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US soldiers say still focused on Afghan mission

As the US soldiers returned fire during an insurgent attack, an old man walked towards the platoon.

According to initial reports, one of the soldiers put a hand on his shoulder to encourage him to move to safety. At that point there was a massive explosion -- the old man had been wearing a suicide vest.

After 11 years of war, 2,135 US soldiers dead, their Afghan colleagues turning on them, and widespread predictions the conflict will end in failure, coalition forces could be forgiven for suffering a dip in morale.

But commanders and soldiers on the ground insist the challenges are bringing them closer together, even if the outcome of the war is uncertain and the perception of what constitutes success has changed.

On September 26, the elderly suicide bomber killed Staff Sergeant Orion Sparks, 29, and Sergeant Jonathan Gollnitz, 28, near Puli Alam in Logar province, bordering the south side of Kabul, two more deaths in a mounting toll.

Their colleagues said the incident pulled the platoon together and after time to grieve and a memorial service, they were refocusing on the job in hand.

"Your platoon becomes like a family," said Sergeant Jesse Housby, 27, from Kansas, who was there when his two friends were killed.

"There are a lot of people around for you. You talk it over. You talk over what happened. You try to remember the good times you had, the people as they were. You want to be there for everybody else. You can't just quit on them."

He spoke softly on what was an emotional day -- after a memorial service at Forward Operating Base Shank, not far from where the incident took place.

The service was attended by about 300 men from 1st Squadron (Airborne), 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

Squadron Chaplain Captain Luke Sprinkle, 28, said that training hard and playing hard bound the men together.

"When you lose one of those guys, the family is torn apart, so the guys grieve," he said.

"In the past guys weren't given that opportunity to grieve. It was 'get over it, push forward harder, go faster'. But that's not how we handle it nowadays. It's important to make sure we are disciplined in the way we honour our fallen heroes."

The war effort itself has come under increasing fire this year, with predictions that the country will descend into civil war when coalition combat troops withdraw in 2014.

More than 50 NATO soldiers have been killed by their Afghan colleagues in so-called green-on-blue or insider attacks and controversies have raged over the burning of Korans and images showing US soldiers urinating on Taliban bodies.

Suicides in the US Army rose sharply in July, with 26 soldiers on active duty taking their own lives, the highest for any single month since monthly records began in 2009.

But Colonel Andrew Rohling, commander of 173rd, said the men were still up for the fight.

"I think as an organisation you have to believe in the mission. If you don't believe in the mission you shouldn't be here," he said.

"I think the role of our leadership for the brigade is to explain to the soldiers why this is still important and why we're still moving forward and this is not a lost cause.

"We are still in a position, regardless of green-on-blue, regardless of the Koran burnings, regardless of the videos of people urinating on dead bodies, we are still in a position by 2014 to give the Afghans a choice in how they want their future to be."

While once commanders talked of "winning" the war against the insurgency, now the emphasis is on doing as much as possible to enable the Afghans to take on the enemy by themselves, including the training up of a 352,000-strong Afghan army and police force.

But the partnership between NATO and Afghan troops has been hit by the surge in insider attacks and, on a more mundane level, US soldiers often express frustration at the Afghans' willingness and ability to turn themselves into a professional force.

In some bases there is clearly a good relationship, but there are also concerns this is being put under strain as the US withdraws troops and resources, leaving the Afghans to fight more independently.

"I can't tell what's going to happen after 2014. Afghans have to choose that on their own," said Rohling.

"But we can put them in a position where they can make a choice that will lead them to long term stability. The question is will there be political will."

At the memorial, Housby said politics and wider issues did not have much of an impact for the men on the front line.

"Most of the time you're cut off from that kind of stuff. The bottom line is you don't really worry about that, you worry about the situation around you and keep your eye on the ball," he said.

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