Maj. Young

Maj. Young with the Maryland National Guard’s 1297th CSSB in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (BALTIMORE SUN / January 26, 2012)

For the soldiers of Task Force Raven in Afghanistan, the tempo is high, the roads are rough, and the work is dangerous.

The Maryland National Guardsmen, members of the 1297th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, carry equipment through insurgent-infested territory to combat troops in southern and western Afghanistan.

Such work is helping to create the conditions for the coming handover of the country's security to Afghan forces, U.S. military officials say. As the United States winds down its decade-long conflict, Maryland soldiers and Marines who have served in Afghanistan say they hope their contributions will outlast the American military presence.

"I want to believe that we somehow had an impact," Maryland Guard Maj. Michael Young, executive officer of the 1297th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, said by telephone from Kandahar. "An impact either directly or indirectly, for as long as we've been here."

The United States brought the war in Iraq to an end last month, capping a years-long effort to train local security forces while drawing down U.S. troops.

Now the military is repeating the process in Afghanistan.

The withdrawal ordered by President Barack Obama last year has left 91,000 U.S. troops in the country, down from a peak of 101,000 last summer. He has ordered a complete pullout by 2014.

More than 3,100 Maryland National Guard members have served in the Afghan war since Sept. 11, 2001, some on multiple tours. Three have been killed. More than 180 Maryland Guard members are there now.

Many of the troops in Afghanistan, including some Maryland Guard members, are focused on training the Afghan army and police. Others are fighting insurgents, protecting civilians or guarding the government.

As the Obama administration pursues the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban, Afghanistan remains deadly.

Airman 1st Class Matthew Ryan Seidler, an explosive ordnance disposal apprentice from Westminster, was killed Jan. 5 when the vehicle in which he was traveling struck a roadside bomb in Helmand province. Marine Capt. Daniel B. Bartle, a 2006 graduate of the Naval Academy, died Jan. 19 in a helicopter crash in Helmand.

The number of improvised explosive devices cleared or detonated in the past year rose to a record 16,554, USA Today reported last week.

The U.S. service members still deployed are pursuing their mission under a deadline. During his State of the Union address Tuesday, Obama reiterated his timetable for withdrawal.

What American forces will leave behind is unclear. The latest U.S. intelligence estimate warns that the Taliban will grow stronger, using talks with the United States to gain credibility, running out the clock until U.S. troops leave and continuing to fight for more territory, officials who have read the classified document told the Associated Press.

The report says the government of President Hamid Karzai has largely failed to prove itself to the Afghan people and likely will continue to weaken, according to the AP. The document did suggest that eliminating Taliban leaders and continuing to build the Afghan government could improve the outcome.

In Iraq, violence has increased since the last U.S. troops left. In Afghanistan, Maryland soldiers say they are working to prevent that.

Young's Havre de Grace-based unit has 77 members in Kandahar supplying forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Forty members of the 175th Security Forces Squadron are providing security at a hospital staffed by Egyptians treating Afghan civilians at Bagram. A 16-member detachment of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment is operating unmanned aircraft in Helmand.

Other Maryland Guard members are with the International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led mission in Kabul working alongside and training Afghan forces.

Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, commander of the Maryland National Guard, visited the units last month. He described a mission in transition.