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Embattled U.S. post welcomes experienced Afghan soldiers

Growing up in a country that has endured almost constant warfare for more than 30 years, many Afghan soldiers have been fighting nearly their entire lives. Their fighting skills are important for their American partners. The performance of the Afghan National Army is key to the eventual withdrawal of American forces, and for the future of a stable Afghanistan.

So the American soldiers at Combat Outpost Nolen welcome the Afghan soldiers here with open arms, hopeful that they'll take some pressure off their shoulders from the intense battle that has raged here since their arrival. Some soldiers go so far as to say the Afghans have a "sixth sense" for finding the homemade bombs, or IED's, that have plagued them throughout their deployment.

Afghan army and U.S. Army soldiers play with a ball at the joint U.S.-Afghan base at COP Nolen. (Rodrigo Abd / AP)

An Afghan soldier fires a rocket-propelled grenade towards insurgent positions as a U.S. Army soldier ducks. (Rodrigo Abd / AP)

As an institution, the Afghan National Army isn't perfect and has a long way to go before it can operate on its own. There are doubts about discipline, training, equipment, motivation, Taliban infiltrators and their ability to follow the counterinsurgency strategy, which requires diplomacy nearly as much as marksmanship.

But at the man-for-man level, it's different, and bravery is not in doubt.

Watching the Americans and Afghans getting to know each other is like watching the arrival of new kids at summer camp. They play volleyball, share food, give each other nicknames and swap war stories. Whether Afghans, who can fight well individually, can be forged into a cohesive fighting unit is the million-dollar question. The results of the Afghan army's past performances are mixed. But stakes are high here in the fight for Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and the Taliban's former headquarters.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has said, "As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan." Over the coming months a major push will be made to bring Kandahar under the control of the Karzai government. The U.S. military is hoping the face of that push will be an Afghan one. The Afghan army is going to have to step up and prove to its partners that it is ready - not only for the fight, but to operate like a professional army.

Editor's note: Associated Press photojournalists Evan Vucci and Rodrigo Abd are Photoblogging for msnbc.com while embedded with U.S. troops stationed at Combat Outpost Nolen, in the volatile Arghandab Valley in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Afghan army soldier Said prays at the joint U.S.-Afghan base at COP Nolen, Friday, July 23. (Rodrigo Abd / AP)

Afghan army soldiers have dinner at COP Nolen, Friday, July 23.(Rodrigo Abd / AP)

An Afghan soldier stands guard next to a villager who was detained at COP Nolen due to his fingers having trace amounts of ammonium nitrate, the key component used in manufacturing IED's in the volatile Arghandab Valley, Kandahar, Afghanistan, Sunday, July 25. (Rodrigo Abd / AP)

Afghan army soldiers cool off from the fierce Afghan heat with a swim in a canal near the joint Afghan-U.S. base COP Nolen. (Rodrigo Abd / AP)