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U.S., Afghan officials at odds over fate of military bases

Afghans want the hundreds of bases and other outposts handed over to them as troops withdraw. But the U.S.-led coalition says Afghanistan lacks the capabilities for maintaining and defending all of them.

March 02, 2013|By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times
  • Forward Operating Base Naghlu, in Surobi, Afghanistan, is one of hundreds of bases, checkpoints, guard towers and other outposts the U.S.-led coalition must either dismantle or hand over to Afghan forces. Afghan officials have objected to U.S. decisions to raze some bases.
Forward Operating Base Naghlu, in Surobi, Afghanistan, is one of hundreds… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Late last year, before leaving Forward Operating Base Tillman for the last time, U.S. troops took apart every inch of the remote outpost near the border with Pakistan, from the dirt-packed barricades to the flat-screen TVs in the intelligence center.

Mohibullah Samim, the governor of Paktika province, where the base was located, called it a waste.

"I was against dismantling it," Samim said. "It would have been better to hand it over to the Afghan army to keep the border area safe."

The mountaintop outpost — named for late NFL player-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman — was long a potent symbol of the American war effort, and military commanders worried that it would be a prime target for Islamist insurgents to seize after U.S. troops departed.

But now it is a symbol of the American withdrawal and the behind-the-scenes debate over how best to provide for the Afghan forces who will soon be fully responsible for defending their country from the Taliban militants who seek to recapture it.

As the U.S.-led military coalition begins to bring home most of its 100,000 troops and tens of billions of dollars in equipment, coalition officials are negotiating with Afghanistan over whether to raze or hand over the hundreds of checkpoints, guard towers, isolated outposts and sprawling bases that American and NATO forces built to wage the 11-year war.

In weekly meetings, Afghans have urged the coalition not to demolish any more bases, arguing that they could continue to serve as security installations or be converted into facilities the government can't afford to build, such as schools.

But while many bases are being handed over, U.S. commanders have told Afghan officials that dozens, including Tillman, would have been too challenging to sustain given Afghanistan's limited capabilities once most foreign troops return home by the end of 2014.

For some Afghans, the loss of these outposts highlights the uneasy reality that they will carry on the war against the Taliban with fewer facilities and far less firepower. Afghan soldiers and police have watched as bases are disassembled, no doubt realizing that coalition troops will be the next to go.

"Even if these bases are remote, at some point they served a security benefit," said Ameen Habibi, a senior Finance Ministry official involved in the talks. "They can continue to serve that purpose."

But coalition officials worry that Afghans will leave strategic outposts unprotected, and perhaps let them fall into enemy hands. They say they're trying to hand over only the infrastructure that Afghan forces will be able to supply and maintain.

The Afghans' "instinct was, at the beginning of this, 'Turn over all your facilities to us and anything you don't want, like Humvees or whatever, leave those behind,'" said a U.S. official who requested anonymity to discuss the talks.

"And we said that's the wrong approach. If we were to do that you'd spend all your time, energy and money figuring out what to do with this stuff and how to run it and how to maintain it because you don't have the capacity to do that."

The United States has spent more than $50 billion on training, housing and equipping a force of Afghan soldiers and police officers that's expected to reach a combined strength of 352,000. It was expected to shrink by one-third after 2014 because of concern that Afghanistan couldn't support the cost, but NATO countries now are considering pouring in more money to sustain the larger force through 2018.

Even as their ranks grow, however, the Afghans' logistical shortcomings persist. They rely on U.S. planes for nearly all air operations. As of June, Afghan forces had filled less than 40% of operations and maintenance jobs and lacked personnel trained to manage water, sewage and electrical systems, an audit by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported.

U.S. officials say that some bases they've ceded to the Afghan government already have been abandoned or fallen into disrepair. Afghans complain that coalition forces have been too hasty to tear down facilities and in some cases have simply abandoned equipment they no longer want.

"Even if the foreigners invested $1, that shouldn't be wasted," said Habibi, the finance official, who co-chairs a joint NATO-Afghan commission on base closures. The group was established last year after Afghan officials found that coalition forces had dismantled an unknown number of military facilities without informing them.

"We hope, as we go forward, to make sure that no more bases are destroyed at all," he said.

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