Casualties mount as Afghan forces take combat lead

Since the transition, Afghan-led operations with American support in Khost province and elsewhere "are the norm" and ANSF units have doubled their combat missions in the area, Keaveny said in an interview at Forward Operating Base Salerno. 

Afghan forces "can go places they have never been before" inside Khost, bolstering efforts to combat insurgent forces, he added. Those troops have been aided in their missions by American military advisor units, known as Security Force Assistance Advisory Teams (SFAAT). 

The handover of security responsibilities, though, has come at a high cost to Afghan military and police units operating in eastern Afghanistan, as local forces take on more casualties. 

Khost and other volatile provinces in eastern Afghanistan that line the country's border with Pakistan were the last areas transitioned to Afghan control. Those areas have also been the primary focus for U.S. and allied commanders in Afghanistan for this year's fighting season, which will likely be the last for coalition forces in country. 

Keaveny though praised the Afghan efforts, saying that local army units in Khost have been responsible for uncovering 60 to 70 percent of all improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the province, while conducting over 75 percent of all fire support missions. 

Fire support and counter-IED capabilities were two major concerns for the ANSF, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top commander for all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told Congress earlier this year. 

"I know my guys can protect the area," Maj. Ahmad Fareed, executive officer for the Afghan army's 3rd Kandak, 1st Brigade, told The Hill in an interview at Combat Outpost Sabari outside of FOB Salerno. 

Afghan commanders though stress that they will need continued American support to maintain their progress.

While Fareed's forces are finding 90 percent of all IEDs, his troops must depend on American units to defuse or detonate the bombs. 

In response, U.S. trainers working with Afghan forces are focusing on teaching Fareed's men alternative techniques to deal with the roadside bombs, without allied equipment or help, said Maj. Chris Burton, head of the U.S. advisory team at COP Sabari.

"Even though they do not have the technical capability," the lessons learned from the U.S. advisers will allow Afghan forces to deal with the IED threat after American and coalition forces leave, Burton said. 

Afghan forces are also developing their own growing network of intelligence sources in the province, Maj. Mike Milliner, the intelligence officer for the U.S. advisory team, told The Hill. 

"They are acting on the intelligence they receive," Milliner said. "They are really good at that." 

But even with that advantage, Fareed said Afghan forces face a long and dangerous road in maintaining security in Khost after U.S. forces withdraw from the country within the next year. 

The first 34,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are slated to return home this spring. The remaining 32,000 American forces will rotate stateside after the Afghan presidential elections in April 2014, ending the U.S. war in the country. 

"We have to do it [since] it will be our job," Fareed said. "We will have problems, but we will find a way."