“Is there a risk it could all fall apart? Probably a small risk,” said Col. Edward T. Bohnemann, the brigade commander in Paktika, where the base is located. “I look at it, honestly, as a huge win, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve demonstrated the Afghan security forces are capable of taking this.’ ”
The decision to leave Waza Khwah — the largest base yet to be handed over to Afghan forces — represents the type of calculation that will become more common, and more difficult, as 33,000 U.S. troops begin to withdraw later this year amid a resilient Taliban insurgency. American commanders have accelerated the plan to transfer security responsibility to Afghan troops between now and 2014.
The Afghan battalion’s performance in the coming months will be watched closely, and more such hand-overs are likely, Bohnemann said. “I think it’s going to be replicated, duplicated across [eastern Afghanistan] at a much faster rate than people expected,” he said.
Taliban action expected
Southern Paktika is the calmest part of the province. But even here, U.S. officers expect that with the Americans gone, the Taliban will try to test the Afghan border police battalion by attacking with greater intensity. They also said the Taliban might attempt to divert more fighters from Pakistan up through this southern entry into the province to avoid the more hotly contested eastern border.
“I do think they’ll try to prod and poke at Waza Khwah,” Maj. Eric Butler, the brigade’s intelligence officer, said of the Taliban. “I don’t think there’s going to be a massive attack.”
The American soldiers who work with this battalion say they believe it can handle the threat. The officers in the Afghan border police unit have shown “they now outmatch the insurgency by a significant-enough margin that we can change our relationship,” said Lt. Col. Curtis D. Taylor, the battalion commander in this part of Paktika province.
That unit, the 7th battalion of the Afghan border police, is considered one of the best in the province. Over the past couple of years, the unit’s American partners have dwindled from a several-hundred-strong battalion down to an artillery battery of about 80 soldiers who have rarely fired a shot in the four months they’ve been deployed at Waza Khwah. Those soldiers are moving to a base farther north in the province, where Taliban and Haqqani network fighters pose more-lethal problems.
The 7th battalion has gathered intelligence and conducted its own operations independent of U.S. troops. It is patrolling more often, with more men, and has come under fire about once a week, said Lt. Col. Chris Niesen, the lead American adviser with the border police at Waza Khwah.