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US prepares for transfer of strategic base to Afghans

A soldier from Combined Task Force Raider watches as a container is loaded onto the back of an Afghan tractor trailer. The trucks are then driven to a larger Forward Operating Base in the region, where the U.S. troops will eventually relocate.

ALEX PENA/STARS AND STRIPES

By ALEX PENA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 23, 2013

FOB SWEENEY, Afghanistan — The Americans are leaving town, and the Afghans will inherit a new base.

Soldiers from Combined Task Force Raider are packing up Forward Operating Base Sweeney in Zabul province and heading out. But unlike some other bases in the region, FOB Sweeney, home to U.S. soldiers from the 1st Armor Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, is being transferred to the Afghan National Army rather than being shut down.

“It’s in a strategic area, and you want to maintain security in this area,” said Maj. Francisco J. Lopez, the squadron executive officer at the base. “That’s one of the reasons I believe that it’s transferred and not closed.”

The base is littered with broken-down tents and stacked mattresses. Afghan-driven tractor-trailers are lined up, awaiting the next load of equipment to move out.

“The first thing we have to do is talk to the Afghan National Army commanders and see what we can give to their base. See what they want from our base,” said 1st Lt. Brian Brenner, the “mayor” of FOB Sweeney. “We’re about 80 percent done. We’re definitely ahead right now, which is nice.”

The challenge is setting up the Afghan army with the right tools and equipment for operating its new home. The army doesn’t have the troops or experience to man former U.S. bases, which forces the U.S. to take more gear than it leaves behind.

“When we transfer, we look at it critically, and we ask ourselves, ‘Does it need to be this size, or can we reduce it?’ ” Lopez said, referring to the size of the base. “We have done, and will continue to do, adjustments to the size of this FOB so it fits them.”

The basics will stay: a reduced number of tents, bathrooms and the dining hall. The military equipment and communications all will go, essentially leaving behind a shell of a base.

We’re … not going to leave them a 300-watt generator, which they can’t feasibly fuel every week or every month,” Lopez said.

Previously, Afghan troops shared a corner of the facility with the U.S. military, so they will still double the size of their current base after the handover.

The goal of transitioning the base is to continue to secure the area, near a major trading route that leads to the city of Qalat and extends all the way to Pakistan. The hope is that the area won’t fall back into the hands of the Taliban.

“If you look at the aggregate, the U.S. forces are leaving, so there’s less security here, but in the end, that’s being supplemented by national police and local police.” Lopez said.

While many of the soldiers from Task Force Raider believe the Afghan army in this area is performing above average and is commanded by a particularly experienced and trained officer, they’re still concerned that the government troops may not hold out long against the insurgency. Some predicted that it wouldn’t take long, maybe several months, before the Taliban would attempt to retake the area.

After what U.S. soldiers called a “quiet winter,” the fighting season is beginning. A three-day mission to provide security to Afghan troops heading south on a resupply mission resulted in minor injuries when one Stryker vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. Eight others were discovered along the route.

For many, it was a sign that, despite the almost 10-year presence of FOB Sweeney, the enemy remains nearby.

Afghan contractors expressed similar concerns. As the U.S. troops pull out, they said they feared the guerrillas will move in. Having worked with U.S. troops, they believe they might become targets.

“I’ve worked two years with the Americans, and the Taliban know that now,” said a local shopkeeper in the area, who asked to remain anonymous. “So I’m closing my shop and leaving the area. Now it’s 100 percent more dangerous for me.”

Lopez said that due to the importance of the area, he doesn’t plan to cut ties with the base.

“Even though we are physically leaving here, the intent is to still come back here, to work with them, to partner with them,” he said.

Troops based out of FOB Sweeney will report to another base in the region as part of the consolidation until most U.S. forces leave the country by the end of 2014.

Pena.Alex@Stripes.com
 

A soldier from Combined Task Force Raider directs a local Afghan truck driver to back up and load a container onto the flat bed.
ALEX PENA/STARS AND STRIPES