As task forces across Afghanistan continue to adjust to their role as trainers, mentors and enablers, the members of the Afghan National Security Forces are also learning to adjust.
As coalition forces begin to transfer the responsibility of security in provinces across the country, the ANSF are increasingly taking the lead in the planning and execution of missions, increasing their presence in local villages and earning the trust of the people of Afghanistan.
At Combat Outpost Garda, a small outpost in the mountains of Afghanistan's Wardak Province, U.S. Army Capt. Tommy Feeney and the Soldiers of B Battery, 4th Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, Task Force 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team started their deployment building a solid relationship with the Afghan soldiers of 4th Toli, 2nd Kandak, from day one.
"We came into it trying to be as friendly as we could with them," said Feeney, commander of B Battery and a native of Santa Rosa, Calif. "That's something we talked about before we even deployed.
"We're going to be culturally sensitive," he continued. "We're partners with the ANA and were going to treat them like a brother, like a soldier in our unit and I think that mentality in the battery is what's helped keep us safe and helped build our relationship."
When B Battery arrived at COP Garda this summer, they met 4thToli, a company-sized element reluctant to immediately welcome in yet another American unit. However, with Feeney's guidance in the minds of the battery's Soldiers, it wasn't long before that initial reluctance faded.
"I think it was the first big engagement we got in," said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jim Natiello, of Aston, Pa., the platoon sergeant for B Battery's 1st Platoon. "They saw that we were going to fight, we were going to fight alongside them and once they saw that, they were a little more open to what we have to offer and some of the things we wanted to do."
While B Battery is composed of artillerymen, they trained to be a maneuver unit for this deployment, giving them responsibilities normally reserved for infantrymen. In addition to their patrols and operations, training has been an increasingly important part of their mission.
"I think where we scored the most points is some of the major training events that we did," said Feeney. "They really appreciate it and they continue to ask us to do more."
"For example, we did a buddy team competition where the buddy teams were one U.S. Soldier and one Afghan soldier," he continued. "They ran through a series of lanes including a buddy carry, a stress shoot, buddy aid and I think events like that build a relationship and some camaraderie between the two companies."
From that point on, the two units began working closely together and the partnership that formed was quickly noticed by Afghan 2nd Lt. Ziudin Mazlumyar, a squad leader for 4th Toli.
"We do a lot of training together, we always plan and do our missions together," he said through an interpreter. "This team is better than units that I've worked with before."
While missions and training built trust between the two units, for Mazlumyar, it was the concern the Americans showed for injured Afghans that really cemented their relationship.
"The big thing that made trust between us was whenever we got hurt or injured, they would try to take care of us here," he said. "If it wasn't possible they would put us on a helicopter and take us to a hospital or FOB Airborne."
The farms, orchards, valleys and villages around the outpost are highly populated with Taliban fighters and are a hotbed of improvised explosive device activity. While it's a dangerous area, the ANA know the importance of a constant presence.
"We're doing a lot of missions around the area to talk to the people and change the way they think about us," said Mazlumyar. "If we don't continue to patrol the area, they will think the ANA is weak and the government isn't powerful enough to provide security here."
As coalition troops get further into their role as a support element, combined operations continue to slow, however, 4th Toli continues to patrol the area daily, conducting missions even on Fridays, their traditional day of rest.
"They're very motivated and they love going out on missions so they're doing missions on their own," said U.S. Army Spc. William Lopez, a team leader in 1st Platoon and a native of Las Vegas.
While the Soldiers of B Battery watch as the ANA leave the outpost and walk the areas they once patrolled, it has caused some mixed emotions: Part frustration from having to watch the Afghan soldiers that they live and work with patrolling on their own and part satisfaction, as the ANA continue to go out, day after day with or without their American counterparts.
"In the last two weeks they've been steadily going on patrol every single day," said Feeney.
"It's frustrating out here that we haven't been able to patrol as much," said Natiello. "I know my guys and they're definitely willing to go out there and patrol with them," he added.
So they continue to patrol by themselves, many of them driven by a sense of national pride, like Afghan soldier Hameed Ullah, who suffered poor treatment while he spent years as a refugee in other neighboring countries. Finally fed up, he returned to Afghanistan two years ago and joined the ANA shortly after.
"It's my country and I have to do something for my country," he said through an interpreter. "Now I'm in my country and I can do something for my family."
As 4th Toli operates more and more without their American counterparts, it gives their soldiers a chance to gain a confidence in their abilities that may not be realized during partnered operations.
"The last thing that they need is the confidence to go out and do the mission and it's going to take us not being here for them to finally realize that they are capable of doing it on their own," said Feeney. "I really believe they have all the tools and all the training that they need to defeat an insurgency here."
Ultimately, the future of the country's security rests on the shoulders of the ANSF and if the soldiers of 4th Toli are any indication, the people of Afghanistan are in good hands
"It's our country and we have to do this," said Mazlumyar. "Our country has been through a lot of war. I joined the army to stop the war and fighting and bring a change to our country and even if I only had one drop of blood in my body I would serve my country."