With hard and deadly lessons learned, U.S. troops remain trigger- ready while training their Afghan allies.
When U.S. military advisers fly into Afghan Army outposts like the one nestled on the floor of this forested valley, they keep their body armor on and their weapons loaded.
Their guard was up even though they were there for a day of training Afghan soldiers without once leaving the confines of a fortified base -- even when chatting with the Afghan officers over a lunch of goat meat and yogurt.
Afghan soldiers and police officers have gunned down 51 U.S. and allied troops so far this year, and now no one is taking chances. The advisers' extreme caution lays bare the steep challenge ahead after the official end of the U.S. troop "surge" on Friday and as the mission shifts toward the next chapter of the war: preparing the Afghans to fight on their own.
"They come here, and they look like they are going to fight us," said Sgt. Abdul Karim Haq, 25, an Afghan soldier at the outpost. "They are always talking down to us like we are little children."
U.S. military leaders say they have little choice, as insider killings have become a prevalent cause of death. Attacks by Afghan forces against Western soldiers and marines have led to new precautions over joint operations and training sessions. At the same time, a video and cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad are stoking outrage and violence in the Muslim world.
In the field, where small teams of U.S. advisers are now working with Afghan units, even minor misunderstandings are treated as potentially violent confrontations.
When a pair of Afghan soldiers decided to take a nap in a guard tower in which the Americans had taken up a position at this outpost, the coalition advisory team commander, Capt. John Chung, 28, sent his interpreter to hustle out the Afghans with an admonishment to "be gentle. No trouble, you know what I mean."
Aside from a fear of being gunned down, the advisers said they were more vigilant because they also doubted the ability of Afghan soldiers to secure the base from an insurgent attack.
"Exhibit A," one adviser noted about the Afghans' nap in the guard tower.
"I think we need to be ready for everything. Maybe it's coming from inside, or maybe it gets in here from the outside," said the adviser, a young soldier who did not want to be identified. "I mean, sleeping in a tower? There are a lot of reasons to be careful out here."
By "here," he meant behind high walls that U.S. soldiers had built near Bad Pakh, in eastern Afghanistan, just a few years ago and guarded until they handed the outpost over to the Afghan Army in March. Once home to Americans, it is now treated by them as another dangerous place in a hostile country. And for good reason, judging by comments from Afghan soldiers.
Abdul Hanan, 20, a soldier also based in the east, was blunt. "We would have killed many of them already," he said, "but our commanders are cowards and don't let us."
He said the Americans treat the Afghans roughly, cursing at them and bullying them. "We like the Americans' heavy weapons, but we don't like their soldiers," he said. He and other soldiers nonetheless acknowledged what the Pentagon's own public reporting makes clear: The Afghans are not ready to fight without U.S. help, and the United States is eager to see that they still get it.
U.S. forces may be dwindling, but "there's still going to be an insurgency here," said Brig. Gen. David G. Fox, the top adviser north of Kabul. The advisers' brief is to "make sure the Afghans can take it on themselves."
Despite a $33 billion allied effort to build the military and the police over the course of a decade, Afghan security forces "continue to confront challenges, including attrition, leadership deficits and limited capabilities in staff planning, management, logistics and procurement," according to an April review of Afghan security by the Pentagon.
The army was improving, the report said, pointing to the fact that 13 of the Afghan Army's 156 battalions were now rated as "independent with advisers," up from one in 2011. The ranking is the highest given by the coalition.
Yet the report readily acknowledged that its own figures were suspect. This year the coalition stopped using officers independent of its training command to validate ratings, and the change "has resulted in the recent increase in 'independent with advisers' units," it said.
Persistent corruption and organized crime networks within the security forces also risk undermining rising public esteem for the army and the police and could "pose a threat to the transition process," it said.
The police, in particular, have a reputation for brutality and corruption. In Bagh-e-Pol, near Kandahar, the police chief, Abdul Wali, boasted that he and his men often beat people suspected of being members of the Taliban so badly that "sometimes he loses an arm, sometimes he loses a leg." Mr. Wali's U.S. advisers smiled uncomfortably as he explained in an interview that he did not need a trial to know who deserved a beating.
Senior U.S. and European officials say privately that problems within the Afghan forces have reinforced doubts about Afghanistan's long-term stability.
As one Western official put it, U.S. and European talk of the transition in Afghanistan being "conditions-based" is really about the conditions in the United States and Europe, where majorities no longer support the war.
The immediate result is that coalition resources are diminishing fast, though senior U.S. officers said scarcity could have its advantages. With less to give to the Afghans, who for years looked to coalition forces for everything from clean drinking water to air cover, they will have to learn to fend for themselves.
But that does not include Western assets like surveillance drones, attack helicopters and medical evacuation helicopters, which will remain in Afghanistan for some time, officials say.
Advisers flew into Bad Pakh last month to teach the Afghans how to load wounded soldiers into a U.S. medevac helicopter. Time permitting, they also planned mortar practice.
But when the Americans flew out 10 hours later, the training day had gone much like three previous ones held in Bad Pakh in the past two months: The helicopter never showed. It was either down for maintenance or called away for a more pressing mission. Mortar practice also had to be scratched when it turned out the Afghans were missing the sight for their sole mortar tube.
With plenty of time to talk, the Afghans told stories about life without the Americans. Their first big test came in June when a patrol ran out of ammunition after being ambushed by the Taliban, who killed one soldier and captured another, said Sgt. Maj. Ghulam Jilani, 45, the senior Afghan enlisted soldier at the base.
The Americans had pulled out three months earlier, and the Afghans quickly determined that a rescue mission was too risky without the air cover and surveillance once readily provided by their now-departed allies.
So, Sergeant Major Jilani said, they got their man back the "Afghan way." They rounded up fighting-age men from a nearby village and took them to the base. The villagers basically became hostages. "We made sure everyone knew: 'Give us the soldier back, and we'll free the men,"' Sergeant Major Jilani said.
By dusk, the district governor had brokered a trade. Without U.S. backup, "we could only do what these village people would understand," Sergeant Major Jilani said. "Why should there be any objections to this method? We did not shoot the men."