Soldiers from the Afghan National Army patrol a village in the Pech River Valley, in eastern Afghanistan. (Andrea Bruce / VII Network/FTWP)

Long before U.S. troops departed Combat Outpost Nangalam last fall, they gave their Afghan counterparts a few words of advice: Don’t stay here.

Afghan soldiers had already failed once to secure Nangalam on their own, forcing the unplanned return in July 2011 of U.S. troops to one of the country’s most infamous insurgent strongholds. U.S. officials worried that the Afghans were about to make the same mistake again, electing to remain in a remote Konar province valley that would be difficult to defend alone. This time, there would be no backup.

When U.S. advisers shared their guidance with Col. Tarab Adel, the top Afghan commander in Nangalam, he quickly agreed. But a new, expansionist Afghan strategy left Adel with no choice. Adel’s superiors demanded that his unit take control of Nangalam after the U.S. Army’s departure, and in late 2012, he watched the last American convoy drive away and prepared for the worst.

As Western troops draw down their presence, Afghan officials have resisted U.S. guidance to reduce the nascent army’s footprint in recognition of its limitations. Many Afghan leaders view that strategy as a concession to the Taliban and an admission of weakness. But U.S. advisers say the ambitious alternative — an Afghan army spread thinly across volatile districts — could be even more self-destructive.

The disagreement over the Pech Valley is symbolic of broader bilateral tensions over growing Afghan autonomy and American officials’ unease about their own loss of control and what will replace it. American officials say the Afghan strategy would divert much-needed manpower from population centers, the pillars of government power that the U.S. military has devoted most of its resources to securing. A reversal of recent gains, U.S. officials say, could make it easier for the Taliban to carry out spectacular attacks with consequences both deadly and symbolic.

(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

The Afghan army has “devised a strategy that is unsustainable,” said one U.S. official based in Konar, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Last summer, President Hamid Karzai asked his cabinet to “take all necessary measures to stop the demolition of bases by NATO and make their handover possible,” according to presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi.

On its face, that decision illustrated Afghan leaders’ enthusiasm about their growing responsibilities. Some U.S. officials argue that the Afghan army’s expansionism comes with inherent risks but also praise it as a key development in the institution’s maturation. Only by acting unilaterally in tough locations, they say, will the Afghan National Army, or ANA, know its abilities and limitations.

But in the Pech Valley of northeastern Afghanistan, and in other remote and volatile locations, U.S. advisers and Afghan soldiers view the plan as a potential disaster. According to a Pentagon study released last month, only one of 23 Afghan brigades is able to operate independently without support from the United States or NATO. That strain is felt most acutely in isolated, frequently contested locations.

“There is no way to hold that place without support of American troops,” said Adel, the Afghan commander.

“I told the Americans from the beginning that I wasn’t ready to take over control of base,” he said. “I wanted to just leave the area empty and move somewhere else.”

Each time U.S. troops withdraw from a base, top Afghan officials are left with a choice — either to inherit American infrastructure or allow it to be razed. Reducing the number of fighting positions means that Afghan security forces won’t have the same reach as NATO once did, but it makes it easier for the army and police to maintain and defend their footprint.

U.S. officials have encouraged the 180,000-soldier Afghan army to consolidate that footprint. A bilateral commission meets frequently to decide whether far-flung U.S. bases are fit to be handed over to Afghan troops. Western officials often question whether the army is capable of sustaining those positions. But Afghan officials have transferred some bases despite the concerns of U.S. advisers assigned to Afghan units.

Logistical problems plaguing the Afghan military supply chain have made it difficult for many units to get fuel or spare parts for vehicles. The more remote bases the Afghan army chooses to take over, U.S. officials worry, the more overextended that supply chain will become.

“ANA forces are a fossil fuel, not an infinite resource that can be spread across the country at will,” one U.S. adviser in Konar said.

Afghan officials not only rejected U.S. urging to abandon Nangalam but they also ordered the construction of new outposts a few miles from the base, including one at the mouth of the infamous Korengal Valley. The Afghan army is also aiming to project power northwest of Konar, in hostile Nurestan province, an area many consider largely ungovernable.

“It was a demand of the people in the area,” said Abdul Karim Khurram, Karzai’s chief of staff. “Based on their geographic location, they needed more troops.”

One month after U.S. troops left Nangalam in September, some of the Americans’ direst predictions were coming true. Fuel was in such short supply that Col. Adel had to purchase several dozen gallons with his own money at a local bazaar. Nearly half of the base’s vehicles were broken, and the spare parts needed to fix them were stuck somewhere between Kabul and the Pech Valley. Afghan troops, worried that U.S. air support might not be available should it be needed, had abandoned long patrols.

“The way they were patrolling — we can’t do it the same way,” Adel said of U.S. soldiers.

He and his American advisers had anticipated all of those problems. The last time U.S. troops handed over Nangalam to Afghans, in 2011, it took only a few weeks for things to fall apart.

First, the commander fled, and then his deputy, suspected of having insurgent sympathies, ordered troops to stop shooting at the Taliban. The base ran low on supplies, and funds for food and water were quickly depleted.

Several months after the base was first transferred, U.S. troops returned and agreed to temporarily pay for repairs on vehicles and other equipment.

The second attempt to hand over Nangalam hasn’t yet produced such a catastrophe. The Afghan army still has insurgents outmanned and outgunned in key stretches of the Pech Valley. U.S. officials attribute the Afghans’ relative success to Adel’s leadership.

“Casualties and kinetics are historically and significantly at a minimum,” said one U.S. official, using military lingo for heavy fighting. But the official issued a caveat: “Most likely, it is due to the fact that the ANA patrol a lot less than U.S. units.”

Fighting typically diminishes during the brutal Konar winter. The real test will come after the snow melts, when militants return from sojourns in Pakistan and initiate a new fighting season in one of Afghanistan’s most violent regions.

“It is very possible the Pech could take a turn for the worse and devolve into an environment that could consume 6-2 and 6-1 battalions,” said a U.S. official, speaking about two Afghan battalions in the valley.

With a dramatic U.S. troop reduction expected in the next 12 months, Nangalam is one of many swaths of territory likely to expose tension between Afghan ambition and American expectations. The divergent views hinge not only on the Afghan army’s ability to secure difficult districts but also on its ability to rebound if things don’t go as planned.

Said one U.S. official: “The fear with any strategy like this is: How does it deal with failure? Could an outpost become overrun given a coordinated enemy and a lackadaisical ANA element? Yes. But how will the Afghan army respond?”