ZORMAT, PAKTIA -- It is the early morning on the route connecting Gardez with the little town of Zormat, when a U.S. supply convoy is abruptly halted -- an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) has been discovered on the road. Because of the US troop drawdown, the convoy's final destination, Combat Outpost Zormat, no longer hosts a bomb squad, and an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team has to be dispatched all the way from Forward Operating Base Gardez in order to clear the road for the Americans. After five long hours the IED is finally destroyed in a controlled detonation.
The IED consisted of three 60mm mortar rounds and an Italian anti-tank mine. According to a U.S. combat engineer, this IED, since it contained an "anti-handling device," was configured to be picked up by Afghan National Army soldiers, who often lack adequate equipment to defuse roadside bombs. As U.S. troops are pulling out of the region, the majority of roadside bombs are now specifically designed to target members of the Afghan National Security Forces. Insurgents see the Afghani government rather than coalition forces as the principle enemy in this year's fighting season.
Most of the 90-odd ISAF bases will shut down over the next 12 months, and the troop level of 98,000 men in early June will in all likelihood decrease to 15,000 by the end of 2014 (with a zero option being considered). In traditional insurgent hotbeds such as Zormat, dominated by the fiercely independent Mansur tribe and flooded with insurgents from Pakistan, this means that Afghan government forces have to adopt flexible strategies in dealing with the enemy if they are to channel their resources.
The unofficial and scaled-down major objective for ISAF is to train Afghan National Security Forces to the point where they will be able to control the country's population centers and strategically important assets such as major roads and mountain passes after 2014.
The more ambitious goal of pacifying the entire country is now passé. These scaled-down objectives can already be seen at the district and company level. According to Captain J.D. Caddell, commander of D company of the 1-506th Regiment at Combat Outpost Zormat: "One can broadly divide the district into three areas: There are those areas that are a no-go for Afghan Forces, then there are areas where they will only go with U.S. air support, and there are the areas where they will go on their own."
This local geographical division has not changed over the years. The principal aim of the government forces in Zormat is to protect larger towns and the roads connecting them, leaving certain areas, despite occasional raids, effectively under insurgent control. The soldiers of the 1st Kandak (battalion) in Zormat, are not worried about the U.S. departure. According to Sergeant First Class Abdul Qayoom: "We have been trained for nine years by the Americans which is enough! It is good that American Forces are withdrawing! We have to see for ourselves how well we will be doing!" Lieutenant Aboul Chafer emphasizes that there are still many challenges, but he also states: "This is our country. It is our responsibility to secure it. It was a good decision for the U.S. to pull back, although we have taken quite a lot of casualties."
Captain Mohamed Di, 28, a supply officer in the 1st Kandak, states that "We need more funding. It is hard to keep informants on payrolls. Without informants we cannot use our artillery to strike at the enemy because of our rules of engagement. We also need better Afghan air support!" At the same time he confidently asserts: "The quality of our forces has increased dramatically over the past year!"
In an interview Lt. General Mark Milley, Commander of the ISAF Joint Command, said, "Roughly speaking, the insurgency-driven violence is for the most part isolated to specific areas which make up about 15-20 percent of the geographical landscape of Afghanistan. That is not to say that the government does not control those areas, they are just contested. The ANA fighting capability is not conclusive, but very promising."
Progress has indeed been steady. Afghan forces have been launching more independent operations than ever. One, code named Operation Simurgh ("Phoenix"), launched on July 23 in the provinces of Paktia, Logar, Nangarhar and Kabul and involving 2,400 security forces, has resulted in the death of more than 200 insurgents to date. The operation is still ongoing according to Dawlat Waziri, spokesman of the Afghan Defense Ministry. Afghan forces have so far not requested any ISAF support; the operation is entirely Afghan-led with no coalition ground forces involved. Signs of improvement can also been seen in Zormat district.
On an inspection tour of the Afghan Combat Outpost Ramen Khyl, Captain Caddell and his officers were impressed with the professionalism of the Afghan National Army unit stationed there. "Force Protection and the outpost defenses are set up just like we would do it," he notes. An American offer to provide security while the ANA company was celebrating the end of Ramadan was politely refused. "The Afghan government in Kabul may still need some support, but out here in Zormat, we can handle the situation on our own!" says Captain Mohamed Di with a smile on his face.
A version of this article has appeared on The Diplomat.