While the emphasis on training grows, the fighting continues. Forty-five members of the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, a Marine Reserve unit based in Baltimore, returned in December after seven months of clearing improvised explosive devices for Marine infantry in Helmand province.
Cpl. Bradley Putman was looking for such bombs at the entry to a suspected enemy compound last fall when he stepped on a pressure-plate IED. He took shrapnel in his ankle, earned a Purple Heart and stayed in Afghanistan until his unit came home last month.
Putman, on his first tour in Afghanistan, said he wasn't there long enough to see drastic change in the war. But he said the country is "definitely going in the right direction."
Repeat visitors report seeing gains over time. Adkins spoke of driving through the streets of the capital with "the normal Kabul traffic." Young, on his second tour, said fighting was "a great deal more intense" in 2008 and 2009.
Lt. Craig Bald, an officer with the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion who completed his first tour last month, said signs were positive. The unit arrived in June, during the fighting season, in an area that "had been a hot spot in the past."
"It has significantly slowed down as far as kinetic activity," Bald said. "As we were there longer, what we noticed was an extreme disruption of the [enemy] networks."
Of the possibility that Taliban fighters might simply be waiting out the U.S. withdrawal, Bald said he couldn't read minds, but didn't think so.
"From what we saw, the enemy is still out there, the enemy's still operating," he said. "We didn't necessarily see them hiding. They were fighting us while we were there and we were fighting them as a result."
Bald cautioned against comparing Afghanistan with Iraq.
"Iraq had an established government with a road network. It had commerce. It had a lot of things that Afghanistan doesn't have. Afghanistan is way behind in some of the technological and basic infrastructure, and that puts [the country] at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to any sort of stability," he said.
"The ultimate thing is, time will tell. We've invested a lot of time, a lot of manpower and a lot of effort into Afghanistan and Iraq for what I feel are the right reasons. It's just a matter of whether it works out or not."