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Afghan National Army

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The soldiers do their best to either ignore these multitudes of staring eyes or to interact with them but most often the children react shyly when confronted or when someone tries to talk to them.

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US and NATO forces continue to train the Afghan troops in advance of the handover of the country's security in 2014. The US-led war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of around 3,000 US and allied troops, seen thousands of Afghans killed and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. We check in on our soldiers for May (and a little bit of June 2012.) -- Paula Nelson (45 photos total)
A female US marine and members of USN Hospital Corpsman from the 1st battalion 7th Marines Regiment walk at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Jackson also known as Sabit Khadam in Sangin, Helmand Province, June 7, 2012. The US-led war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of around 3,000 U.S. and allied troops, seen thousands of Afghans killed and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. (Adek Berryakek Berry/AFP/GettyImages)

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With well over a year before American forces pull out of Afghanistan, the conflict there drags on. Every month in The Big Picture, we feature a selection of recent images of events there, from the soldiers and insurgents at war, the people longing for peace, and daily life and culture in the country of 29 million. Afghanistan remains among the world's poorest nations, and struggles with issues not found in other places, like an ongoing fight against polio. Afghanistan still supplies about 90% of the world's opium, a major cash crop in a country with few viable exports. Gathered here are images from April, 2012. -- Lane Turner (33 photos total)
Afghan policemen are mirrored in glass from a broken window as they stand guard outside the building where Taliban fighters launched an attack in Kabul on April 16, 2012. A total of 36 Taliban militants were killed as they mounted a wave of attacks across Afghanistan. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

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In early April, in an attempt to accelerate the transition of military responsibility to the Afghan government, the US agreed to hand control of special operations missions to Afghan forces, including night raids, relegating American troops to a supporting role. This deal cleared the way for the two countries to move ahead with an agreement that would establish the shape of American support to Afghanistan after the 2014 troop withdrawal deadline. Domestic support for the war (in the US) has dropped sharply. We look back at March in the troubled country. -- Paula Nelson (37 photos total)
Young Afghan women use an umbrella to shield themselves from the sun in Kabul, April 5, 2012. The position of women in Afghanistan has improved dramatically since the fall of the Taliban, with the number of girls in education soaring. But as the Americans and the Afghan government have pursued peace efforts with the Taliban, women are increasingly concerned that gains in their rights may be compromised in a bid to end the costly and deadly war. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

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An Indian man dances amid a cloud of colored powder during Holi celebrations in Gauhati, India, Thursday, March 8, 2012. Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, also heralds the coming of spring. Jerry Vonderhaar, left, comforts Charles Kellogg after severe weather hit the Eagle Point subdivision in Limestone County, Ala. on Friday, March 2, 2012. [...]

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Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indicated that American forces in Afghanistan would be accelerating their withdrawal. "Hopefully by the mid-to-latter part of 2013," Panetta said, "we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advice, and assist role." This announcement came shortly after the Taliban declared its plans to open a political office in Qatar, allowing for direct peace negotiations. At the moment, the U.S. still has 90,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, with 22,000 scheduled to return home later this year. Gathered here are images of the people and places involved in this conflict over the past month, as part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [42 photos]

Men of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, during an operation near the end of their third deployment in three years in Afghanistan. They were securing route 611, which runs Kajaki Sofla, an area that had long been a safe haven for insurgent sub-commanders and for arms and drug trafficking. (Cpl. James Clark/USMC)

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The New Year began violently in Afghanistan, with three bombings killing 13 people in one day in Kandahar. In addition, the French Defense minister told soldiers he backed US efforts to open peace talks with the Taliban, and President Obama was in talks about defense priorites as the US military readied for challenges from China and Iran while downplaying any future counterinsurgency efforts like the ones in Afghanistan or Iraq. Meanwhile, the foreign troop withdrawal process continued, as more responsibility was transferred to Afghan security forces. The goal is a complete withdrawal by the end of 2014. -- Lloyd Young (41 photos total)
Afghan policemen march during the transfer of authority from NATO troops to Afghan security forces in Chaghcharan, Ghor province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan on Jan. 4. The security responsibilities of Chaghcharan, the provincial capital of Ghor province is handed over from the NATO forces to Afghan security forces. The process of taking over security from over 130,000-strong NATO-led ISAF forces by Afghan troops would be completed by the end of 2014 when Afghanistan will take over the full leadership of its own security duties from US and NATO forces. (Hoshang Hashimi/Associated Press)

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The United States and allied forces have been in Afghanistan for over ten years, an occupation that approaches the 2014 deadline for a full withdrawal of those forces. As the transition draws closer, problems with security, the economy, and cultural mores are growing even more apparent. Included in this monthly look at Afghanistan are images that highlight these issues, as well as images that point to a more hopeful future. The activist group YoungWomen4Change prepares posters demanding women's rights even as the horrific torture of 15-year-old Sahar Gul, who refused her husband's family's demands that she become a prostitute, came to light. Also included here are images of another Afghan girl, 12-year-old Tarana Akbari, who witnessed the terrible suicide bombing in Kabul that killed at least 80 Shiites during observances of the Ashura holiday. The bombing has raised fears of renewed sectarian violence. -- Lane Turner (37 photos total)
A man feeds pigeons in front of the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, or Blue Mosque, in Mazar-e-Sharif on December 22, 2011. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

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In the year 2011, a total of 565 NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan were killed -- down from 711 in 2010 -- marking the largest decline in annual deaths during the decade-long conflict. The large number of NATO soldiers on the ground appears to have made a difference, a fact that worries Afghans as the U.S. and others accelerate their planned pullback. This year, 23,000 U.S. soldiers are scheduled to depart the country, heading toward a full withdrawal by 2014. For now, U.S. troops appear to be focusing on intensive training of Afghan forces and preparing for the logistical challenge of shipping home some $30 billion worth of military gear. Gathered here are images of the people and places involved in this conflict over the past month, as part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [42 photos]

Cpl. James Hernandez, a combat engineer with Alpha Company, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, and a native of Goodyear, Arizona, uses an electric saw to dismantle a HESCO barrier at Firebase Saenz, in Helmand province, on December 13, 2011. FB Saenz is the first of several patrol bases being demilitarized by the Marines of 9th ESB throughout the month of December. (USMC/Cpl. Bryan Nygaard)

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Out at the Kabul Military Training Center, Colonel Fazl Karim is giving a new batch of recruits his usual pep talk on a hilltop not far from the barracks. It’s two weeks before the graduation of the latest group of soldiers in the Afghan National Army, and the troops sit cross-legged in the dirt, aligned in neat rows. Construction crews build more barracks nearby—another 100,000 recruits are expected to go through the training in the next three years, gearing up for a final tally of 352,000 that will replace foreign soldiers. “You are all going to die one day,” shouts Karim. “You might as well die protecting your country!”

In Afghanistan, fatalism trumps optimism as a rallying cry. But perhaps that just reflects the realities of Afghan soldiering: by the end of 2014 the country’s armed forces will take over security from the international troops that have been stationed here for more than a decade. And yet the insurgency continues. What the Afghan troops lack in equipment, logistics, air support and training they more than make up for in sheer bravery.

But is it enough? Even the U.S. soldiers tasked with overseeing training are skeptical. “As long as training continues when we leave there is no reason to think that Afghanistan can’t continue to grow a professional army,” says Captain Jason Reed. “But it’s going to take generations.”

Adam Ferguson is a frequent contributor to TIME. Represented by VII, Ferguson has covered conflict for several years, primarily in Afghanistan.

Aryn Baker is the Middle East Bureau Chief for TIME.

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