They were leaving this violent patch of land outside Kandahar, the south’s main city, just as Taliban fighters were filtering back in from winter havens in Pakistan. It was, as First Sgt. Jason Pitman, 35, bluntly put it, “no time to get stupid.”
The Americans knew they would be most vulnerable in their final hours after taking down their surveillance and early-warning systems. The Taliban knew it, too, and intelligence reports indicated that they had been working with sympathetic villagers to strike at the departing soldiers. Two days earlier, the militants made a test run against the outpost, taking the rare step of directly engaging it in a firefight, albeit a brief one, soon after the first radio antennas came down.
On the same day that President Obama announced that roughly half of the American troops still in in Afghanistan would withdraw this year, and that Afghan forces would begin taking the lead in the war, the smaller-scale departure from the Haji Rahmuddin II outpost was an uncelebrated milestone.
But it pointed at a harsh reality of the process: that some of the withdrawal will happen under fire in areas of the Taliban heartland where the idea of Afghan-led security remains an abstraction. With the start of the annual fighting season just weeks away, some of the hardest-won gains of the war are at risk of being lost.
In the years since the Obama administration’s additional tens of thousands of American soldiers and their Afghan allies pushed into the grape fields, pomegranate orchards and opium poppy fields of southern Afghanistan, some islands of relative calm have been cleared.
But even though this corner of Kandahar Province — the Zhare district — was also a focus of the troop increase, it is far from calm. And it is not unique: many areas in the south and east where troop pullouts are under way have had only tenuous security gains at best, despite years of hard-fought American-led advances.
The Taliban here have not given up their fight, on ground where Mullah Muhammad Omar and his followers first rose up against a local warlord, in the movement’s genesis. In one telling indication of the level of strife in Zhare, even many Afghans are hesitant to make the hourlong trip from Kandahar to the district’s mud-brick villages, many of which stand semiabandoned after three summers of intense fighting.
“My sons live in Kandahar City, and they do not like to come back here,” said Abdul Malik, an elder from Tieranon, a village in central Zhare. Once you are in the villages, he added, “anything can happen.”
The American withdrawal is picking up pace regardless, and American commanders have begun to cede even the most contested of ground to Afghan forces.
There are still places “that the Taliban can find sanctuary, and we still believe there is an informal network or support structure in place that they can rely on,” said Maj. Thomas W. Casey, the executive officer of the Third Battalion, 41st Infantry, which operates in the eastern and central half of Zhare.
So the Americans are out on patrol alongside Afghan units here almost every day, and running larger operations on a regular basis. Last week, they used a weapon that shoots a line of explosives and is intended to clear mined roads to knock down roughly 600 yards of trees that could provide cover for Taliban scouts and attackers.
On Thursday, they demolished a hill that the Taliban had used as a fighting position. Three huge explosions — 100 pounds of high explosives were used in each of the last two, which could be felt over a mile away — reduced the hill to dust and dirt. The Americans on the mission outnumbered Afghan soldiers nearly three to one.
There are some things the Americans have to do solo because the Afghans cannot do them, nor will they be able to anytime soon, commanders say. One example is using high-tech surveillance — blimps, drones, cameras mounted on towers at every base — to help spot militants before they attack, and to direct airstrikes against them. They have launched numerous such attacks in the past month alone.
The Afghans send out regular patrols on their own, and conduct a growing number of small, independent operations. Their fighting ability is getting close to where it needs to be, but the crucial back end of the army — the logistics and supply teams that get bullets, fuel, food and water to where they need to be — is woefully unready, American and even some Afghan officers say.
The Afghan brigade based here, for instance, nearly ran out of fuel this week. It was down to a few hours’ worth when a supply came through after some behind-the-scenes prodding from coalition officers up the chain of command.
But with fewer American troops here — the force level in Zhare and the neighboring district of Maiwand is down from a brigade of roughly 4,500 soldiers to two battalions totaling about 1,500 — Afghan forces have to fill the holes.
“There’s no white space in Zhare — white space being the area that no one owns or controls,” Major Casey said. If an area is not occupied by American or Afghan forces, “it’s occupied by the Taliban. It’s red space.”
Unless the Afghans can hold what the Americans give up, he said, “more space is going to turn red.”
That is now the case in the villages that surround Strong Point Haji Rahmuddin II. As recently as September, the outpost was home to a company of roughly 120 American soldiers, along with a few dozen Afghan troopers.
By January, its American force was down to a single understaffed platoon. Between watching from their four guard towers, running patrols, starting to break down the base and taking care of basic human necessities — eating, bathing and sleeping — the platoon was stretched thin.
They did manage to find a few more minutes in each day about two weeks ago — after the showers were trucked away and not replaced. Hot food went next, and chow time became whenever rations could be grabbed. The soldiers here still manage to joke about it. Then the radio antennas were taken down. The brief Taliban attack followed, after which the battalion dedicated a single balloon camera to keeping watch around the outpost’s perimeter day and night, Major Casey said.
The Afghan force at the base, now down to 16 soldiers, watched warily, telling the Americans that they had to stay. The morning of the Americans’ departure, the Afghan commander, Lt. Muhammad Mohsen, said in an interview that he believed they would come back. If not, he said grimly, the villagers would soon want them back.
“We’ll have the freedom to do what we want,” Lieutenant Mohsen said. Those villagers who desired peace would get it. Those who did not, “maybe we can destroy their homes.”
The Americans brought down their towering surveillance camera, one of the single biggest advantages for the defenders. At that point, security became “a huge concern,” Major Casey said. “We focused pretty much all our assets we had on watching that.”
They had to watch a few hours longer than planned. Lieutenant Mohsen had left only three soldiers at the base, not even enough to put one man in each of the five towers he now controlled. The Americans sat for two hours past their appointed departure time waiting for him and the rest of his men to return.
In the end, the Americans managed to vacate the outpost having faced just the one firefight — a relief after preparing for days for an attack.
But Major Casey and other commanders said they expected the Taliban to learn from what they had just seen.
The platoon that departed Haji Rahmuddin II will also be returning on a regular basis to work with the Afghan forces based there. The Americans would keep watching from the sky, as well.
“The last thing we want,” Major Casey said, is “the Taliban successfully overcoming a strong point after we’ve left. That’s almost as bad as them getting ready to attack us as we’re leaving.”
Original article on The New York Times