CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — It was a tactic that surprised the Americans almost as much as the Taliban.
Afghan soldiers in two single-file columns picked their way through a minefield, got behind Taliban positions and launched their attack. The panicked insurgents were forced to flee through their own minefield, which was seeded with improvised explosives.
The last-minute change was cooked up by the Afghans, reversing a plan earlier developed with U.S. advisers.
"They completely fooled everyone," said British Army Col. Baz Bennett, the director of Afghan security force assistance in Regional Command Southwest, headquartered in Helmand province, a former Taliban stronghold. It worked, Bennett said.
It's make it or break it time for Afghanistan's military — and a key test for U.S. strategy here — as the number of U.S. forces in the country declines and government forces are taking on an ever-larger role in the battle against the Taliban. American advisers and commanders here say that Afghan forces have performed surprisingly well and are capable of fighting on their own even as critical coalition support has been withdrawn.
Still, commanders warn that Afghan security forces lack the critical but unglamorous capabilities — such as supply, logistics and finance — that are needed to sustain a large army in the field.
"They're good warriors," said Marine Maj. Gen. Lee Miller , who was wrapping up his tour as commander of Regional Command Southwest. "Sustaining themselves they need a lot of work….and we need to be there to help them do that."
They proved their battlefield prowess last September as the fighting season was drawing to a close.
The battle was part of a series of campaigns that had begun last spring with elements of Afghanistan's 215th Corps, which is based in Helmand. The offensives aimed in the Sangin region would typically peter out before achieving any significant results.
On the fourth campaign Afghan commanders changed the plan at the last moment, infiltrating the soldiers and attacking the Taliban from the rear. The earlier plan had been developed with American help.
"We thought they were going to sweep up the valley further from south to north," Bennett said. "It was quite a tactical feat."
The Afghans effectively used mortars and artillery in conducting the attack, which requires sophisticated planning and execution.
"It was painful to watch the first three fights we went through," Miller said. But he said the final operation dealt a significant blow to the Taliban in the area and proved to the coalition that they could fight effectively.
"This time they actually put a hurt to the Taliban," he said.
What has been most surprising to coalition officers is that Afghan forces are performing effectively even as the Americans continue to reduce the amount of support they provide and the numbers of troops here.
"Each time I step back from a certain thing with the Afghans they gripe, just like we would, but they get out there and do it," Miller said.
The number of American forces in Afghanistan has declined to about 34,000 from a peak of about 100,000.
"We have been a backstop for these guys for a long time," said Marine Lt. Col. Thomas Ziegler, an adviser with an Afghan brigade in Helmand.
"When a vehicle broke, we gave them one," Ziegler said. "We don't have any more to give."
NO MORE MEDEVAC
Critically, the United States provided helicopter medical evacuation support to Afghan forces, allowing them to get injured soldiers out of remote battles and to a state-of-the-art hospital within an hour.
Now, U.S. forces only provide air evacuation to Afghans when a life is at stake and there are no other options.
The Afghans have a few of their own helicopters but have mostly turned to vehicles to fill the gap in medevac capabilities.
"They know the squeeze is coming," Ziegler said of the decline in coalition support.
The Americans are leaving with some critical support that will not be easily replaced, including helicopter mobility and the highly technical surveillance and reconnaissance equipment that are part of the American arsenal.
Rural areas are a particular problem. U.S. forces could move troops quickly into remote parts of the country, landing right on top of insurgents when needed.
Afghans lack that mobility. "They have been unable to deny freedom of movement to the insurgency in rural areas," Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified to Congress Tuesday.
Another challenge facing Afghan security forces: The Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan have sanctuary in parts of Pakistan, putting them outside the reach of Afghan security forces.
"As long as that state support continues, the Afghan security forces are going to have their hands full regardless of how good they are," said Seth Jones, an analyst at the Rand Corp.
Despite the battlefield successes, U.S. officers say Afghan forces will need logistical support for years to come. Without such help, the achievements over the past decade of war risk unraveling.
"It would be a challenge for them to be able to sustain themselves," said Army Lt. Gen Mark Milley, who just completed a tour as the top coalition operational commander in Afghanistan.
The international community has helped build a security force of about 345,000 police and soldiers. A force of that size spread over an austere country will require a complex supply and maintenance system to keep an army in the field, equipped with food and ammunition.
ELUSIVE SECURITY DEAL
That is why top American commanders are worried that a failure to sign a bilateral security agreement, which would allow a small American contingent to remain after this year when the current mission ends, threatens to undermine more than a decade of progress building the Afghan security forces.
"If we don't get a (security agreement) I think that Afghanistan faces a future that no one wants," Milley said in an interview here.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the agreement. Afghan elections are in April, and Karzai cannot run for another term.
Some leading candidates have expressed a willingness to sign the agreement, raising the prospect of getting a deal sometime after April.
"I think whoever wins the election will sign it," said Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, commander of Marine forces in Central Command. "It all comes down to the government."
U.S. officials, meanwhile, are planning for an array of options, including having a force after this year that will have enough troops to put advisers only at the top level military headquarters, the corps level. The Pentagon has also said it will include a counterterrorism force that will target al-Qaeda or its affiliates.
The future force is being planned to help build the institutional systems that Afghan's military needs, but the fighting would still be up to the Afghans. Advisers will generally not be in the field with operational units, under current plans.
One thing the Afghans cannot do without is money to pay soldiers and purchase equipment.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has suggested that without a continued coalition presence it would be difficult to continue the international funding of Afghan security forces.
American officers are keenly aware that the Soviet-backed Afghan government of Mohammad Najibullah remained in power after the Soviets left Afghanistan in the late 1980s, but then collapsed when the Soviets cut off aid to the government.
In the meantime, Americans are nudging the Afghans toward more independence.
At a meeting last week at Camp Leatherneck, the main coalition base in Helmand province, Afghan officers were briefed on the importance of maintaining the generators that power their base. The maintenance had been financed by the coalition, but the contracts will soon become the responsibility of the Afghans.
"We are doing the combat, but we would like to have your support for the infrastructure," Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk, commander of the 215th Corps, told his American counterparts during a meeting here last week.
The message from the Americans: Start taking responsibility for maintenance. "The strength of your corps will be how you maintain your corps," Marine Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, the top coalition commander in the Helmand region, told Malouk, as he praised the Afghans for their prowess in battle.