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CAMP THUNDER, Afghanistan – Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali, commander of Afghanistan's 203rd Thunder Corps, looked happy as he sat down for lunch in his eastern command post near the border with Pakistan.
He had every reason to be smiling, as did his U.S. advisers.
His troops, he said, had just successfully completed a large-scale operation — code-named Azadi, or "freedom" — aimed at securing strategic highways leading out of Kabul and at clearing a region around the capital. Over the course of the 13-day sweep, his forces battled Taliban and other insurgents 20 times, killing at least 20.
Along the way, his officers sat down with tribal elders to win support for the military and set up local police forces to defend their villages from the Taliban. Separately, his troops successfully freed two Afghan soldiers kidnapped by militants.
It was all done without international troops. "We did the planning and everything ourselves," Yaftali beamed. "The coalition was there, but they did not fight with us. They just gave us advice. We are in the lead, we are no longer shoulder-to-shoulder."
Unlike past operations where American and coalition forces were fighting alongside Afghan soldiers or going into the field alone, both sides expressed a confidence in Afghanistan's army that was not present as little as one year ago.
There have been deep questions about the ability of the Afghan army to take the fight to the insurgency with international combat troops due to leave the country by the end of 2014.
It is not certain that the performance of the 203rd can be replicated in all the army corps around Afghanistan, or even at the brigade and battalion level. But if its ability to successfully carry out large-scale operations can be replicated across the army, then it offers hope the Afghans may be able to hold their own against the insurgency after 2014.
U.S. and coalition military officials say that overall, the nascent force is surpassing many of their expectations. They say it is far better prepared to fight alone than many people think and should be able to take over.
Canadian Brig. Gen. Thomas Putt, the director of the U.S.-led coalition's program for development of the Afghan security forces, said the Afghan troops were accelerating in their preparedness and "we have to rush to keep up."
"We are rushing to catch up in their rush to get at it," he said. "We have the delicious problem of being behind them."
Coalition officials point to continuing problems in logistics and equipment for the Afghan troops. But they say the forces' ability to work on their own is speedily improving. Five of Afghanistan's 26 brigades are now operating independently from the coalition, and 16 are working with only advisory support, said British Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the second-in-command of the international coalition. Last year just one out of the 23 brigades then operational was able to operate independently.
The Afghan National Security Forces are supposed to finish taking the lead in security later this spring, with the coalition forces moving entirely to a training and advisory role. Already, Afghans are in the lead in more than 80 percent of the nation. According to NATO, the Afghan army now numbers over 175,000, about 12,000 shy of its goal, and has an annual attrition rate of 2.6 percent — higher than the target of 1.4 percent.
Afghan experts also warn of continuing difficulties, some tangible and some intangible.
Jawed Kohistani, an Afghan political and military analyst, said morale is low in a military force made up mostly of soldiers who joined only for the steady salary. He added that a lack of modern military equipment also poses problems.
"The Afghan security forces will face more challenges and won't be able to fulfill all the expectations of the international community or the Afghan people," Kohistani said.
Many of the brigades that are now able to operate independently are in the eastern part of Afghanistan and many are under Yaftali's command.
Yaftali's 203rd Corps in Gardez, the capital of eastern Paktia province, numbers 19,000 soldiers in four brigades. It is one of the largest of the army's six corps and is responsible for six eastern provinces, including two of the most active — Ghazni and Wardak.
The Azadi operation involved some 2,500 Afghan soldiers and police, operating in Ghazni and Zabol provinces, located on a strategic route connecting the capital, Kabul, with the southern province of Kandahar.
Nationwide, some 150,000 police are being trained by the coalition. They make up a large part of the 332,753-member Afghan National Security Forces but are gradually supposed to take the lead role in law enforcement and leave fighting the insurgency to the army.
During the Azadi operation, the army fought insurgents in more than 20 engagements, killing 20 of them and wounding 12. They also found 59 roadside mines. By comparison, two Afghan village police were killed and nine policemen and one soldier were wounded.
The coalition provided no combat support, said Col. Terry Cook, of the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division from Fort Bliss, Texas, and an adviser to Yaftali.
"They even did their own medical evacuations," he said.
"We are pretty good, we are in a better place. We can take the fight to the insurgents," Yaftali said.
Yaftali's sprawling base in Gardez has a regional training center, a logistical one, the best military hospital in the country, and soon will have its own air support when MI-17 helicopters are based there. It will probably be one of the places where the U.S. military stations advisers after 2014.
"It is amazing the progress they have made," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Clarence Chinn, the deputy commanding general. His advisers have been working with Yaftali and his senior officers, but no Americans are on the front lines fighting the insurgents — they have left that completely to the Afghans.
"They are an extremely capable force and we are helping them with logistics and training. We are really shifting our effort," Cook said.
Putt said the coalition is now focusing on getting Afghan troops the equipment they need to be more effective. They include mortars at the company and battalion levels, and howitzers at the brigade level. The U.S. also recently announced it would buy an additional 30 Russian made MI-17 helicopters, some with gunship capabilities, to supplement the nearly 50 already acquired.
They are also working on training them on logistics, or as Putt said, the problem of "how do you sustain thousands of troops."
"If there is an Achilles heel, it is logistics, and we are working on it," Putt said.
But the fighting is taking its toll on the Afghan army.
Last week Taliban militants stormed an Afghan army outpost in Kunar province, on the border with Pakistan, and killed 13 soldiers in a five-hour gunbattle. Insurgents have been stepping up their attacks this spring as they try to take advantage of the rapid withdrawal of foreign forces.
More than 1,200 Afghan soldiers died in 2012 compared to more than 550 in 2011, according to data compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. By comparison, coalition casualties have declined as they take forces off the battlefield — with 32 so far this year, 394 in 2012 and 543 in 2011.
About 660 militants were reported to have been killed by coalition and Afghan forces so far this year, compared with close to 3,000 militants last year. The NATO command does not issue reports on the number of insurgents its troops have killed, and Afghan military figures, from which the AP compiles its data, cannot be independently verified.
"People say that 2014 will provide challenges," Yaftali said. But, he predicted, the year the Afghan army takes the security lead will be far more important: "2013 is going to be the crucial year."