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Danish Troops at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in Afghanistan prepare a mock casualty during a medical evacuation drill at the command's headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Danish Troops at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in Afghanistan prepare a mock casualty during a medical evacuation drill at the command's headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

Danish Troops at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in Afghanistan prepare a mock casualty during a medical evacuation drill at the command's headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Danish Troops at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in Afghanistan prepare a mock casualty during a medical evacuation drill at the command's headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

NATO troops treat a simulated casualty during a medical evacuation drill in Mazar-e-Sharif. U.S. and NATO forces have stepped up combat drills at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North, in preparation for the spring fighting season.

NATO troops treat a simulated casualty during a medical evacuation drill in Mazar-e-Sharif. U.S. and NATO forces have stepped up combat drills at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North, in preparation for the spring fighting season. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

A mock casualty is stabilized by NATO medics during a medical evacuation drill at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North. The drill was part of the command's preparations for the upcoming spring fighting season in Afghanistan.

A mock casualty is stabilized by NATO medics during a medical evacuation drill at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North. The drill was part of the command's preparations for the upcoming spring fighting season in Afghanistan. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

German medics attached to Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in Afghanistan prepare a mock casualty for transport during a combat evacuation drill in Mazar-e-Sharif.

German medics attached to Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in Afghanistan prepare a mock casualty for transport during a combat evacuation drill in Mazar-e-Sharif. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

German medics check for vital signs on a simulated casualty as part of a combat drill held at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in Afghanistan. TAAC-North Commander Brig. Gen. Andreas Hannemann predicts Afghan casualties will skyrocket during the upcoming spring fighting season.

German medics check for vital signs on a simulated casualty as part of a combat drill held at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in Afghanistan. TAAC-North Commander Brig. Gen. Andreas Hannemann predicts Afghan casualties will skyrocket during the upcoming spring fighting season. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

Dutch and German doctors evaluate a simulated casualty at a German military hospital at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North as part of ongoing combat drills to prepare for Afghanistan's spring fighting season.

Dutch and German doctors evaluate a simulated casualty at a German military hospital at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North as part of ongoing combat drills to prepare for Afghanistan's spring fighting season. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

NATO doctors at the German military hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, move a simulated casualty for surgery on March 31, 2015. The drill was part of a series of exercises U.S. and NATO forces conducted at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in preparation for the spring fighting season.

NATO doctors at the German military hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, move a simulated casualty for surgery on March 31, 2015. The drill was part of a series of exercises U.S. and NATO forces conducted at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North in preparation for the spring fighting season. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

Georgian troops assigned to the Quick Reaction Force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North secure a valley in northern Afghanistan during an air-assault drill in Balkh province, March 31, 2015.

Georgian troops assigned to the Quick Reaction Force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North secure a valley in northern Afghanistan during an air-assault drill in Balkh province, March 31, 2015. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

A Georgian soldier provides cover to members of TAAC-North's Quick Reaction Force during a March 31, 2015, air-assault drill in northern Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO forces are preparing for the spring fighting season in the country.

A Georgian soldier provides cover to members of TAAC-North's Quick Reaction Force during a March 31, 2015, air-assault drill in northern Afghanistan. U.S. and NATO forces are preparing for the spring fighting season in the country. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

Members of the Quick Reaction Force at TAAC-North move toward their objective during a March 31, 2015, combat drill in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan.

Members of the Quick Reaction Force at TAAC-North move toward their objective during a March 31, 2015, combat drill in Balkh province in northern Afghanistan. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

A Georgian soldier stands guard during a combat assault drill by Quick Reaction Forces assigned to Train, Advise and Assist Command-North on March 31, 2015, in Afghanistan's Balkh province.

A Georgian soldier stands guard during a combat assault drill by Quick Reaction Forces assigned to Train, Advise and Assist Command-North on March 31, 2015, in Afghanistan's Balkh province. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

Two members of TAAC-North's Quick Reaction Force keep their eyes and weapons fixed on the horizon during a combat assault drill in Balkh province on March 31, 2015. The drills were part of the command's preparations for the upcoming spring fighting season in Afghanistan.

Two members of TAAC-North's Quick Reaction Force keep their eyes and weapons fixed on the horizon during a combat assault drill in Balkh province on March 31, 2015. The drills were part of the command's preparations for the upcoming spring fighting season in Afghanistan. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

NATO soldiers with the Quick Reaction Force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North move toward extraction during an air-assault drill in Balkh province, Afghanistan, on March 31, 2015. The team is responsible for providing support to Afghan security forces fighting in the region.

NATO soldiers with the Quick Reaction Force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North move toward extraction during an air-assault drill in Balkh province, Afghanistan, on March 31, 2015. The team is responsible for providing support to Afghan security forces fighting in the region. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

A Georgian soldier provides cover as members of  Train, Advise and Assist Command-North's Quick Reaction Force clamor onto a German helicopter during a March 31, 2015, air-assault drill in Afghanistan's Balkh province.

A Georgian soldier provides cover as members of Train, Advise and Assist Command-North's Quick Reaction Force clamor onto a German helicopter during a March 31, 2015, air-assault drill in Afghanistan's Balkh province. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

A member of the quick-reaction force at  Train, Advise and Assist Command-North sets off a smoke grenade to mark the landing zone for incoming helicopters during a March 31, 2015, NATO combat drill in Balkh province, northern Afghanistan.

A member of the quick-reaction force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North sets off a smoke grenade to mark the landing zone for incoming helicopters during a March 31, 2015, NATO combat drill in Balkh province, northern Afghanistan. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

Georgian troops assigned to the quick-reaction force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North file toward an awaiting German helicopter, during a March 31, 2015, air-assault drill in Afghanistan's Balkh province.

Georgian troops assigned to the quick-reaction force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North file toward an awaiting German helicopter, during a March 31, 2015, air-assault drill in Afghanistan's Balkh province. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

The Georgian platoon leader for the quick-reaction Force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North calls in coordinates to German helicopter pilots during a March 31, 2015, air-assault drill in Balkh province, northern Afghanistan.

The Georgian platoon leader for the quick-reaction Force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North calls in coordinates to German helicopter pilots during a March 31, 2015, air-assault drill in Balkh province, northern Afghanistan. (Carlo Munoz/Stars and Stripes)

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — In a valley of northern Afghanistan beneath the massive peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains, Georgian troops move hastily to secure a helicopter landing zone.

With the green smoke marking the landing zone wafting overhead, Georgian troops assigned to the quick-reaction force at Train, Advise and Assist Command-North rush to the waiting aircraft, while other soldiers fix their eyes and weapons on the ridge lines crisscrossing the valley plain. After circling the mountaintops for several minutes, the helicopters swoop back into the valley repeating an assault drill.

Weeks before, members of the command’s quick-reaction force — along with the rest of the U.S. and coalition forces stationed at TAAC-North — were focused on drawing down their presence in northern Afghanistan after the spring and summer fighting season.

Now, with the Obama administration’s decision to keep U.S. forces in the country at current levels for all of 2015, the quick-reaction force is set to remain until the end of the year.

Washington’s move was partly motivated by concerns over the collapse last year of another U.S.-trained force, the Iraqi army, in the face of a lightening offensive by Islamic militants. Insurgent forces had been kept largely at bay in northern Afghanistan, but recent large-scale Taliban offensives have exposed critical shortfalls in weapons and supplies for frontline Afghan forces.

The decision to keep forces in country longer will give coalition commanders much-needed “breathing room” to prepare Afghan security forces for what promises to be one of the most intense fighting seasons since Afghans took the lead in combat operations in 2013, said TAAC-North Deputy Commander Col. Paul Sarat.

“A lot of the decisions have not yet been made” at the tactical level for the small contingent of U.S. forces based at the German-led command in northern Afghanistan, Sarat said. But the decision to extend the withdrawal timeline gives him and other American commanders time to shore up gains made in the train-and-advise mission.

“It gives us the entire fighting season (and) buys them another year of improvement,” Sarat said, referring to the local military and police units stationed in the north and elsewhere in the country.

American and NATO advisers are working to close gaps within Afghan forces, by honing their intelligence-sharing capabilities, as well as streamlining their logistics and support chains, Sarat said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced in May that the alliance would keep a military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016, when U.S. forces are expected to withdraw, though he said troop numbers had yet to be worked out.

Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in May he anticipates a sizable American troop presence in the country past 2016.

After 13 years of conflict in Afghanistan, much of Europe is suffering from the same war weariness as the United States, and any decision to prolong NATO’s presence in the country will come down to alliance members’ political will, TAAC-North commander Brig. Gen. Andreas Hannemann said.

Given the stakes for Afghan forces and the country’s security situation, lack of political will “is not a [good] reason not to do it,” Hannemann said. “We can use every [extra] day” to help improve security in northern Afghanistan.

Swedish Col. Joakim Karlquist, a senior NATO adviser to Operations Coordination Center-North, the main coordinating body for security forces in northern Afghanistan, echoed Hannemann’s comments.

The time-consuming process of getting Afghan commanders up to snuff on running a modern military and police force means foreign advisers need all the time they can get, Karlquist said.

During a visit to the center, located in Mazar-e-Sharif, Karlquist’s team spent an entire day attempting to convince Afghan officials on the need to coordinate operations among military, police and intelligence units.

At the end of the meetings, Afghan Maj. Gen. Seyad Sajadi, the coordination center’s chief, agreed to establish a framework to begin that coordination. These types of “baby steps” or small victories have come to define the work of U.S. and NATO adviser teams, Karlquist said.

The adviser teams need time to accumulate enough of those small victories to create large-scale changes within the Afghan security forces. But with the Taliban having launched their spring fighting season on April 15, time may be running out for those forces.

Dubbed the Azm campaign, the Arabic word for “resolve,” the campaign aims to target Afghan military bases and diplomatic centers as well as “intelligence, interior and defense ministry officials,” the Taliban said in a statement.

The transition from full-scale combat operations to a train-and-advise mission has kept U.S. and allied forces largely inside the wire, leaving Afghan military and police to fend for themselves in northern Afghanistan.

Taking advantage of that, the Taliban and other insurgent groups have launched a series of coordinated attacks against the army and police positions in the north, once seen as one of the most stable regions in the country. In northern Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces, insurgents overran army and police defenses. In a counteroffensive in Kunduz, launched in late April, officials said 200 insurgents were killed as were a dozen Afghan security forces.

In May, Afghan security forces launched a massive counteroffensive in Badakhshan to reclaim territory lost to Taliban fighters there in the earlier attacks.

The wave of attacks in northern Afghanistan provides only an inkling of what the fighting season holds for Afghan forces and their western allies.

Hannemman offered his view of a grim future for local forces in northern Afghanistan: “We have to expect higher losses” among the Afghans, he said. “This [is] part of the game.”

munoz.carlo@stripes.com Twitter: @natseccarlo


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