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Lessons From Iraq Guide Afghanistan Exit

January 1, 2014
By Rita Boland
E-mail About the Author

The military is closing hundreds of facilities and moving home tens of thousands of supplies via routes
through multiple countries.

  • Heavy machinery from the 864th Engineer Battalion, U.S. Central Command Materiel Recovery Element, grade and pack the Afghan dirt as the engineer soldiers reconfigure an old retro sort yard into a material overflow yard.
     Heavy machinery from the 864th Engineer Battalion, U.S. Central Command Materiel Recovery Element, grade and pack the Afghan dirt as the engineer soldiers reconfigure an old retro sort yard into a material overflow yard.
  • Rows of heavy vehicles fill a retrograde yard before shipment on Camp Warrior, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
     Rows of heavy vehicles fill a retrograde yard before shipment on Camp Warrior, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

The retrograde of equipment from Afghanistan requires a monumental effort after almost 13 years of war and an influx of billions of dollars’ worth of materiel to the country. To return the necessary pieces along with personnel from the landlocked location, logisticians around the military are developing creative solutions that offer redundancy. Plans are progressing more smoothly than in Iraq, as experts apply lessons learned and a hub-and-spoke model that allows for a controlled collapsing of installations.

Experts estimate it will cost $6.5 billion to $7 billion to retrograde about $33 billion of equipment. Maj. Gen. Aundre F. Piggee, USA, director, J-4, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), explains approximately 60 percent of the equipment is expected to be retrograded via ground routes that go through multiple countries in the region. At the beginning of the effort, logisticians were dealing with more than 50,000 pieces of rolling stock that had to be moved. They are now down to less than 25,000. Personnel also have reduced more than 800 bases to fewer than 90. Though some installations will remain operational after the completion of the drawdown, that number is probably less than 10, though no final decisions have been made. Despite the price tag in the billions, the money and time required to move and reset the materiel are less costly than trying to replace it. “We are good stewards of our equipment,” Gen. Piggee states.

According to the Defense Department, the president still is reviewing options from his national security team and has not made a decision about the size of a possible U.S. presence after 2014. The United States will reduce troop levels to 34,000 in Afghanistan by February 2014. Further drawdown decisions will be based on assessments on the ground in the country and the performance of the Afghan National Security Forces. Officials also will continue negotiations on a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government that would provide the authorities and protections needed for a presence after 2014.

Within Afghanistan, the 1st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) is leading the charge to bring everyone and everything home. Dedicated to CENTCOM, it stood up a core presence in the Central Asian nation about a year ago to begin the retrograde and reset. The command has brigades in each of the regional command areas. Brig. Gen. Duane Gamble, USA, deputy commanding general, 1st TSC, was present for the drawdown in Iraq and is applying knowledge from there to his new mission. He explains that the CENTCOM Materiel Retrograde Element (CMRE) is a major beneficial change between the drawdowns from the two recent conflict endings. “The CMRE is really the manifestation of the lessons learned from Iraq,” he says. “It really is satisfying and a moment of pride that our Army, our Defense Department, has learned the lessons … and improved here in Afghanistan. This is a dedicated brigade that came into theater to help units to retrograde, to help them deconstruct bases and return some of our FOBs [forward operating bases] to pristine desert like we found it.”

The bases that will remain open are those that can benefit Afghan forces. However, Gen. Gamble explains, the United States has a moral obligation to tear down any other posts in a responsible manner and to return the land to its original state. Doing so requires adjustments from previous activities. In Iraq, forces had the advantage of Kuwait. This nearby friendly area allowed personnel to move equipment into that country to prepare it for return. “We have to do all of that in Afghanistan here today,” Gen. Gamble explains.

CMRE personnel assist in overcoming the lack of access to water transportation by helping to prepare materiel. The TSC and its subordinate brigades perform logistics of sustainment, logistics of retrograde and base closure missions simultaneously. In Iraq, organic logistics personnel in units were performing the retrograde work in addition to their regular mission. In Afghanistan, units’ main task is to train, advise and assist local forces. Performing drawdown logistics at the same time is a drain on resources.

This knowledge comes as a lesson learned from Iraq. Now, line units continue their regular missions while groups such as the CMRE focus on the retrograde. “That’s why I say the CMRE is really a symbol of the difference between the two drawdowns,” Gen. Gamble explains. After a team studying processes in Iraq left, the general wondered if the lessons learned, procedures and tracking tools provided to its members would ever have an effect. “I see the fruit that has been borne of those efforts they made two years ago,” he says. “It is tremendous how the military can be a learning organization.” He adds that many of the Iraq procedures transferred directly to Afghanistan but are much better developed because of the previous experience.

One example is the Iraqi Transportation Network. This contracted resource helped move supplies while strengthening Iraq’s economy. The idea transferred, and the Afghanistan Transportation Network was born, but with significant differences in technology. In Iraq, records were kept on paper, which Gen. Gamble says worked there. But Afghanistan represents a more dispersed battlefield and infrastructure, so electronics help with monitoring and administration. Each truck has nodal visibility on the Global Distribution Management System, which the general calls the starkest difference in technology between the two retrogrades. The transportation network is all intratheater trucking, moving resources among FOBs or taking scrap to sell to vendors once dematerialization is complete.

Some of the distinct differences between the drawdowns in the two countries lead to certain misunderstandings. One of the most common is that there is a single route out of Afghanistan and that is through Pakistan, but the Afghanistan theater has several routes and methods for removing goods and personnel. Gen. Gamble says Iraq had basically one main supply route (MSR). “If we lost MSR Tampa, we would have been really challenged to get things out of Iraq,” he explains. “We thought they might attack us there ... we were concerned about having one exit method.” Though the military could have flown items into Kuwait, they had no robust capabilities for doing so, and goods would have sat in port awaiting loading onto a ship.

Afghanistan, by contrast, has the famed Pakistan route, along with other roads cutting through a number of Central Asian nations into Europe. “That’s the Northern Distribution Network,” Gen. Gamble explains. These routes head to various seaports in the east, west and north.

“We have more capability here than we could ever need in Afghanistan, and we didn’t have that in Iraq,” Gen. Gamble says. “Here, if any route shuts down, like through Pakistan awhile ago, we can use other methods.” The media and people in the Defense Department often misunderstand issues such as a route shutdown, trucker strike or weather impediments. Then, the logisticians in Afghanistan receive panicked phone calls about whether missions can continue. The response? “Yah, it’s fine,” Gen. Gamble states. He credits work done by the U.S. Transportation Command to coordinate with embassies around the world, enabling plenty of capacity for movement of goods, which the general says people cannot appreciate unless they really study it or see it.

Gen. Piggee also believes the biggest misconception about the retrograde is that all roads lead through Pakistan, when really numerous routes through various countries exist. Even if all ground options closed, activities would continue. “If we had to fly everything out, we could,” Gen. Piggee states. “It would be expensive; we don’t want to do that. But we could.” Multimodal logistics that involve ground, air and sea provide agility to the drawdown process.

However, the ground routes offer more than the most inexpensive option. They also are leading to improved international relationships between the United States and nations in Central and Western Asia. Options there include not only motorized vehicles but also rail. Efforts on the front end to set up the paths demonstrated cooperation, and the continued efforts necessary to use the routes further improves international understandings. The foreign nations benefit financially while the United States enjoys the redundancy.

Gen. Piggee says these agreements inherent in the Northern Distribution Network build and sustain relationships over time. Country officials have initiated discussions on other issues through their connections related to the retrograde. “That’s been a great advantage in Central Asia,” the general explains. Responding to criticism from some familiar with the drawdowns in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he says there will always be differences of opinions about what is working, “but Afghanistan is different than Iraq on every level,” Gen. Piggee states. He adds,“We are comfortable this will not be like Iraq.”

Using the hub-and-spoke model to carry out the retrograde has proved effective. Personnel close down the small bases first, working their way back to central hubs until reaching any bases necessary for the enduring mission once the current one officially ends. NATO is considering leaving people to help strengthen ministries and higher level bureaucracies in Afghanistan as they develop. If that plan is adopted and the United States decides to participate, a certain number of bases and equipment will have to remain. Those places will retrograde last to offer the most flexibility to the planning process. As installations shut down, personnel and materiel can go home. Without proper planning, activities such as this can result in disarray. Gen. Gamble states, “I’m proud to say it’s not chaos.” The order does not mean there is no danger. In fact, all the drawdown operations in Afghanistan are being carried out while normal combat missions continue simultaneously. “The whole thing I described could be perceived by some as a very clinical, very industrial process, but it still requires people to move tactically across the battlefield,” the general explains. “It’s still very, very dangerous.” Convoys are one of the most hazardous parts of the war in Afghanistan, facing dangers from numerous sources, including improvised explosive devices, which cause more casualties than any other weapon. Earlier this year, Gen. Gamble pinned the Purple Heart medal on 1st Lt. Kelsey Kirby, USA, who was injured as she led a retrograde operation. An enemy munition destroyed a vehicle near her, injuring the young officer, who continued to stay with her troops and mission until the attack ended. Lt. Kirby is not even a logistics soldier; she is a communications officer but volunteered for the job in a dangerous area when the Army needed personnel of her rank.

Work done to keep the retrograde going is having additional benefits for local populations. For example, a huge storm washed out a road necessary to remove goods from a large hub base. Engineer battalions repaired this route in a remote area in about two weeks, building to a standard that will prevent flooding from destroying the road again. These actions not only enabled the retrograde to continue but also allowed local farmers to bring their produce to market, which will benefit the area for years to come.

Gen. Piggee echoes many of the sentiments expressed by Gen. Gamble. He adds that the flexibility built into the current system to allow for problems such as destroyed roadways derived from lessons learned in Iraq. So far, plans are working, and Gen. Piggee says everything is on track to have the scheduled personnel and equipment out of Afghanistan on time.

Though CENTCOM has the responsibility for combat and sustainment operations in the region, officials there work closely with organizations such as U.S. Transportation Command and the Defense Logistics Agency to transport resources out of Afghanistan. “We determine the policy,” Gen. Piggee explains.

As does Gen. Gamble, he touts the CMRE, saying its actions at FOBs and other installations are helping to meet drawdown time lines. Additionally, a special group set up to help with redeployment and retrograde of contractors is having positive effects on the drawdown as it focuses on private sector issues.

As the drawdown continues, troops are mindful of their overall mission to assist the Afghan National Security Forces. Part of that help means ensuring they can sustain themselves. Equipment the United States leaves behind is surplus stock such as vehicles and some weapons systems that will benefit Afghan officials. However, what will remain behind is not determined by what the local population wants or needs, but by U.S. priorities. What comes home will be reset for the next U.S. mission.

 

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