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Afghan exit must pass daunting hurdles

DARVISHAN, Afghanistan -- It was supposed to be the last major mission of their deployment and the Missouri Guardsmen approached it with a mixture of dread and optimism.

The road to Baghak was isolated and usually so loaded with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that people with any sense avoided it by driving across the open landscape.

The moon dust was so deep out there, soldiers said, it looked like water being pushed by the large tires of their armored vehicles. They couldn’t imagine what it would be like wet.

But if the men of the 1138th Engineer Company were to play their part in helping thousands of U.S. troops get out of Afghanistan, they’d have to clear a way through to Baghak. Only after they had rid the route of explosives could the long convoy of big rigs, backhoes and bulldozers follow safely behind them.

And only then could the multiple units finish their mission to dismantle much of a small base that housed a team of U.S. Special Forces soldiers.

Baghak was just one of more than 200 posts that are supposed to be torn down or turned over to Afghan counterparts by the end of 2014.

And if the effort to modify and transfer the base to the Afghans is any indication, a mass exit will be a tricky, time consuming and frustrating task, played out across unpredictable and dangerous terrain.

For the 1138th, and other route clearance units, that means continuing to be out front of the pack so that flatbed trailers and heavy construction equipment can get to bases that need to be flattened, packed out or diminished in size.

“Pray for good weather,” Lt. Perry Hoffman, 39, of Rolla, told his platoon as it prepared to leave.

A HERCULEAN FEAT

The Baghak mission was launched two weeks before President Barack Obama announced in his annual State of the Union address that the U.S. would cut its 66,000 troops by 34,000 in the coming year.

“This drawdown will continue,” Obama said. “And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”

But actually pulling out is a Herculean feat.

Setting aside the broader questions of whether Afghans are prepared to defend and govern once U.S. forces leave is the stubborn logistical chore of removing equipment that has stacked up over the course of the longest war in U.S. history.

“The whole idea is to do a responsible evacuation of the equipment and the people,” said Gen. William Tuttle Jr., a retired four-star general who helped lead the charge out of Desert Storm in the 1990s. “You can’t just get up and leave. You don’t want to leave that stuff in Afghanistan to rot.”

That “stuff” is 750,000 “major-end items” worth more than $36 billion. The Department of Defense says it could cost about $6 billion to bring home the equipment — which includes up to 50,000 vehicles and 90,000 containers — or turn it over to the Afghans.

“It’s a very large task and it requires lots of coordination and detailed planning,” said Lt. Gen. Kathleen Gainey, deputy commander of the U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base. The command serves as the military’s moving company and is playing a key role in the Afghan drawdown.

Recovering valuable equipment is just part of the challenge. Troops like the Missouri 1138th must also deal with the hundreds of U.S. bases.

Each tactical position — representing about 800 bases, outposts and checkpoints at the war’s peak — needs to be vetted. Some, such as the base in Baghak, can be handed over and maintained by Afghan forces, or else converted for other uses.

But that’s not simple nor cheap.

Lt. Alex Madden, 24, of Massachusetts, who was in charge of the transportation unit for the Baghak mission, estimated there were hundreds of millions of dollars in machinery and manpower wrapped up in the effort, including air support.

To date, more than 375 facilities have been handed over to the Afghans.

In other cases, the bases are wiped clean from the landscape with bulldozers. Otherwise, experts say, the fortifications could be taken over by insurgents fighting the Afghan military.

“They would just become Taliban outposts,” said James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, a think tank.

At the beginning of 2013, coalition forces had closed more than 235 bases since 2011, with 206 remaining open.

Closing those bases must occur amid escalated threats from enemy fighters who want to set the tone for the end of the war.

Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University, said late attacks on U.S. troops would be “done for propaganda purposes to tell followers of these terrorist groups that they were responsible for the forces to retreat from Afghanistan.”

The leaders of the 1138th were briefed on such threats where they were headed. Insurgents were camping out in tunnels along creek beds, ready to jump out and plant an IED in front of their convoy.

Army Capt. Joshua Harmon described the low-level insurgents as part of a clan network living in a “warrior culture.”

“They are trying to get some concept of their honor back,” he said. “For them, they are driving the invaders out.”

COMPLICATIONS

The first day en route to Baghak was supposed to be easy for the 1138th — a quick push to a small base called Darvishan that would be the staging ground for units mobilizing for the mission.

But problems started to mount shortly after the guardsmen departed.

Spc. Michael “Hollywood” Ritchey, 25, one of the most experienced bomb hunters in southern Afghanistan, couldn’t get his vehicle to shift into high gear.

It wasn’t just any vehicle. It was a Husky, which even looks a little bit like the tip of the spear that it is. The long, narrow one-seated machine had a stack of ground-penetrating radar panels on the front. And it was sorely needed on the mission.

Most Husky operators might find a few IEDs on a nine-month deployment. Ritchey, an architecture student at the University of Missouri-Columbia with a wife and daughter, holds bronze, silver and gold honorary coins that mark his climb to finding 16 IEDs. That doesn’t include nine from a previous tour.

He was expected to find several more on this trip.

But now he was on the radio, frustrated with a private contractor that was supposed to maintain the high-tech equipment.

A decision had to be made: Turn back or keep moving.

The 1138th packed for seven days and only expected to be out four. No way did the men want to be delayed just minutes from the starting gate.

“Keep it in lower gears,” said Sgt. John Reeves, 44, of Jackson, whose wiry frame and years of experience as a towboat mechanic were about to be tested.

Two hours later, he was changing a huge tire on a gravel roadway that was littered with car parts shredded by previous bombs.

Reeves eased his massive wrecker past the other vehicles to change the tire, only to be asked soon after if he could fix the brakes on a different vehicle.

He worked quickly. There were hilltops all around and the stalled machine had been sitting in the same spot too long.

“Wow, it’s getting funner and funner,” he said. “We haven’t even made it to Darvishan yet.”

Reeves jury-rigged two brake hoses that were broken.

The vehicle could stop and go but a buzzer alerting a malfunction in the anti-lock braking system wouldn’t quit. Reeves, head-first inside the dash, hunted for the loud buzzer.

“I’ll make you shut up,” he promised, which he did.

It was an hour-and-a-half stop, during which Reeves ran constantly. Eventually, they rolled into Darvishan under a light rain, which the soldiers said was a blessing for helping keep the dust down.

The small base sat at the foot of a mountain adorned with a large swath of painted white rocks that marked where mines had been cleared. Beside the dirt lot where they set up camp for the night, a dozen Afghan police trucks, ruined by attacks, rested in a tangled heap of metal.

Soon they were joined by scores of infantry scouts, flatbed trailers and heavy machinery operators who were champing at the bit to go out on the dangerous route the guardsmen would lead them down.

HARDER THAN IRAQ

As the tactical chess game of pulling out troops and supplies from Afghanistan plays out, comparisons with the exit from Iraq are inevitable.

There, too, forces had to leave amid the threat of an enemy keen on making a final statement. And there, too, the sheer volume of equipment and supplies were daunting.

Military experts warn against tidy comparisons. Each war poses different challenges. And in key ways, the exit from Afghanistan is viewed as more difficult.

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan lacks a deep seaport. More critically, it has no neighbor like Kuwait to essentially act as a large garage to stockpile exiting equipment.

From the perspective of the 1138th, perhaps the biggest issue is a lack of paved roads. In Iraq, the terrain is often flat; in Afghanistan, many routes pass through rutty mountainous terrain. And those routes can quickly become impassible in bad weather.

Michael O’Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, said when all those factors are added in, the exit from Afghanistan is going a third of the pace as pulling out of Iraq, which is a good thing.

“It’s a very gradual end,” he said.

There’s a matter of timing. While the task of shutting down bases and removing machinery must be done, the military still must have the capacity to continue its unfinished business.

“If it were done more quickly, there would be less of a likelihood that the Afghan security forces could take over,” said Dobbins, of the Rand policy center.

And yet, for all the complications, experts say the task is not insurmountable.

“This is a challenge for (logistics specialists) but certainly not a challenge that is beyond their means to accomplish,” O’Hanlon said.

MUDDY OBSTACLES

The first night at camp, the rain came back and did more than keep the dust down. It soaked the ground. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something Reeves could fix. It was a matter of whether the road was dry enough to travel down with heavy equipment.

Told of a forming plan to move forward, Ritchey, the Husky driver, shook his head “no.” He would be the one in front and likely the first one to encounter any IEDs lurking in the soupy terrain.

“If they want to go, that’s their call,” he said in disappointment. “We’ll be putting in the order for more trucks.”

“We are going out there to give it our best damn shot,” Capt. Jason Davis, 32, of Wentzville, the commander of the 1138th, told the men.

Anxiety was expressed across the soldiers’ faces.

“Until we go outside this wire, we really don’t know until we officially test it,” Hoffman added.

They decided to run just a skeleton crew for the test.

“You have to be of a different mindset to do that stuff because you know you are probably going to get blown up,” said Sgt. Randy Plumley, 30, of Fort Stewart, Ga., watching from a distance, waiting amid a unit of truckers who were anxious to complete their first mission.

When the guardsmen returned several hours later from their road test, Reeves was in full swing.

“It was just a fight all the way around,” he said of the ill-fated trip.

The lead gun truck slid into a deep rut shortly after they departed. It took hours to get it hooked up to be towed back with a damaged front end.

“There’s not a vehicle made for this country,” he said.

That night at camp, Sgt. Tim Barker, of Troy, Mo., who was in the truck that got stuck, wondered about the rain.

“It might have been a blessing that we didn’t have to go down that route today,” he said.

Soon after, it poured so hard that a flood of moving water rose beneath their cots, nearly washing away boots and personal belongings. Overhead tarps bulged with runoff.

The next night it dipped to freezing. When they woke up it was Day Four, the day they were supposed to be on the way back from Baghak.

The mission was finally postponed.

Spc. Jonathan Welch tasted the bitter sweetness of the decision. They were going home to a chow hall, warm showers and a dry place to sleep.

“We know we are coming back,” said Welch, 24, a landscaper from Cape Girardeau.

Indeed, they did come back a week later and it took them four days like the original plan.

The ground dried up enough, but the trucks still labored through the terrain. They were puzzled that they only came across one IED. Perhaps flash flooding washed some away or disabled them.

The one they did score, though, was the granddaddy of homemade bombs that would have left a particularly harsh impression. It had 13 gallons of explosives packed into a few jugs. There were also mortar and artillery rounds. The guardsmen hadn’t seen anything like it in Afghanistan.

Ritchey, up in front in the Husky, discovered the IED. It was No. 17.

“I am just glad I found it, or it could have caused a lot of damage,” he said.

The find didn’t come with another honorary coin, but he had the satisfaction of helping get troops and equipment out of Baghak.

He had the satisfaction of taking another safe step toward getting all of the members of the 1138th Engineer Company home alive to Missouri this spring.

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