KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Abdul Malik and his fellow Afghan soldiers were driving across the arid and volatile south when their armored personnel carrier struck a roadside bomb. Malik found himself outside the vehicle, dazed but aware of his three comrades nearby. One had a serious head wound.
Help came quickly: U.S. helicopters swooped in and took them to the Afghan military hospital in Kandahar, the largest in the region. Malik lost his leg below the knee. Without the quick rescue, he would likely have lost his life. His three buddies all died.
As part of preparations for the final withdrawal of international combat troops by the end of 2014, Afghanistan's security forces are being pressed into service - alone. This year's fighting season is the first in 12 years of war that Afghan troops are responsible for security in 90 percent of the country.
But the Afghans are still heavily dependent on international air support to ferry the wounded to hospitals and for gunships to defend troops who are isolated and under attack.
With NATO and the U.S. military providing only advice and assistance on request, the Afghans' battlefield performance this year will decide how much equipment and training they still need.
After 2014 the United States is expected to leave behind a residual force of 8,000 to 10,000 troops, mostly as mentors and trainers. NATO is being asked to contribute several thousand as well, but so far only Germany has promised 800 troops.
Some in the U.S. military see a steep learning curve ahead for the 350,000 Afghan service personnel.
In eastern Nangarhar province where the U.S. First Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, is advising the Afghan National Army, Lt. Col. Matthew Stader said Afghan troops need advisory teams for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. They lack the drones used heavily by U.S. forces.
Still, Stader said Afghan troops are doing their own patrols, clearing routes and removing roadside bombs.
"I think they are doing well, but it just looks different than the Americans," said Stader, of Annapolis, Md.
Afghan forces can resupply themselves with food and fuel and water but are still struggling with planning, logistics, equipment maintenance and contracting, Stader said, adding that the brigade he is mentoring in eastern Afghanistan needs at least another year of advising before it will be able to operate independently.
Sitting behind his oversize desk in a fortresslike compound surrounded by reinforced concrete blast walls and protected by four separate security gates, Gen. Abdul Raziq, southern Kandahar province's police chief, has one of Afghanistan's most dangerous jobs. Even so, he said he is looking forward to the withdrawal of international forces.
"NATO's leaving is a positive thing because now we have our land and our authority back," he said, reflecting the sensitive and often complicated relationship between Afghan troops and their coalition partners.