By Kay Johnson
HELMAND/KANDAHAR AIR FIELD Afghanistan (Reuters) - On watch for a possible Taliban attack, Afghan forces on Tuesday patrolled the perimeter and manned guard towers of a vast military base deserted by U.S. and British forces in a volatile southern province.
A day after foreign troops left the crucial base in Helmand, the Afghan army and police prepared to fight on their own without the safety net of air support and aerial surveillance formerly provided by their Western allies.
The last U.S. Marine unit in Afghanistan and the last British combat forces were airlifted out of their former regional headquarters on Monday, a symbolic end to more than a decade of U.S.-led fighting against the Taliban.
What happens next in Helmand could be indicative of Afghanistan's wider ability to protect itself against the Taliban, and any imminent escalation of hostilities in the province would be a major concern to regional powers.
Helmand has been one of the deadliest battlefields of the war which has seen some of this year’s fiercest fighting.
The international military coalition is now in the process of ending its mission nationwide by year-end and shifting to a support role with only a few thousand military personnel.
"I’m certain we can maintain the security," said Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk, commander of the Afghan National Army’s 215 Corps that has taken over the base. It is due to become a training center and house about 1,800 Afghan soldiers.
Malouk said Afghan forces were already fighting mostly on their own without relying to foreign troops. For the past year, he said, the safety net of the U.S. and British forces had mostly been psychological.
"They were in the battlefield. No district has been taken over by the Taliban," he said.
The Taliban may not yet control much territory in Helmand but the insurgents, who ruled Afghanistan with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, have been launching increasingly fierce attacks, testing the abilities of Afghan forces.
Some 4,000 Afghan soldiers and police have died nationwide this year fighting the Taliban, along with 66 international forces, according to Lt. Col Joseph Anderson, the second-in-command for international forces in Afghanistan.
The district of Sangin was particularly contested, in part because it is the hometown of a number of Taliban leaders and also because it lies on a transit route for the lucrative $3 billion opium smuggling business that fuels the insurgency.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, the commander who handed over the Helmand base over the weekend, said the Afghan forces proved their mettle in the fight for Sangin.
"A lot of the stuff you heard about was tactical-level, checkpoints changing hands. But never where they lost a checkpoint they couldn’t take it back," he said.
He added that while the international coalition provided some intelligence and close air support, foreign forces never fired a shot to help Afghan forces in Sangin.
"We didn’t do any fire support for them. It was mostly themselves."
He said that he and Malouk met for months to plan the handover of the Helmand base, and that by the time the last international perimeter guards pulled back to board the final helicopters out, specially trained Afghan security forces moved in to take up the exact same positions.
He said he had confidence in the Afghans' ability to hold Helmand and the base, but if worse comes to worst, help was not far away – there are international forces at a base in Kandahar province 100 miles (160 km) away.
“Everything that we did for them, they can do from Kandahar," Yoo said. "They really could."
(Editing by Maria Golovnina)