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NATO coalition hands over 2 major bases to Afghan military

The NATO coalition ended its formal mission in resistive and dangerous Helmand province on Sunday, handing over two major bases and an airstrip to the Afghan military as U.S. Marines and British forces prepare to withdraw.

The transfer of Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion, the hub for coalition forces in southwestern Afghanistan, is the most dramatic signal to date that the 13-year-old war is drawing to a close.

For now, both British forces and U.S. Marines will continue to secure the perimeter of both bases while they await orders to withdraw completely. When they do, it will essentially mark the conclusion of the war in Afghanistan for both the U.S. Marines as well British forces, officials in both countries said.

"This is truly a historic day," said U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Anderson, commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command. "Years of continuous combat, countless hours of sun-baked patrols and numerous causalities, this day marks the end of the (coalition) mission here in Southwest."

Though about 34,000 coalition troops remain in Afghanistan, President Obama has pledged to cut that number in half by January. Under a security agreement that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently signed with the United States, Obama plans to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year.

About 3,000 troops from other nations are also expected to remain in Afghanistan to help train and support the Afghan army and police force.

Sunday's ceremony means Afghan security forces now have full access to a sprawling base that includes more than 6,500 acres of desert land.

The hand-over includes the transfer of at least $230 million in coalition assets to the Afghan army -- mostly dozens of miles of concrete roads as well as hundreds of buildings, generators and air conditioners -- and sets the stage for one of the U.S. military's largest overseas base closures since the end of the Iraq War, coalition officials said.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Helmand province has been responsible for some of the bloodiest battles of the Afghan war. About 400 British soldiers have been killed there, as well as more than 350 U.S. Marines.

As coalition forces ended combat operations last year, the numbers of casualties they suffered in Helmand slowed dramatically. But Afghan forces continue to meet stiff resistance in the province, raising considerable doubts about their ability to prevent future Taliban advances.

Over the summer, Afghan forces faced repeated attacks near the northern Helmand city of Sangin, near some of country's most abundant and profitable poppy fields. But Afghan and coalition commanders say the Taliban offensive largely failed, which has boosted the morale of Afghan troops.

"I can assure you, the ANA has already been conducting operations by themselves, in the battlefield, and no district has been taken over, no checkpoint has been taken over by the Taliban," said Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk, commander of Afghan Army 215 Corps in central Helmand. "We are ready."

But a visit to the British and American bases here underlines the true extent of the support that Malouk's forces will soon be losing.

In one coalition command center on Saturday afternoon, a dozen Marines were glued to a video screen monitor of live footage of a suspicious car that was driving miles away from where the base was located. And on Saturday night, the silence of the desert was repeatedly punctured by outgoing rocket fire.

Coalition officials said they were illumination rockets to help Afghan security forces engaged in an operation nearby.

'We are really going to miss our friends, but if we need anything, we can e-mail them," said Mohammad Nasim Sangin, also an Afghan Army commander in central Helmand.

Under the Pentagon's post 2014 plans for Afghanistan, Afghan troops in Helmand and neighboring Nimroz province will have to rely on assistance from coalition forces based in neighboring Kandahar province, the capital of Kabul, or in Herat in the eastern part of the country.

Obama's decision to leave just 9,800 troops in Afghanistan caused coalition officials to abandon plans to also keep troops based in Helmand. As recently as late 2011, at the height Obama's surge of troops in Afghanistan, as many as 40,000 American and British troops and contractors lived on Camp Bastion and Camp Leatherneck.

But now, the once bustling base looks increasingly like an abandoned city.

Over the past three months, the Afghan contractors who used to help maintain the bases have been sent home, leaving it up to Marines to empty garbage cans. About a month ago, the base convenience store and dining facility closed, leaving troops desperate for cigarettes and food other than MREs.

They had WiFi for a while, but that went away on Oct. 11," said James Pauly, a 23-year-old Marine from Camp Pendleton who can no longer Skype with his family.

[Source: By Tim Craig, Camp Leatherneck, Afg, The Washington Post, 26Oct14]

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small logoThis document has been published on 27Oct14 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.