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SHAH WALI KOT, Afghanistan -- They called it "the jungle," a thicket of brush and canopy so dense that it concealed enemy fighters, spooking local police and army forces, who were loathe to enter. Previous attempts to clear it failed after Afghan soldiers struck mines and took early casualties.
Then insurgents tried assassinating a prominent police chief, opening fire as he drove past the jungle on the region's main highway. He turned to the U.S. for help, and in November, the commander of a brigade-size cavalry unit promised assistance for a clearing operation.
"We'll support with helicopters," Col. Douglas A. Sims of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment told the police commander. "We'll be ready with medical evacuation."
His offer reflects a larger U.S. re-engagement with Afghan forces in recent months that runs counter to the trend of disengaging over the past year. Concerned about security before April's presidential election, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan's south have moved closer to Afghan police and army units they kept at arm's length only six months ago, conducting more combined patrols and providing assistance they previously tried to cut back on, including air support, medevac and surveillance.
Several commanders, interviewed in October and November, said the new tempo caught them by surprise, with many expecting a slower deployment focused on the logistics of withdrawing U.S. troops and infrastructure.
"The mission we have is much more aggressive," said Col. Matthew Lewis of the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade, a helicopter unit assigned to several provinces in southern Afghanistan. "Attack the [insurgent] networks, find the caches and enable the Afghans in our partnership to get after it."
Only a year ago, the NATO coalition began to distance itself from Afghan forces. Units moved out of shared buildings and operations centers, and advisers began refusing requests for materiel they had provided readily in the past, from fuel to auto parts and field gear. Commanders, meanwhile, tightened rules regarding use of so-called military enablers, or capabilities like medevac and close-air support, for Afghan forces in the field.
The relationship between coalition troops and Afghan forces was changing as the former decreased in size and the latter assumed the lead on security operations in the country. U.S. advisers and commanders said that Afghans needed to develop their own systems to field materiel and find alternatives to many of the services the coalition had provided. They debated whether the tools they shared were "Afghan sustainable" – in other words, capable of being maintained, purchased and used after the withdrawal of coalition combat forces by the end of 2014.
A spate of insider attacks -- in which Afghans in uniform turn their guns on their foreign co-combatants -- also encouraged coalition forces to distance themselves. Sixty-two foreign troops were killed by individuals in Afghan uniform in 2012, spurring tighter regulations over shared Afghan-coalition activities and space.
The physical distance between coalition and Afghan troops grew throughout last winter and into this summer, as coalition troops moved off the small, often remote outposts they shared with Afghan units and onto larger bases where they had less contact with their counterparts.
In Germany, in the spring, Sims' regiment anticipated less involvement with Afghans as it trained for a summer deployment in Kandahar province. Securing and moving the military advising teams still working with Afghan units was to be the main effort; combined operations were no longer a focus.
"Before, we thought, ‘Hey, what we need to do is, we need to show the Afghan army how to live without us,'" Lt. Col. Eric Smith, commander of the regiment's 3rd Squadron, said in October. "So there's going to be times where we say, ‘no.' [Or] ‘hey, you can't have this particular asset; hey, I'm not going to go out with you today; hey, you've got to figure this out on your own.' And we were going to allow them to learn from their mistakes, but we were going to prevent them from totally failing."
The emphasis in the south changed in July, when Army Maj. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera assumed command of NATO's regional command there. The former commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment told commanders to use the tools at their disposal to help Afghans fight.
"Punching with Afghan fists" was a favorite phrase of LaCamera's, commanders said. Afghans would do the fighting, and the U.S. would help them while it still had the resources. The focus was to "disrupt" insurgents during the approach of the April election, which is considered a key marker in the country's post-coalition transition.
Afghan forces suffered heavy casualties and loss of some terrain during the 2013 fighting season. Coalition assistance would be available only for a limited time as foreign forces withdrew. Using, instead of withholding, such support was seen as a way of encouraging Afghans and chipping away at insurgents emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal.
"We might as well keep using our assets up until the time that we have to pull them out in order to build the space for them to continue increasing their capacity," is how Smith described the change in thinking.
Lewis, the 1st CAB commander, said he expected a deployment that resembled the tail end of operations in Iraq, where missions slowly petered away.
"That is not what I walked into," he said. "When we (assumed command) in September, I mean, in the first month, we must have had about 100 kinetic attacks -- our aircraft delivering munitions onto something."
On the ground, U.S. platoons began to re-establish relationships with nearby Afghan police units and to make patrols together, with mixed results. In Arghandab, one police checkpoint lacked enough officers to go on a foot patrol with the U.S. platoon, despite the platoon's having called ahead to the commander. In Zharay, to the west, a police commander came with four of his men, although all seemed to lose interest halfway through the patrol.
Smith's squadron also worked with Afghans for one of the regiment's first major clearance operations, an effort to move an insurgent cell away from a U.S. outpost that was to be handed over to local forces. His squadron provided the local commander with intelligence and surveillance, as well as route clearance. The Afghan unit still went in first, led by its eager commander, who told Smith he had many other operations the pair could collaborate on.
Some question whether the regular use of U.S. tools might make for a rockier transition when the coalition leaves. Lt. Col. Jeff Klotz, who runs the U.S. aid station on 3rd Squadron's base, coordinates many of the medevac flights that take Afghan patients to a nearby hospital. Medevac is one of the military services that the coalition has continued supplying during its drawdown.
"The negative to that is they're not forced to do it on their own," Klotz said.
Smith said Afghans have shown they aren't as reliant on U.S. assistance as many say.
"We haven't had any cases where an Afghan unit has said, ‘Hey, we're not going to do this unless we're guaranteed American [casualty evacuation],'" Smith said. "Or, ‘We're not going to go out and patrol unless we get [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] from the Americans.'"
In Shah Wali Kot, an expansive region where insurgents move from mountains south into Kandahar, Bacha Khan, the prominent police commander and local power broker, appeared to view the U.S. military as an alternative to an Afghan army that has shown little appetite to leave its local base.
He asked Sims for something more than the enablers -- U.S. soldiers to help clear the jungle. Sims, who worked with Khan during a prior deployment, flatly refused. The U.S. would support, he said, but it would no longer take the lead.
"I could clear the jungle today with my brigade," he said. "But how many times am I going to have to clear the jungle before it's done by the Afghan army and police?"