Can the U.S. Leave Behind “Afghan-Sustainable” Military Bases?

As one outpost is prepared for a handover, a report raises the risks attendant upon the departure of American forces

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John Wendle for TIME

U.S. soldiers from Bravo Battery, 4-319, 173 Airborne Brigade, toss wood from a torn down Afghan restaurant on Combat Outpost Garda into a dump truck in preparation for a handover of the COP to Afghan forces on September 14, 2012.

The arm of the battered orange backhoe rose up and came crashing down on the plastic-and-steel walls and roof of the barracks. The corrugated roofing squealed and popped off. A plastic wall buckled and fell flat, raising a thick cloud of dust. Bright yellow insulation spooled out and tangled everywhere.Then the arm swung over and scooped up a bucket of dirt from a smashed Hesco barrier and buried the debris.

American troops have abandoned “downtown” as they called this part of Combat Outpost Garda, in Wardak Province, and moved up to the top of their fortified hill in the lead-up to leaving the base in the coming weeks. It is part of making the outpost “Afghan-sustainable” as it is handed over to the company of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers stationed here. But there is already considerable doubt, despite downsizing facilities to make them more manageable, that thefledgling Afghan security forces can sustain the necessary operations and patrols  to keep the country stable as more such combat outposts (COPs) are handed over to Afghanistan amid the U.S. and NATO drawdown ahead of the planned 2014 pullout.

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“We have a tolai here, an Afghan company,” says  Col. Andrew Rohling of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and head of operations in Logar and Wardak Provinces, as he surveyed Garda with a handover team and an Afghan counterpart. “So our goal is to take [the base] down from what is an American size company to an Afghan size company. The size is about the same, but it’s the logistics. Its all about,really, its all about logistics. The Afghan tolai just doesn’t have the same logistical capacity as the American company.”

When the U.S. troops pull out of Garda, it and the surrounding high mountain valley will become the domain of the Afghan company– and the entrenched insurgent groups that surround it. For many of the Afghan soldiers, it is strange to see infrastructure that has been trucked in at enormous cost and built on territory gained with great difficulty knocked down with such little fanfare. As more of the walls came crashing down, an Afghan translator watching from nearby told TIME, “Every time the ANA goes off the base, they are attacked by roadside bombs, sometimes [insurgents] ambush them. I think if [Coalition forces] leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will start fighting everywhere,” he says, speaking anonymously because he did not feel comfortable talking on such a small installation. “It will be like it was – when there was civil war everywhere. There will be more fighting,” says the translator, who has lived on the base for around two years.

A report by an American military Human Terrain Team that was shown to TIME by a U.S. officer outlines the specific fears the U.S. military has about the upcoming handover of Garda. The study draws lessons from the results of thehandover late last year of Jalrez, a combat outpost just a few miles from Garda lying along the strategic east-west Route 2 that crosses the mountainous midsection of the country.

Taking lessons from the closure of the nearby base, the report, in part, reads that, “The closure of COP Garda will have minimal impact on the security of the predominantly Pashtun population residing east of the Jalrez District Center (DC); however, the Hazara/Tajik communities residing west of the DC will suffer due to an influx of Taliban fighters, and the resurgence of historical rivalries with their Pashtun neighbors.” Also, because there is only one road through the valley, Hazara and Tajik farmers will effectively be cut off byillegal checkpoints from markets in their provincial capital and in Kabul, just 30 miles away.

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More alarmingly, the report says that, “Historically, Jalrez District has served as a critical avenue to facilitate attacks upon Maidan Shahr and Kabul.” With the closure of COP Garda, not only will ethnic tensions and violence increase in northern Wardak, but a critical blocking position will be removed, making it that much easier for Taliban, Hisb-e-Islami and other insurgent factions, such as the Haqqani Network, to infiltrate Kabul and conduct attacks.

A NATO official tells TIME that the Coalition has closed and handed over around 320 bases with half given to the ANA and half to other government security agencies. The official says no bases have been closed outright. The territory and bases have been relinquished through a series of tranches – with the most peaceful areas – provinces and cities like Bamyan, Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat and Panjsher – handed over first. Col. Rohling is realistic about the Afghans’ ability to manage it all. Says he, “I don’t have a problem giving it to them – the problem is that they can’t manage it. They don’t have the fuel to run it, the power, all the things that go with it. The reality is, they’re not jacked up, it’s just that they don’t have the American logistical system.”

As the U.S. and NATO have tried to disentangle themselves from the country, they have pushed for speedier handovers. “The question is: how fast do you hand over? It’s not a gulf of difference. It is a spectrum and it depends on your judgment on the progress we are making. And on the security side we are making good progress,” said Sir Richard Stagg, British ambassador in Kabul, in an interview with the Guardian on Tuesday. “The more the people of Afghanistan see their own government stand on its own two feet, the better for everybody. This is not a matter of us cutting and running and disappearing, it is a matter of shifting the nature of our engagement from hand-holding to one which is offering support as needed andrequired.”

But most Afghans do not see it that way. “This round will be different from the others because insecure areas are part of this round of transition,” Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi said Tuesday at a press conference, adding that while he welcomed the withdrawal of NATO troops, he was concerned about the upcoming fourth and fifth tranches. He added that, “The Afghanistan situation is very sensitive right now.”

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