U.S. Army security adviser Lt. Col Bryan Laske of the Army's No Slack Battalion 2/327, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, and Afghan Army Col. Hayatullah, commander of the 2nd Brigade, 201st Corps, right, meet in March at the Afghan Army's Sarkani Base in the Kunar province of eastern Afghanistan. (Kimberly Dozier / AP)
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FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, AFGHANISTAN — When the 4th Brigade Combat Team from the 101st Airborne Division took control over three key provinces in southeastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, they were likely the last American combat brigade in the area now that the U.S. is handing over responsibility for security to the Afghans.
On Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost Province, leaders of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team marked the end of their nine-month deployment in Khost, Paktika and Paktia and welcomed their brother brigade from Fort Campbell, Ky. This was also the first time since the war started that a brigade from the 101st replaced another from the same division.
Heading into the drawdown of NATO forces in 2014, U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan are gradually being replaced by teams of advisers for Afghan security forces. Both of the brigades from the 101st brought advisers as well as traditional combat and support units to supplement Afghan National Army and police forces.
Col. R.J. Lillibridge, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said the Afghan National Army units in these provinces are performing a majority of operations without the assistance of American troops.
“My guidance to our commanders was that everything we were going to do over here was going to be partnered, there was going to be no unilateral operations, and that the Afghans’ priorities were going to be our priorities as much as possible,” Lillibridge told The Associated Press.
The 203rd Corps of the Afghan National Army made substantial gains from last year, and they’ve disrupted the insurgent networks in the area, Lillibridge said. They cleared out areas of Khost Province that had traditionally been insurgent safe havens and established new combat outposts, he said.
“They are much more independent, much more confident,” he said.
He said when the brigade arrived in eastern Afghanistan last fall, members had expected that the Afghans would be dependent on the American military for helicopters, medical evacuation and other logistical issues. But he said now the Afghan National Army has stopped relying on their counterparts for most operations.
“When we came in September, we all thought that logistics was a huge failure on the part of the Afghans. But the simply reality is they have never been inhibited to conduct an operation due to logistics,” Lillibridge said.
He said Taliban and affiliated insurgent groups that once covered the provinces such as the Haqqani network have diminished and won’t be able to rebound after the American units leave.
“They can’t wait because every year the Afghan national security forces get stronger,” Lillibridge said.