By Yaroslav Trofimov
KHAN NESHIN, Afghanistan—When the Taliban fired rocket-propelled grenades at a police outpost last fall, police chief Lt. Abdulrauf Faizi asked neighboring U.S. Marines for help.
Tracking insurgents in the dark was near impossible for Afghan police. But the Marines had a highflying surveillance balloon, with sophisticated cameras that followed the attackers for miles, almost to their homes. As the insurgents came close to escape, the Marines launched a deadly Hellfire missile strike.
“No one is bothering us in the area anymore,” Lt. Faizi told the head of the Marine police advisory team, Maj. Zachary Martin, last week.
But the surveillance balloon will soon be gone, along with Maj. Martin’s men, who leave this month. The Marine base, which at the peak of the surge housed hundreds of troops inside the mud walls of a 17th-century castle, will shut down in March. As the U.S. withdraws its remaining 66,000 troops by the end of 2014, Afghans here and across the country wonder what will follow.
After investing tens of billions of dollars to recruit and train the Afghan army and police, the U.S. is gambling those 350,000 men can maintain the fragile security gains of President Barack Obama‘s troop surge. Afghans say they worry their troops won’t match up to the Taliban without the U.S.—with its superior air power, high-tech surveillance devices and intelligence intercepts.
Col. Austin Renforth, who commands the 7th Marine Regiment combat team here in the southern Helmand province, said Afghan troops don’t have to be perfect. “We just want them to be a little bit better than the Taliban,” he said, “and I believe they are.”
Mr. Obama is expected to outline the U.S. troop drawdown, as well as the size of the permanent force he seeks to maintain in Afghanistan, as soon as his State of the Union address next week. In talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month, Mr. Obama agreed that U.S. troops would shift from a combat to an advisory role this spring, months earlier than planned.
When Marines exit their base here, the district’s 20,000 residents will find out if Lt. Faizi’s 100 or so police officers can keep out the Taliban. Similar questions echo in other regions, as hundreds of U.S. bases close down in coming months, leaving Afghans to confront an undefeated insurgency.
“The Taliban are telling people, ‘Soon, there will be no airplanes to bomb us, no cameras to watch us.’ That’s what they’ve been scared of,” said Lt. Faizi. His police force, he said, needs such heavy weapons as machine-guns, as well as reinforcements. There are no Afghan army troops in his district.
The Taliban maintain a steady income for arms and other supplies by taxing poppy farmers here in Helmand, which produces half of the world’s illegal opiates. A Taliban emissary was captured by Lt. Faizi’s police last month as the man tried to swallow a handwritten list, which had the names of farmers who paid off the insurgents.
The Marines don’t interfere with the poppy crop, seeking not to alienate villagers whose income depends on the illicit trade. Afghan government and police officials, too, also are involved in the drug trade, according to U.S. officials. The acreage used for poppy cultivation more than doubled in Helmand between 2005 and 2012, according to a United Nations survey. The salty soil of Khan Neshin is suited to grow little else.
Helmand was the focus of Mr. Obama’s troop surge in 2009, as tens of thousands of Marines reinforced outgunned British troops and battled their way through Taliban strongholds along the snaking Helmand river.
Security has since greatly improved in most parts of the province, including Khan Neshin, the most distant U.S. outpost down the river. About 106 residents, including 20 policemen, were killed by the Taliban here in the Afghan solar year that ended last March, according to the district governor. Since then, he said, five civilians have died—all in a roadside bombing this weekend—and two police officers.
On Khan Neshin’s main street, flanked with ramshackle shops nestled alongside the mud castle’s ramparts, the residents who sided with Americans and embraced the Afghan government are especially afraid. “The Taliban are very happy that the foreigners pull out. When the Marines go, war will come back,” said 65-year-old Ali Mohammed Khan, elder of the Karabay village.
Before the Marines took over Khan Neshin in 2009, Afghan police were helpless against the Taliban, Mr. Khan said. The man recalled passing food to a police patrol and the Taliban burning his car in front of villagers as punishment. This time, Mr. Khan said, he plans to flee as soon as the last Marine truck departs.
In the town’s new medical clinic, built after the Marines arrived, medic Sidiqullah, who like many Afghans has only one name, said he also was preparing for the worst.
“There will be a lot of change here, a lot of security problems,” said Mr. Sidiqullah, who moved here in 2011 from the eastern city of Jalalabad. After the U.S. troop departure, he said, he will seek through local elders Taliban permission to keep providing medical services. “If the Taliban agree, if the elders guarantee my safety, I will stay,” he said. “And if not, I’ll move out.”
The Marines and the district’s governor, Shah Mahmood Mir, said the district won’t return to Taliban rule. “All the villages now are on our side, not the enemy’s side. When the Marines leave, there may be some problems, like roadside bombs, but the enemy will not be able to confront us face to face,” said Mr. Mir, a landowner from the neighboring district of Garmsir.
If anything, Mr. Mir added, the U.S. troop withdrawal could weaken the insurgency’s appeal. “Before, the Taliban were telling everyone they are fighting to free our country from the foreigners,” he said. “So now, I will be telling the elders: There are no foreigners anymore, just the Afghan troops, so come on over to our side.”
In the district, Marines have already shut down a smaller outpost in the village of Taghaz. Although insurgent attacks there intensified since the Marines left on Jan. 7, Afghan border police in Taghaz are so far repelling the Taliban.
“We haven’t lost anything,” said Col. Renforth, who commands Marine ground troops in Helmand. “These guys are doing operations on their own. I, frankly, don’t believe they need us anymore.”
The Afghan troops in Taghaz have become more aggressive now that their lives are in their own hands, setting up ambushes and conducting patrols, said senior border police adviser, Capt. Ryan Hunt. “We’ve been a crutch. When the Marines had the big balloon, the Afghans didn’t feel they had to do too much,” he said.
To keep up the fight, the Afghan border police in Taghaz need more men, weapons and, above all, equipment and specialists to defuse bombs the Taliban seed under dirt roads, said their commander, Col. Ismail Khan Karokhil. “We hear that the enemy is waiting for the full withdrawal of the foreigners to strike us,” he said. “But we are ready to defend our country on our own.”
The Afghans are already operating with minimal U.S. assistance in Khan Neshin, said Maj. Martin, the police adviser. To ease the coming withdrawal and give Afghans time to adjust, Maj. Martin said he removed the surveillance balloon’s video feed from the Afghan side of the base shortly after the September airstrike, though it is still seen at the nearby Marines operations center.
In December, the Marines also withdrew their 24-hour presence in the joint coordination center, visiting only occasionally to discuss operations with Lt. Faizi and other district officials.
“They were really upset for a few days, and then they went out and had a major drug bust,” Maj. Martin said. “Pulling out made them step up. They didn’t really need us; they just had the perception that they did.”
With Afghan police conducting their own patrols, the remaining Marines in Khan Neshin are working on closing the outpost, known formally as Forward Operating Base Castle.
Every day, Marines and private contractors from DynCorp dismantle tents and pack air conditioners, mattresses and generators onto pallets, removing the support system that once served hundreds of troops. Meals these days are military rations. The hot showers no longer operate.
By the time the Marines turn over their side of the castle to the Afghans next month, they will leave behind only a handful of concrete mortar bunkers in what was once a small military town.
“We’re here to take down everything the U.S. government has paid for, and to take it out with us,” said DynCorp’s site manager, Baron Todd Willis.
Lt. Mike Breslin, who commands the Marine infantry platoon occupying the base, said that he has already shipped out excess ammunition and weapons, and soon patrols will cease.
On his previous Helmand deployment, at the height of the surge in the Marjah district two years ago, squad leaders tallied some 300 combat patrols in their six-month tour, Lt. Breslin said. In Khan Neshin, they have conducted no more than 20 patrols since November.
“What takes away most of my time is getting all this gear out of here and shutting down the place,” Lt. Breslin said. “We all know that the war is ending.”
The war likely isn’t about to end anytime soon for the Afghans, whose forces—especially the lightly armed police—sustain increasing casualties.
Down the river from Khan Neshin, the neighboring district of Dishu remains under Taliban control, with its town of Baramcha on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border functioning as a drug-and-weapons bazaar, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
“The Taliban are all coming back here. Even their women and children are coming back to fight,” said Nassir Ahmad, a 29-year-old police officer in Khan Neshin. “They are coming to take over the whole country, and I will stay here to fight them until I die.”
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at email@example.com