As the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan over the next year, it’s not just troops that will be coming home.
In 12 years of fighting the Taliban and training security forces, the U.S. has amassed millions of pieces of equipment and stockpiles of supplies at hundreds of bases across the country. Now nearly all of it, from the 65,000 vehicles to the stacks of paper clips, has to be hauled out.
“It’s a mountain of stuff,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Stein, who leads the 1st Theater Sustainment Command, based at Fort Bragg, which ensures that U.S. Army forces in a 26-country region including Afghanistan have the food, water, fuel, transportation, ammunition, building materials and spare parts they need. When the mission is completed, the 1st TSC must retrieve everything that remains and deliver it wherever the military needs it to go.
“We made sure our men and women had what they needed before they needed it,” said Stein, who took command of the 1st TSC in July. “Now, we have to bring it all back.”
From its forward base at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, the 1st TSC and the units under its command handled the return of Army equipment from Iraq as troops withdrew in 2011. The operation, called retrograding, was the U.S. military’s largest logistical operation since World War II, involving 2.2 million pieces of equipment and 344 convoys of trucks. Parked end-to-end, they’d have reached 1,200 miles, from Fort Bragg to Fort Riley, Kan.
Retrograding all the pieces and parts sent to Afghanistan is expected to be an even greater challenge because:
• The war in Afghanistan has lasted longer than any other for the U.S., and forces had to take with them nearly everything they needed.
• While much of Iraq is flat and open and forces were able to pave roads during the course of the war, Afghanistan is mountainous, and travel remains difficult over narrow, winding roads not designed for large military trucks.
• Most of the gear that came out of Iraq was driven or hauled to Kuwait, where it was sorted and staged for delivery elsewhere by water or by air. Afghanistan is landlocked. Flying materials out is expensive, and taking it out over land has been made more difficult, dangerous and costly by Pakistan’s closure in 2011 of the two major routes through its territory after a clash in which NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Alternate northern routes through other friendly countries are much longer.
• With the drawdown, fewer forces are available to do the retrograding. About 69,000 troops are in Afghanistan now.
• Fighting continues to be fierce in Afghanistan, and troops’ first mission is to fight the war, even as they are trying to extricate themselves from it.
• While the U.S. sold or gave a large amount of material to the Iraqi government as the war ended there, the Afghan government is not as well poised to control and maintain equipment, so less of it will remain.
“We don’t want to leave a vehicle behind that, six months later, is going to be an abandoned piece of junk on the side of the road,” Stein said.
Military officials have estimated that it will cost $5 billion to $10 billion to retrograde all the equipment out of Afghanistan in time for the troop pullout at the end of 2013. The work began early this year and goes on day and night, with a goal of bringing out 1,000 vehicles a month to start, building up to 1,500 per month, along with 1,000 railroad-car-size shipping containers per month.
The military sent some 100,000 shipping containers full of everything from tents to toilet paper to Afghanistan during the war.
Stein said the military will apply some lessons in Afghanistan it learned in Iraq, such as starting the retrograde earlier and trying to slow the flow of new materials coming in. Units deploying to Afghanistan, he said, are encouraged to use what is already there rather than bringing their own and creating more work for logistics teams, who manage the movement of equipment, supplies and people.
‘Getting my people home’
Sgt. 1st Class Antuane Simmons of Raleigh was a convoy commander with the 1452nd Combat Transportation Company of the N.C. National Guard on what was celebrated as the last convoy of retrograde gear that came out of Iraq last December. His unit specializes in driving the relatively slow-moving, heavy-equipment transporters, designed to haul huge M1-A1 Abrams tanks to and from the bases from which they operate, sometimes several days’ – or nights’ – drive from where they entered the country.
Knowing he was helping to close out the combat operations in Iraq was gratifying, said Simmons, who has served 25 years in the Guard.
“It was a huge rush, mentally, spiritually, emotionally,” he said.
It was uplifting because it was his unit’s second deployment to Iraq, and he could see that in the time between assignments, Iraqis had made progress.
It also felt good, he said, to know that in two deployments, his unit had not lost a single soldier. Before their convoys headed out each night, he said, they were briefed on security risks and reminded that as the war came to a close, attacks were likely to increase, so it would look as if U.S. troops were being chased out.
“You have in mind the value of the cargo you’re hauling,” he said. “But more so, you’re thinking about the people on your convoy. That’s my main focus: getting my people home safely to their families. Because they can’t be replaced.”