COMBAT OUTPOST WAZA KHWAH, Afghanistan — The last of the American soldiers packed up their gear, lowered their flag and flew away on Chinook helicopters Thursday, handing this small base to the 250 Afghan policemen left in the swirling dust below.
Just 25 miles from the Pakistani border, in one of Afghanistan's most volatile provinces, the handover marked the beginning of an experiment to see whether Afghan security forces are ready to fight the Taliban as U.S. troops begin to withdraw.
"Is there a risk it could all fall apart? Probably a small risk," said Col. Edward Bohnemann, the brigade commander in Paktika, where the base is located. "I look at it, honestly, as a huge win, saying, 'Hey, we've demonstrated the Afghan security forces are capable of taking this.' "
The decision to leave Waza Khwah, the largest base yet to be handed over to Afghan forces, represents the type of calculation that will become more common, and more difficult, as 33,000 U.S. troops begin to withdraw later this year amid a resilient Taliban insurgency. American commanders have accelerated the plan to transfer security responsibility to Afghan troops between now and 2014.
The Afghan battalion's performance in the coming months will be watched closely, and more such handovers are likely, Bohnemann said. "I think it's going to be replicated, duplicated across eastern Afghanistan at a much faster rate than people expected," he said.
The American soldiers who work with this battalion say they believe it can handle the threat. The officers in the Afghan border police unit have shown "they now outmatch the insurgency by a significant enough margin that we can change our relationship," said Lt. Col. Curtis Taylor, the battalion commander in this part of Paktika province.
That unit, the 7th battalion of the Afghan border police, is considered one of the best in the province. Over the past couple of years, the unit's American partners have dwindled from a several-hundred-strong battalion down to an artillery battery of about 80 soldiers who have rarely fired a shot in the four months they have been deployed at Waza Khwah. Those soldiers are moving to a base farther north in the province, where Taliban and Haqqani network fighters pose more lethal problems.
American soldiers will keep a locked compound on the base, known as the Alamo, that they will visit periodically to advise the battalion. They plan to fly Apache attack helicopters overhead as an occasional show of force and deliver some supplies as needed. Taylor said U.S. medevac helicopters will be available to the border police at their request.
"We're not cutting ties completely," he said.