KHOST, Afghanistan, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- U.S. Army soldiers from the 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment (4-25 FA), serving out of Forward Operating Base Clark in eastern Afghanistan met Thursday with a delegation of Afghan defense officials at a remote, hill-top outpost to discuss progress in the ongoing campaign against the Taliban insurgency.
While the meeting highlighted the increasing independence and combat effectiveness of the budding Afghan national security forces, both sides agreed that long-term U.S. support is needed to sustain the ongoing battle against the Taliban insurgency.
Under cover of darkness, the U.S. delegation of about 40 soldiers flew on two CH-47 Chinook helicopters to an Afghan-operated Operational Coordination Center Provincial at Matun Hill, outside the city of Khost in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. delegation comprised intelligence officers, civil-affairs officers, civilian contractors, members of the Khost/Paktiya Joint Secretariat Mentorship Team and a force of Army "guardian angels" (soldiers assigned to provide for the security of U.S. personnel when meeting with members of the Afghan armed forces).
The U.S. delegation met with representatives of the Afghan National Army, border police, uniform police and the National Directorate of Security. The intent of the meeting was to update U.S. forces on the status of combat operations against the Taliban, which is now almost entirely run by Afghan forces.
The meeting began with members of the ANA and the National Directorate of Security (Afghanistan's intelligence service) briefing the U.S. representatives on the outcome of combat operations, specifically highlighting the number of vehicles searched and IEDs found and destroyed in Khost and Paktiya provinces.
After the official briefing, the two delegations broke up to speak one-on-one with their respective counterparts.
"Every time we go to Matun Hill, it's about building relationships," Army Maj. Norman Stephenson said.
U.S. forces recently transitioned to a new mission in Afghanistan, labeled "advise and assist," which put an end to U.S.-led combat patrols and put Afghan forces in charge of nearly all combat operations -- except for low-profile U.S. special operations raids, which are still conducted unilaterally. This shift in strategy has dramatically scaled back U.S. participation in the fight against the Taliban insurgency, leaving conventional combat operations almost entirely to the budding Afghan military, and relegating deployed American forces to the role of trainers and mentors.
"The U.S. pullback is mostly for security," said Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Renfro, a member of the Khost/Paktiya Joint Secretariat Mentorship Team. "But is also gives the impression that the ANA is in charge."
Although Afghan military leaders initially resisted the scaled-back role of U.S. combat forces, the move has defused a propaganda tool frequently used by the Taliban to build popular support among the Afghan population.
"The Taliban is dependent on Afghans for support," ANA Capt. Abdul Rashid said, speaking through an interpreter. "But now that Americans are no longer on patrol, they can no longer point to having infidel soldiers in Afghanistan as reason to support the Taliban."
"The distrust of foreigners has shifted from the U.S. to the Taliban, since most of them are coming from Pakistan," Stephenson said. "They don't see U.S. troops walking around anymore, and that lets them know the ANA is in charge."
Both U.S. and Afghan military officials tout the success of the now Afghan-led fight against the Taliban, pointing to shifting Taliban tactics and high combat deaths as proof that the insurgents are losing the military conflict and the ANA has proven itself a credible and effective military force.
"The enemy won't fight us face-to-face," Rashid said. "They only plant IEDs and then run off to Pakistan. The ANA is very strong."
"The results have been pretty good," said Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, 4-25 FA battalion commander. "We see the reports about contacts and wounded, and you get a good sense that they [ANA] are out there and doing their mission to a much greater extent than they were in the past."
Despite the recent success of the handing over of combat operations to Afghan forces, both U.S. and Afghan military officers on the ground opined that maintaining a long-term U.S. presence in the country is necessary to counter the Taliban insurgency in the long-run.
"The ANA can fight, there's no question about that. But it's not about the short term," Stephenson said. "It's obvious the Taliban are determined to continue their operations for a long time. There will always be something going. The question is whether or not the ANA can sustain itself over time."
"They [ANA] have expressed a desire for U.S. forces to stay," Renfro said. "And our goal is to leave behind a country that can deal with its own problems."
"It's necessary," Rashid added, responding to whether the U.S. should maintain a presence in Afghanistan after 2014. "We need Americans to stay in Afghanistan. If they leave, it will not be good. We cannot stand on our two feet yet."
Nolan Peterson is a U.S. Air Force veteran currently reporting for UPI from Afghanistan.