FORWARD OPERATING BASE WALTON, Afghanistan — Years of war have left a pile of guano-coated junk inside the 14-story tall bombed-out Russian grain silo that marks the center of Combat Outpost Bagh-E-Pul in Kandahar City.
Cleaning the bat-dung mess is just one of several challenges for the last group of U.S. soldiers who will inhabit the base — Battery B, Field Artillery Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment — who are charged with “retrograding,” or shipping out or turning over to Afghan security forces, tons of supplies and equipment before they go home.
Bagh-E-Pul is one of three bases that Fires Squadron, as it is sometimes known,is preparing to pass to Afghan police in Kandahar. The combat outpost and a similar facility — COP Shurandam — will likely be turned over by year’s end while the much larger Forward Operating Base Walton is scheduled for hand-over next summer.
With the U.S.-led coalition’s drawdown shifting into high gear — the American force of 62,000 will be reduced by half by late winter — its efforts to shut down its bases have hit a peak.
International forces have demolished hundreds of bases and outposts or turned them over to the Afghan government so far and they’re in the process of closing dozens more.
Eventually, all that would be left in coalition hands are the nine bases that the U.S.-led forces reportedly are seeking to maintain in a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government. But negotiations to allow U.S. and NATO advisers and other troops to stay in the country beyond 2014 are hung up over the issue of immunity for coalition forces. An Afghan assembly, known as the loya jirga, is scheduled to take up the issue starting Nov. 19.
By the end of next year, the U.S. needs to move out an estimated 24,000 vehicles and the equivalent of 20,000 shipping container-loads of other equipment, the Pentagon says. Equipment is being moved over various land routes to ports such as Karachi, Pakistan, or flown to a logistics site in the Middle East. From there it will be moved by sea back to depots in the U.S. for reuse.
NATO allies are also repatriating much of their equipment, creating a logistical logjam that will likely last until 2015. Other countries may buy some of the excess U.S. military equipment such as older MRAP variants, which can cost more than $300,000 to bring back to the United States and refit for use.
At Bagh-E-Pul, Battery B commander Capt. Riley Redus, 30, of Amarillo, Texas, and his soldiers guard a 10-megawatt diesel generator farm. It’s one of the main power supplies for a city that, according to USAID, could use an extra 20 to 25 megawatts of electricity to keep up with demand from homes and factories.
Afghan forces are in the lead outside the wire in the city these days, but inside the base, Battery B is sifting through stacks of equipment left by previous units or abandoned by contractors who, until recently, provided basic services support at Bagh-E-Pul.
Soldiers are collecting excess food there and sending it to other bases. Tents and small generators that power lighting and air conditioners at Bagh-E-Pul will be left for the Afghan police who replace the Americans, Redus said.
Other items are being sorted and placed in shipping containers for transport back to FOB Walton and on to Kandahar Air Field (KAF), where a massive area has been set aside for them before they are shipped out of the country.
“We have already done 12 containers,” Redus said. “We will be over 100 by the time we get through with this place.”
Some of the things getting shipped home are not what you’d expect. For example, a noncommissioned officer was elated when she found a tent full of office paper at Bagh-E-Pul, Redus said.
“With sequestration coming up, paper is going to be like gold back in Germany (2nd CR’s home-base) so we are taking it back with us,” he said.
Battery B mechanics — who are training Afghans to maintain equipment on the base — sifted through a container full of generator parts and pulled out the ones they expect to use in the next six months. The rest were boxed up and shipped out.
When containers from the smaller bases arrive at Walton, they go to a yard for retrograde supplies and equipment.
There appears to be plenty of excess equipment already at Walton, which was once home to three battalions and now only houses the artillery unit.
Officials haven’t decided what they will do with the base when it closes, although the Afghan government may take over portions of it, according to Maj. Micahel Teague, 41, of Kings Mountain, N.C., the squadron’s executive officer.
The sort of things going to KAF include military gear that units can use back in the U.S., high-value items, computers, force protection gear, top-secret equipment and armored vehicles, he said.
Soldiers report that armored vehicles worth $700,000 are being cut into scrap at KAF, but public affairs officials would not authorize photographs of the operation.
Some of the armored vehicles will return home with units so that they can be used for training, Teague said.
“We’re leaving stuff that can help the Afghan government and security forces,” he said. “We could just give them a shell of a building but we help them by leaving things like tents, desks and chairs.”
In many cases it’s a lot cheaper to leave gear in Afghanistan than ship it home, but that’s not the main concern for troops involved in the retrograde effort, Teague said.
“It’s about increasing capability at home and supporting the Afghan security forces,” he said. “We need to take into account what we need to support our elements here and back in Europe or the States and what can be left for the Afghans to use to support their capability.”
A key factor for those involved in closing bases is maintaining their capabilities as personnel and equipment leave, Teague said.
“At some point the contractors will say we are going from three [hot] meals a day to two, and then one,” he said. They will stop bringing new products to the Post Exchange and then close it and tell the contractors (operating small gift shops and restaurants on the base) — on this date you have to leave.”