Huge numbers of weapons and vehicles and tense relations with nearby countries make task more daunting than Iraq pullout
Fighting wars is expensive, but so is winding them down. As the US prepares to ship most of its weapons, vehicles and other equipment home after more than a decade in Afghanistan, the bill for the move will be a staggering $6bn, officers in charge of the complex process say.
Rusting Soviet tanks and guns still dot the Afghan landscape, serving as bleak memorials to violence of the 1980s, and perhaps a spur to Nato forces to ensure there are no similar reminders from the last decade of conflict.
The US military has pledged it will level any bases not handed over to Afghan forces and fly out, drive out or scrap the weapons, equipment and tens of thousands of Humvees and expensive MRAPs – mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles – it has shipped in since 2001.
To do this, it must sort through 100,000 shipping containers and strip down nearly 30,000 vehicles scattered in hundreds of bases across Afghanistan's mountains and deserts, all by a 2014 deadline, while making sure nearly 70,000 US soldiers still in Afghanistan are not left short of equipment they need to fight.
"Our workload will at least double by the beginning of the fall," said Brigadier General Steve Shapiro, deputy commander of the unit overseeing the removal, sale or destruction of around $26bn worth of equipment, known to the military as a "retrograde".
"We're hearing about $6bn in transportation costs," he said, as civilians and US soldiers sorted and labelled new arrivals in one of three 60,000 sq ft warehouses on Bagram airbase which currently holds around $200m worth of neatly stacked equipment.
Bagram, the first US base for their war in Afghanistan, is one of two hubs for an effort that employs nearly 10,000 soldiers and civilians and is proving far more challenging than the US departure from Iraq, which Shapiro also helped co-ordinate.
In Iraq, US equipment was trucked across the border to Kuwait where it was packed, cleaned, recorded and shipped on. But Afghanistan has no coastline, no stable, US-friendly neighbours and only a weak, vulnerable road network, making the job more expensive and complicated.
Some 28,000 vehicles and 20,000 shipping containers need to be sorted and prepared in Afghanistan, then shipped out of the country by the end of next year, Shapiro said, leaving little room for error. The rest of the containers – and their contents – will be given to the Afghan army, sold commercially or destroyed.
"Its more complex than Iraq," said Colonel Mark Paget, commander of the 401st Army Field Support Brigade, which is managing the "retrograde" in Bagram. "You don't have the space to make big mistakes. I can't have a pile of equipment here building up. You need a steady, even flow through the system."
His team prepares up to 60 MRAPs a day in a painstaking, labour-intensive process, first poring over the vehicle for ammunition lost under seats or behind cables, using sophisticated cameras to look into hidden crevices. Lost assault rifle and machine gun rounds, even grenades and mines have been dug out from the interiors of the vehicles.
A second unit strips off netting designed to stop rocket propelled grenades, gun towers, radio equipment and other features, for separate shipping. MRAPs are washed at least twice, more if they are going straight back to the US, and then, mostly, loaded on to planes, although some are taken out by road. They are so large that only four can fit in the C-17 military transport planes used to fly them on to bases in Kuwait, where they are loaded once more on to ships.
The US can take some things out on Pakistani roads, the route many supplies came in by. But although the first ship packed with surplus US equipment has already set sail from Karachi port, tensions between the two countries have shut the border more than once, and the US will not send any high-tech or sensitive equipment by that route.
Roads through northern Afghanistan, once used by retreating Soviet troops, are another option, but also used only for less sensitive shipments such as generators, tools and odds and ends known as "military impedimentia". Planners have to weigh up the cost, the state of roads and bilateral relations, and the speed with which trucks, planes or other transport can be marshalled.
"What we don't want is peaks and valleys, which is why there is all this emphasis on it now, asking ourselves do we really need this piece of equipment," Paget said, looking down over muddy yards crammed with nearly 800 vehicles waiting to be shipped out of the country. "What you want and what you need are different things."
The government in Washington is concerned about costs. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office highlighted examples of potentially surplus equipment such as "96 scoop type loaders" that it said could cost between $1.8m and $14.7m to ship home.
The huge bill for the move has added to the pressure to work out what exactly is sitting on bases around the country, whether it is worth moving out, and if not how to destroy it; after a decade of war there are containers full of long-forgotten orders.
Paget recently opened a shipping container and found hundreds of easels inside, ordered at the peak of Obama's surge for commanders in small outposts, keen to map out their offensives against the Taliban on whiteboards balanced on the wooden stands. "Excess easels, there were easels everywhere," he said, shaking his head. "I will stand by that I have seen a container full of easels."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
[U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Sal Somoza, Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Farah, pulls security outside the Farah provincial governor's compound in Farah City, Feb. 5, 2013 (U.S. Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives/released via the US Army on Flickr)]