CAMP MIKE SPANN, Afghanistan — American soldiers loaded their rifles, donned their body armor, briefed for a mission and piled into two 14-ton armored vehicles, gunners scanning from the turrets for potential threats.
But they were not on a mission into a Taliban stronghold. The Americans were heading to the Afghan side of their own base; the potential hostile troops were the Afghans with whom U.S. soldiers are meant to work “shoulder to shoulder.”
As officers stepped to the microphone to laud friendship between nations at a ceremony marking the end of the international military presence at Camp Mike Spann, a U.S. sniper team kept watch from a nearby rooftop, one of the “guardian angel” units that sprang out of a rash of killings of foreign troops by their Afghan counterparts that permanently dented trust between allies. Such attacks escalated in 2012, when 57 foreign troops were killed in 41 attacks, according to a Brookings Institution tally. The year before, 35 were killed. The number dropped last year to 14, but the continuing threat was underscored by the shooting in April of two Associated Press journalists by an Afghan policeman.
As the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force pulls out its combat troops, the overarching message is that after more than 12 years of war, Afghans are ready to take over security responsibility, bases and equipment.
“This is another great day in the transition from the International Security Assistance Force to Afghan security forces,” German Maj. Gen. Bernd Schutt said, addressing the crowd of U.S. and Afghan troops at Camp Mike Spann, on the outskirts of the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. That message has been repeated on base after base, as foreign troops withdraw.
But as the American flag was lowered for the last time, just over the wall on the Afghan side of the largest training facility in northern Afghanistan, a large swath of new buildings full of classrooms remained empty — the Afghans have refused to take the buildings from the Americans because they fear they cannot afford to fuel the power station that provides electricity.
Such transfer troubles have happened throughout the country, as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has noted: Western-financed facilities built for the Afghan security forces sit idle or are under-used because the Afghans lack the money or technical expertise to run them or because of shoddy construction. For a government that relies on international aid for roughly 95 percent of its budget, it remains to be seen how much of the military infrastructure they are inheriting from coalition forces they can afford to maintain.
“SIGAR is concerned about the ability of the Afghan government to sustain the achievements of the past 12 years in light of the increasing gap between its revenues and its obligations,” SIGAR chief John Sopko wrote in the introduction to the group’s recently released quarterly report.
At an international donor conference in Tokyo in 2012, nations pledged $16 billion to help fund Afghanistan’s government after foreign combat troops withdraw at the end of this year. But whether that aid will be forthcoming could depend on whether the U.S. and Afghanistan can finalize a Bilateral Security Agreement crucial to keeping a small international force in the country past the end of the year to train and mentor Afghan forces.
After his ceremony speech, the deputy commander of Camp Shaheen, which is adjacent to Camp Mike Spann, Afghan National Army Col. Mohammad Rahimi, praised the growing capabilities of Afghan forces but looked uneasily toward the end of the year and the end of the ISAF combat mission.
“This is not the time to stop supporting and helping us,” he said.
Working against the clock
In many ways, Camp Mike Spann symbolizes the arc of the troubled war effort in Afghanistan. Opened in 2006, it was named for Johnny “Mike” Spann, the first U.S. casualty of the war. A CIA officer, Spann was killed in late 2001 during a prisoner uprising in the adjacent Qala-i-Jangi, a 19th-Century fortress that was being used as a prison for militants captured in the war.
Back then, the Taliban had been quickly ousted from power with a small force made up largely of U.S. special operations troops working with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and focus in Washington was already shifting toward the next war, in Iraq. In the crucial years that followed, while the U.S. was bogged down in what flared into an Iraqi civil war, the Taliban regrouped and reemerged as a force.
Now, 12 1/2 years into the war, with the insurgency still very active, the U.S. and its allies are working against the clock to turn over the war effort to the Afghan security forces in places like Camp Mike Spann before all combat troops leave by Dec. 31.
Last minute details
Less than an hour before the ceremony at Camp Mike Spann, American soldiers were still ripping cables from the walls and hurriedly piling computer screens and other electronics into boxes; a small crane lowered a communications tower from a roof.
A 40-page inventory that a two-man team had worked on for nearly a year catalogued goods at the base down to boxes of paper plates, according to Col. Walter Scott Sweetser, commander of Regional Support Command North, which oversees packing of military assets across nine provinces. Sensitive items, such as computers and weapons, will be shipped back to the U.S. or destroyed, while things like tools, furniture and kitchen items will stay behind.
“It was an enormous effort,” Sweetser said. “We need to account for everything.”
But despite that effort, one major issue remains unsolved: The Afghans refuse to accept control of the part of their training base that houses the Western-funded classrooms for engineering and signals schools because of concerns about funding fuel for the power plant, which also was provided by ISAF.
“We still have the keys to the buildings,” Sweetser said.
Regional Command North Deputy commander Gen. Craig Timberlake said he understands the Afghan military’s caution about taking over the buildings — whether to do so is up to the Afghans.
Such training facilities are especially crucial now, with Afghans losing international combat help and battling to train troops quickly enough to make up for an attrition rate that costs the Afghan security forces, by some estimates, about a third of its force.
It’s a harrowing nationwide effort complicated by an Afghan military and government beset by bureaucracy, poor management and corruption.
Rahimi said the unit had been waiting for months for the Ministry of Defense to grant them enough fuel to power the training facilities.
“Everything has been requested from MOD,” he said, ”and we hope to have it soon.”