As Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai parry over troop levels and assistance, "retrograde" is the operant word I am hearing from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan. A nuanced military term for withdrawal, retrograde defines operations in this insurgency-plagued land.
After more than a decade of U.S.-led warfare, American commanders are now insisting their Afghan counterparts take over the fight.
The 101st Airborne Division's Rakkasan Brigade is the battle-space owner of eastern Afghanistan's restive Khost and Paktia provinces, both of which border Pakistan's anarchic tribal regions.
In the brigade headquarters at Forward Operating Base Salerno -- a building hardened against rocket and mortar attack -- Rakkasan Deputy Commander Colonel Tim Sullivan told me: "Our mission was to go from a partnered role with the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) to an advise and assist role. We kind of gave it the 'tough love' approach."
With the announced U.S. withdrawal in 2014, American officers have no choice but to push the Afghan security forces forward.
It's a big change for Afghan commanders used to U.S. troops taking the lead, and accustomed to having the formidable U.S. firepower and air support.
Sullivan talked of turning down a cosseted Afghan commander who demanded helicopter transport to one of his bases. "We fly them nowhere," Sullivan told me. "It's a big transition. It has to happen. It's a clash of wills."
Sullivan is the right man for the job. A hulking, gravel-voiced Brooklynite from an Irish Catholic family of seven boys, Sullivan is a West Point graduate who has served in Somalia, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sullivan and other U.S. officers in Afghanistan talk about the need to transition to "Afghan Good Enough" -- a sustainable Afghan security force that does it the Afghan way.
The U.S. partnering strategy of "Shohna ba Shohna" (Shoulder to Shoulder) has abruptly given way to "After You," as Afghan security forces take the lead -- sometimes reluctantly.
"Across the A/O (Area of Operations), I wouldn't paint a rosy picture," Sullivan says. "We've had some very good success. We've had some moderate success. We have not encountered any nightmares."
Across the insurgent heartland of eastern and southern Afghanistan, there's a palletizing fever as U.S. equipment is packed for shipment.
In military briefings, U.S. bases scheduled for imminent closure are highlighted on Powerpoint maps.
Long convoys of armored vehicles are making their way back from forward bases as combat outposts are closed or transferred to Afghan security forces.
Remaining U.S. bases are groaning with the influx of transiting troops and contractors, housed in new barrios of Alaska tents and "tin-can" metal housing pods.
Some bases are being dismantled and returned to nature. Combat Outpost Tillman, named after the NFL star and special forces soldier Pat Tillman who died in an infamous friendly fire incident, was one of those closed.
"We scraped it clean," Sullivan said. U.S. anti-IED teams traveled north to blow up the watchtowers.
The base is now a soccer field, where Afghan boys play a wolfish style of football.
As Obama administration spokespersons float the big round trial balloon of zero troops in Afghanistan, soldiers here talk about the spring 2013 drawdown of 20 percent of the remaining 66,000 US troops, with another 50 percent to be gone soon after.
How are the Afghans responding to U.S. retrograde? Among some, there is clearly denial. They simply can't imagine a country rich enough, or foolish enough, to just walk away from the enormous investment poured into these bases, many just built during the boom that accompanied Obama's troop surge.