Months later, it’s a dismal scene. The 240 Afghan soldiers are down to three hours of electricity a day. Almost all of their vehicles have broken down. They don’t have the night-vision goggles needed to guard their base after sunset.
As the Taliban ramped up its attacks in eastern Afghanistan’s Wardak province this spring, the Afghan soldiers here came to a painful conclusion: They were not ready to take on the fight alone. But it was too late — the Americans were not coming back.
The transition of Combat Outpost Conlon to Afghan control — marked by a flag-raising ceremony and a visit from top U.S. military brass — was an early milestone in the NATO drawdown that will continue through 2014.
But Afghan officials worry that the problems plaguing Conlon could be replicated across the country as the U.S. military hands over authority, leaving 200,000 Afghan soldiers without the equipment or wherewithal to defeat a resilient enemy.
“The Americans left too early, and they left without giving us what we need,” said Lt. Col. Hamidullah Kohdamany, the battalion commander.
U.S. officials say that after years of depending on Americans for tactical and logistical support, Afghan soldiers often struggle to adapt to a sudden surge in responsibility.
“They’ve just never had to rely on their own leaders. They’ve always had the Americans for a backstop,” said Lt. Col. Clint Cox, the head of the U.S. military advisory team that oversees Afghan units in Wardak province. “It’s going to take some time. It’s just like with children — sometimes it takes a hard lesson for them to learn.”
In 2009, President Obama’s first “surge” troops constructed Combat Outpost Conlon in the Jalrez Valley, a Taliban stronghold 50 miles from Kabul. The soldiers called Jalrez the “Valley of Death” after being attacked repeatedly while patrolling local villages.
But they made quick progress, reopening roads and bazaars once controlled by the insurgency. The effort was seen as an affirmation of the president’s war strategy — early proof that with more troops, counterinsurgency could work in even the toughest places.
In 2011, U.S. military officials announced that Conlon — named after Pfc. Paul E. Conlon, who was killed in the area in 2008 — would receive another distinction: It would become one of the first American bases in Wardak to be handed over to Afghan control. In February of this year, after the flag-raising ceremony, Afghan officials changed the name of Conlon to Khote Ashru, or “Ashru’s home,” named after an ancestor of the local tribe. Soldiers from the Afghan 203rd Corps rushed to claim the tiny rooms that once housed American troops.