Afghan soldiers at small outpost vow to hold firm as US exits

In this photograph taken on December 10, 2014, a village boy watches Afghan soldiers from the 2nd unit of the third brigade of the 205 Corps walk past them as the soldiers patrol the fields near their small combat outpost in southern Afghanistan.

ZHARI, Afghanistan - One ergonomic office chair, heaters that don't work and some maps are the only signs that US troops once battled daily with the Taliban at Siah Choy, a small combat outpost in southern Afghanistan.

Now manned by just 30 Afghan soldiers, the base is in Kandahar province's Zhari district - the birthplace of the Taliban movement and scene of years of heavy fighting as NATO forces struggled to gain a foothold in the area.

But the days of US troops leading Afghn recruits through the poppy and hashish fields are over, and the Afghan National Army (ANA) now undertakes operations without outside assistance or the comfort of air support.

"I saw many Americans come and go -- some units only stayed six months," said Lieutenant Saeed Nazir, 40, senior officer at Siah Choy, where he has served since 2009.

"Often the fighting was very intense, with mortars coming into the base, big gunfights and airstrikes. We had good relations with some US soldiers, and bad relations with others.

"They taught us to patrol, and gave us weapons. What we don't have any more is an air force, helicopters to take injured soldiers to hospital, or any night vision equipment.

"We're doing well, with no casualties since the Americans left (in August). We hope it continues -- I have lost 12 close colleagues fighting here over the last five years."

Two weeks before the December 31 end of NATO's combat mission, Nazir led a foot patrol through nearby villages, marking the final day of a 10-day operation involving 1,200 troops and 300 police across four districts.

The soldiers were professional, alert and well-equipped as they spread out through head-high hashish plants and discarded husks from the poppy harvest that puts Kandahar province at the centre of the global opium trade.

Hard-fought territory

"Unlike the police, we don't bother villagers about what they grow," Nazir told AFP. "We want the local people to work with us."

Control of Zhari district swapped several times between Taliban and NATO forces in the 13-year war.

Canadian-led soldiers first won the area in 2006, lost it almost immediately, and then fought for it again in Operation Medusa -- the largest set-piece battle of the whole NATO mission. More than 1,000 Taliban fighters were killed.

In 2010 and 2011, Zhari was also a main focus of President Barack Obama's surge of 30,000 extra US troops at a time when the insurgents held sway over the district.

Many civilians fled the fighting but some have since returned to their homes to tend their fields despite the risk of IEDs (improvided explosive devices), which are often triggered by sensitive pressure pads.

"The insurgents have been pushed back, but there is still activity today," said Colonel Ghulam Hazrat, officer in charge of the latest operation, codenamed "Bawar 24".

"One problem is that the army takes ground, and then the Taliban retake it. Often the police suffer a lot of the worst casualties, and they are weak due to lack of equipment."

Zhari also straddles the nationwide ring road Highway One and is a key route into Kandahar city, former capital of the Taliban.

For troops at Siah Choy, life is an austere regime of dawn patrols, drills and guard duty, fuelled by a diet of rice, beans and bread with some meat for dinner.

Temperatures fall well below freezing at night and soldiers sleep in unheated tents as the generator is not strong enough to power the US air-conditioning units.

The camp has electricity for just five hours each evening, when a few favoured officers huddle in Lieutenant Nazir's room to watch Indian satellite television channels tapped from a local cable connection.

New phase of old war

"It is OK. I like being a soldier, but my bed at home is more comfortable," said Mohammed, 18, the youngest soldier on the base, who had just returned from leave with his family in the eastern province of Kunar.

"It took 24 hours on the road to get home, I wish the army would help more."

About 12,500 NATO troops -- most of them from the US -- will stay in Afghanistan into next year on a follow-up mission to support the national security forces.

Many Afghans fear the US is leaving behind a raging conflict, with recent attacks in Kabul signalling the start of a new and brutal phase of the war.

President Ashraf Ghani has said bringing peace is his government's first priority but the Taliban seem uninterested in his calls for talks, and casualties among the security forces have risen to record levels.

More than 4,600 soldiers and police were killed in the first 10 months of the year alone -- a higher death toll than all NATO fatalities since 2001.

Zhari has been roiled by conflict since the 1980s when the Soviet occupation failed to pacify the district, and the Afghan army's hold on Siah Choy will be tested in the year to come.

But Lieutenant Nazir is confident. "I think we can do it. We are stronger than before," he said.

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