Leaving Afghanistan: Base Closure at the Tactical Level

As US Forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the mission of closing and retrograding material from military bases will take on an increased level of importance.  At present, for every US Soldier there is at least one 20-foot container of equipment in Afghanistan; a quantity that cannot be overemphasized as our military begins to face the challenges of retrograde in earnest.[1]  Responsible withdrawal is necessary to ensure hard earned momentum gained by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is maintained.  Between June 2012 and March 2013, 4th Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment successfully transitioned one Forward Operating Base (FOB) and two Combat Outposts (COPs) to Afghan control.  While each of these operations presented its own unique set of challenges, several truths proved to be universal in our “descope” efforts.  While the following list is in no way exhaustive, it serves as an unfiltered guide to help inform US forces of the monumental retrograde effort they will undertake in the coming months. 

The Closure Starts on Day 1 – Base closure operations require significant planning, coordination, manpower, resources, and, above all else, time.  A decade of war has resulted in mountains of excess materials and supplies stockpiled at US bases.  With only a fraction of US bases anticipated to remain open by this time next year, the key is to begin the process of base closure at the outset of a deployment.  Returning to an expeditionary mindset is critical to this effort.  By retrograding all but the absolute essentials, a minimum amount of “stuff” will remain when it is time to close a base.  Starting the retrograde process early also helps ensure retrograde decisions remain objective, devoid of any emotional attachments to the FOBs or COPs that can develop over time and, potentially, slow the process.

Strike a Balance –While not as glamorous as the mission to advise and assist Afghan security forces, base closure and retrograde is arguably as vital to the overall mission and may prove to be a significantly more challenging endeavor.  History has shown that the act of retrograding while in contact is one of the most difficult tactical maneuvers.  There is a natural inclination for maneuver forces to gravitate toward offensive combat operations.  Units must learn to balance such operations against their pre-determined base closure requirements.  These missions must be mutually supportive, as each places demands upon a finite pool of resources.  A holistic approach towards asset utilization needs to be implemented to allocate adequate support to all mission requirements.  Regardless of the operational environment or season, units must ensure their targeting, operations, and resource allocation all remain tied to the end state of base closure.

Go Green – Wherever the mission is critical to the success of base closure, utilize Military (Green) transport (land and/or air) and engineering assets.  Organic US capabilities are significantly more reliable and efficient than host nation means.  Nevertheless, these assets will be limited and must be prioritized based on closure timelines and the size of the operation.  With bases and facilities soon to close all over Afghanistan, competition for resources will force most to rely on some level of host nation support.  When utilizing host nation assets and services, planning for an acceptable amount of excess capacity helps ensure success.  Afghan material handling and construction equipment is poorly maintained and highly unreliable.  Afghan laborers require constant supervision and will not work on holidays or Jum’ah[2].  Contracted Afghan trucks often arrive late and have up to a 25% no show rate.  Contracting an excess of host nation assets helps mitigate these risks.  Additionally, the use of 30-day leases for host nation equipment tends to yield higher quality assets while allowing for increased unit control.  In the end, when and where to use host nation versus military assets becomes an essential planning factor for base closure. 

Stakeholder Buy In – In addition to military forces, many US facilities house a myriad of civilian and contract tenant organizations.  From the outset, all stakeholders need to be included in the base closure planning process; however, the US military must be the driving force behind the execution of any base closure.  It is absolutely critical to establish hard and fast closure date up front, as it both provides a definitive goal and allows for backwards planning and prioritization of work.  LOGCAP planning estimates for base transition follow a 180-day model.  Depending on the size and composition of an installation, closure can be accomplished in less than a third of that time.  The key is to obtain buy-in and coordinate regularly with all vested parties on the ground.  Those closest to the challenges of base closure generally develop the best methods to overcoming them.  Everyone must take into account that the enemy gets a vote and so does the weather, therefore flexibility is essential throughout the process. 

Size Matters – Power generation, water supply, and fuel consumption of former coalition force bases transferred to ANSF control need to be addressed in planning considerations.  Transferring large bases to the ANSF ties down their limited combat power and cannot easily be supported by their nascent logistical capabilities over the long term.  This is, obviously, counterproductive to the overall mission in Afghanistan.  Property and supplies identified for transfer to Afghan National Security Forces should at a minimum be jointly agreed upon between both militaries at the Brigade level or higher.   Once the items to be transferred are identified, Commanders must place an emphasis on the accountability and return of supplies to Supply Support Activities (SSAs).  The RPAT and Retro-Sort yards at major logistical hubs are essential to this process.  They are user friendly systems that will enable base clean up to occur in minimal time.  Lastly, all items that cannot be turned over to the ANSF and have no further use to the coalition can be buried or destroyed in place to again reduce requirements on finite ANSF resources.  A perfect example of this is T-walls; it can be more cost effective to bury these in place than waste money ($2,500 per truck) to transport these chunks of concrete from base to base.

The process of transfer and closure of bases in Afghanistan is unique for each and every location.  The preceding observations are born out of nine months of trial and error.  While far from exhaustive, this article provides a baseline to help guide units through the monumental challenge base closure and equipment retrograde presents.  The planning and movement has already begun and units must jump onto the train in motion.  The number of trucks retrograded is just as important as the removal of JPEL targets and caches.  It is not glorious or glamorous but it is the mission and if we do it well enough it will pay dividends far into the future.


[1] Rawlings, Nate. “Afghanistan in Retrograde: America Prepares to Withdraw.” TIME World. 23 January 2013<> http://world.time.com/2013/01/23/afghanistan-in-retrograde-america-prepa...

[2]Jumʿah,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Friday of the Muslim week and the special noon service on Friday that all adult, male, free Muslims are obliged to attend. The jumʿah, which replaces the usual noon ritual prayer (alāt a-uhr), must take place before a sizable number of Muslims in one central mosque in each locality. 2013 Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.<> http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/308043/jumah>

 

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Having shut down FOB Pacemaker on the TK Road just north of Tanachay (follow the Tarin Kot to Kandahar road south of Tarin Kot and you can still see the FOC on Google Earth) a couple of other points about using local haul. Log the CONEX that goes on each truck, taking a photograph of the driver and the truck. The odds of your CONEX actually arriving at the destination goes up considerably if they believe they can be identified.

Leaving a COB or FOB to the Afghans if a nice idea. Pacemaker was supposed to be transferred to the ANA. But when the time comes to leave, don't wait. The only people waiting at the gate for me to go were the locals waiting to see what they could pick from the carcase of the FOB.