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.
“Wardak has always been a laboratory for the coalition forces,” said Mohammad Halim Fidai, the province’s governor. “Sometimes the experiments work. Sometimes they don’t.”
Fidai and the top Afghan army officials in the province say the transition experiment at Khote Ashru has failed not because the troops aren’t courageous or capable, but because they don’t have the resources that existed when Americans shared the base, or the training to maintain equipment.
Walking around Khote Ashru last week, Gen. Seziq Raziq, the corps commander in charge of southeastern Afghanistan, inspected what was left of the base’s vehicles. Two pickups were attacked this year and were in disrepair. One Humvee was shot during an ambush this month and was rendered useless. The 240 men here are now left with only one armored truck.
Then Raziq walked to the radio tower, which the soldiers lack the fuel to run. Instead, they use their cellphones to discuss operational plans, even though they know that the Taliban taps those conversations.
“These men don’t know how to fix these things when they break,” Raziq said. “American contractors used to fix them for us, but they are gone.”
Now, troops patrolling the area near the base return before dusk because the Afghan army has no provision for night-vision goggles, which the troops borrowed from the Americans when the base was shared. The patrols — adapted from U.S. counterinsurgency theory — are not as common as they once were, and Afghan soldiers say they are of little consequence.
“The enemy has gotten stronger since the Americans left, and their morale is up,” Kohdamany said.
“We talk to the local people a lot. But it’s like talking to a donkey. No matter what we say, they support the Taliban,” said Capt. Azizullah, the top commander on the base, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
Many sentences at Khote Ashru now begin with “When the Americans were here . . . ”
“When the Americans were here, we had air support and close coordination,” said Azizullah.
“When the Americans were here, we got their advice every day. They were with us on so many patrols,” said Lt. Ahmed Zia Muradi.
Now, even physical relics of the former U.S. presence are scant — just a few English scrawlings on blast barriers and barracks walls that the base’s new owners struggle to decipher.
“Motivation,” reads one.
“Through these doors misery has walked,” reads another.
In less than two months, the only other American base in Jalrez, Combat Outpost Garda, will be transferred to Afghan control, ending the last chapter of the three-year U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in the valley. Three more bases in the surrounding area will be transferred in the coming months.
To many U.S. officials, it’s a symbol of progress: Afghans filling the void in places Americans were always destined to leave.
In April 2011, a similar transition took place at Combat Outpost Tangi, about 10 miles from the Jalrez Valley. Within several months, Afghan soldiers abandoned that base, saying it was too dangerous to maintain. In September, the Taliban released a video of dozens of insurgents entering the vacant base on motorcycles, carrying assault rifles and grenade launchers.
“These are the brave mujaheddin of Tangi who through sacrifice and valor cleansed the occupiers and crusaders,” a man says in the video.
Afghan officials said they don’t expect either Garda or Conlon to fall into the hands of the Taliban, but they acknowledge the challenges ahead. The Americans, too, are well aware of the risk.
“These Afghan leaders are going to have to step up. If they choose to let discipline fall off, the enemy is going to have a vote,” Cox said.
If logistical problems persist, the Afghan army will have no choice but to close some of its bases, including Khote Ashru, leaving the Taliban more room to maneuver.
Raziq felt the lack of resources most acutely several months ago when eight of his men were killed by improvised explosive devices 50 miles north of Jalrez. Their bodies were strewn across a narrow road not far from an Afghan army base, but Raziq did not have a helicopter to pick up the remains. It took 24 hours for an American helicopter to retrieve them.
“It’s our responsibility and we couldn’t take care of it,” he said. “It was a great sadness.”
The young men of Khote Ashru are diligent about watching the perimeter, defending against the horrible scenario that lurks in the minds of many soldiers: the possibility that a mass of insurgents could emerge from a cluster of nearby trees and bushes and attempt to overtake the base.
All day long, soldiers stare at the dense brush through binoculars. When night comes, they squint into darkness, taking a break occasionally to etch their own words into the plywood observation tower, just as the Americans did.
One soldier scrawled a line from a famous Afghan poem in Dari.
“Flower, don’t be proud of yourself. Eventually you will fade.”
Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.