FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — On looks alone, Afghanistan has not changed much over the past few years.
Military outposts still dot the country, and the landscape, marked by sweeping deserts and towering mountains, is as picturesque as ever.
But for Fort Bragg soldiers in Afghanistan — many of whom are combat-tested veterans — the country has changed.
In simple terms: It's not the same country where they deployed in years past.
Afghanistan is still a war zone. But it is not the war it was, even for those who were there as recently as two years ago.
President Obama last week laid out the end of the 13-year war in Afghanistan. But before then, Fort Bragg soldiers serving in Afghanistan told The Fayetteville Observer the war is already a far cry from what they had known.
U.S. troops and their coalition partners are largely on the sidelines now as Afghan National Security Forces do the heavy lifting in the fight against the Taliban and insurgents.
Afghan soldiers are now truly in the lead, officials said, planning and executing their own operations.
It was an unexpected turn of events for Fort Bragg soldiers, many of whom anticipated not just a fight — but potentially one of the most dynamic and difficult years of the war.
"It will require leaders at the top of their game," Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, told deploying paratroopers earlier this year. "It's not going to be like any past deployment."
Several thousand Fort Bragg troops are estimated to be in Afghanistan, including about 3,000 from the 82nd Airborne Division. They make up a sizeable portion of the roughly 32,000 U.S. troops still there.
By year's end, fewer than 10,000 American troops will remain in the country, according to Obama. And that number would be cut in half by the end of 2015 and continue to shrink until, by 2016, only a small contingent of troops will remain at the U.S. Embassy and as part of a security assistance office.
In the meantime, Fort Bragg soldiers are playing key roles as forces prepare for the transition from Operation Enduring Freedom to Operation Resolute Support, a change in mission that will mark the end of combat operations.
The Fort Bragg units, according to officials, were chosen to serve because of their experience.
The 18th Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne battalions, the 1st Theater Support Command and other Fort Bragg units have repeatedly deployed in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They are now calling on that experience while also tackling different missions.
In addition to support, the 1st Theater Sustainment Command is leading efforts to draw down equipment and supplies. Instead of fighting, paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne are protecting important officials at a time when troop numbers continue to shrink.
Two battalions from the now inactivated 4th Brigade Combat Team were chosen to take over security missions during the drawdown. The soldiers protect top American and coalition officers and contractors who help train Afghan forces.
Another 82nd Airborne unit, the 1st Brigade Combat Team, sent parts of three battalions to serve as a Theater Response Force ahead of Afghanistan's April elections.
Those soldiers were prepared to be called out as a sort of quick-reaction force. Instead, they spent election day waiting for calls that never came as Afghan forces handled their own security in efforts that have been largely praised.
Other Fort Bragg units in Afghanistan include the 82nd Sustainment Brigade, which makes up the U.S. Central Command Materiel Recovery Element, and the 1st Theater Sustainment Command, which oversees retrograde activities.
Other units, part of Fort Bragg's special operations community, have troops deployed.
"Our mission has changed, and the majority understand that," said Command Sgt. Maj. Isaia Vimoto. "We aren't in the lead anymore."
Vimoto is the top enlisted leader for Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps — the top Fort Bragg unit currently deployed to Afghanistan.
The 18th Airborne Corps, led by Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, forms the cores of several commands in Afghanistan, including U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.
Anderson leads the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, which oversees conventional ground forces.
He said the 18th Airborne Corps, which was the first corps in Afghanistan, will also be the last to serve in the war.
By mid-December, Anderson said, ISAF Joint Command will be folded into its higher headquarters.
Last month, Anderson said he was focused on the upcoming runoff election, the fighting season and the seating of Afghanistan's next government, not the U.S. timetable for its role in the country.
"In the near term, it's not a consideration, not a concern," he said.
Standing on their own
At the same time, commanders in Afghanistan are continuing to draw down forces and shrink the number of equipment and bases under their control.
"There's plenty of things to do to shape the environment," Anderson said.
Anderson said April's election and a series of natural disasters proved Afghan forces are ready to operate on their own. He applauded leaders for pre-empting attempts to disrupt the vote and quickly responding with humanitarian aid after flooding and mudslides in northern Afghanistan.
"I wouldn't say it's surprising. It's encouraging," he said. "They're very capable. The issue is are they sustainable?
"The good news is they are in the lead and they are taking the lead and they are being aggressive, proactive about how they deal with the challenges of the battle space," Anderson said. "The issue is what is the enemy doing while they are trying to figure out the way ahead around here, too."
Anderson said Afghan forces are tactically sound but have room to improve at higher levels — in the realms of fire support and intelligence gathering, for example.
"They're very capable to plan, coordinate and execute," Anderson said of Afghanistan's recent relief efforts. "It's not perfect, but it's not perfect in places like New Orleans either."
While side-by-side patrols are rare, they are not unheard of.
Soldiers with the 82nd Airborne's 1st Brigade Combat Team, serving in the Theater Response Force role, have had numerous missions with their Afghan counterparts, including air assaults to confiscate enemy weapons caches and project power to parts of the country where coalition forces have withdrawn.
In southern Afghanistan, Fort Bragg troops continue to patrol with Afghan police forces to bolster security and to cut off insurgent routes to the north.
"I don't think people realize that is still going on," Anderson said, referring to a recent 10-day air assault to Tarin Khowt. "That's a classic partnered operation."
From Kabul, Vimoto helps mentor Afghan army leaders.
Vimoto has multiple tours in Afghanistan and lost his son, Pfc. Timothy Vimoto, while the pair were serving there in 2007. He understands the sacrifices U.S. troops have made in Afghanistan, and he said those efforts have not been in vain.
In particular, the Afghan army has made leaps and bounds in recent years.
"You're so proud. They're motivated. They're disciplined, and they're better trained," he said. "Our mentorship pays off. They know that we're leaving and that it's up to them. . Big brother's not going to be around much longer."
Vimoto said his focus has turned to behind-the-scenes efforts such as promotion strategies, policies and training academies. It's very different from work on the front lines and patrolling with Afghan forces.
"I'm emotionally attached," he said, noting that he has watched the Afghan army advance to the point where leaders can discuss seemingly mundane issues like identification tags for soldiers.
"It's kind of like being on a winning football team," Vimoto said. "We're witnessing history in the making. And it's a good feeling.
"If it wasn't for us, this would not have come to pass," he said. "There's a lot of pride."
A new view
Vimoto realizes that the current efforts are not necessarily what soldiers signed up for. He said those who want to fight are in Afghanistan for the wrong reasons.
"I'm very happy to be here at this time in history," Vimoto said. "It's not about us. We're here for the people of Afghanistan. We're here for them."
For seasoned soldiers, that new view took some getting used to.
"It was a different perspective, but I kind of knew it would be," said Sgt. 1st Class Howard Hawkins, a soldier with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Forward Operating Base Lightning near Gardez in eastern Afghanistan.
Hawkins is on his fifth deployment — four of which have been to Afghanistan.
"They're getting it done," he said of Afghan forces. "I'm happy to see it. It's a good thing."
A soldier in Hawkins' unit, Spc. Curran Rosich, agreed.
"We were told it was going to be a little bit different," he said. "It's a lot more calm. It's just a different mission."
First Sgt. Edward King, of D Company, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, is on his fourth tour in Afghanistan. He has also seen the country's forces progress.
"That's a good sign. To see us go from us dragging the (Afghan National Army) on operations to them being ready to go and being the ones who make the plans," King said from Combat Outpost Hutal in Kandahar province.
The crawl, walk, run method has finally paid off, he said.
"It's a pretty awesome experience," King said. "It was us in the lead. Then them in the lead, but not really. Now they're leading. It's good to see the change that's happened."
Tapping his watch, King said time is running out for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"They know we're not going to be here to watch them," he said. "This is their backyard. They want to protect their population, defend their land."
"We don't have to be standing there alongside them anymore," he said of the days when soldiers peered over Afghan shoulders to make sure they patrolled correctly. "Those days are long gone."