leaving is a positive thing because now we have our land and our authority back," he said, reflecting the sensitive and often complicated relationship between Afghan troops and their coalition partners. With frustrating regularity President Hamid Karzai has outraged the U.S. military by referring to international troops as occupiers or suggesting they were colluding with the Taliban in order to justify staying longer in the country
Relations between Afghan security forces and international troops have been equally tumultuous. The number of attacks by Afghan police and soldiers opening fire on foreign soldiers has sharply increased. Fearful that one of their own will do the same, Afghan commanders have banned foreign trainers from Afghan firing ranges where live bullets are used in target practice.
But Raziq says his confidence comes from a better cut of recruit entering the police and army, government-imposed controls that have taken absolute power — which they often abused — out of the hands of the security forces, and what he says is waning support for the Taliban movement among Afghans, particularly majority ethnic Pashtuns.
In the last five years Afghanistan's premier police training academy in the Afghan capital has restarted its four-year training program for officers. Courses like human rights and ethics have been introduced into the curriculum. New police recruits now have to have some education, unlike in the past when most were illiterate.
"Before 2007, 2008, our structure was incomplete. Police had no controls. They could do anything. They thought they had unlimited power," Raziq said. "But now there are constraints, restrictions. They have only the power to arrest. The education level of recruits is also improving. In 2010 they were much better than in 2007, and in 2013 they are even better."