Downrange, a year spent dismantling, packing and training
In February, when President Barack Obama stood before Congress to deliver his annual State of the Union address, America’s long war in Afghanistan was almost a footnote to the domestic challenges on which he focused.
But in the few short sentences the president devoted to Afghanistan, he laid out concrete goals for the return of U.S. combat troops.
“Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan,” Obama said. “This drawdown will continue, and by the end of next year our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
Since then, packing up and leaving became as much of a mission as fighting or helping the Afghans.
Bases in every corner of the country were shut down, their equipment shipped out, destroyed or handed over to the Afghan security forces taking over the fight.
Units had to balance continuing missions, like training or supporting Afghan forces, with the task of dismantling and removing military infrastructure that had taken years to put into place.
Troops adjusted as food offerings changed, sometimes dwindling to prepackaged Meals, Ready to Eat. Some servicemembers found themselves sharing their sleeping facilities with more roommates. Familiar services like mail, recreation halls, Internet and post exchange stores shrank or were eliminated.
Some of the most surreal examples of the American way of war had also disappeared or were on the verge of doing so. The Boardwalk at Kandahar Airfield, which has hosted a TGI Friday’s and a KFC, among other eateries, is on the way out.
At the higher, political level, NATO and U.S. officials are in a near-constant struggle to keep land-based transportation networks open through Pakistan and elsewhere to allow the steady stream of equipment to depart.
Despite the base closings throughout Afghanistan, by early December there were still some 60,000 American troops, only about 8,000 fewer than were in the country when Obama gave his speech, according to the latest figures published by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
The populations of some of the remaining bases exploded as they took in additional troops from those bases shut down. In many cases, troops had to continue their more traditional combat and training missions while packing gear and dealing with an influx of new residents. At Forward Operating Base Joyce in Kunar province, for example, the population doubled between May and June, from 300 to more than 600 soldiers, as smaller, neighboring outposts closed. Just a few months later Joyce was closed as well.
While Afghan forces were given responsibility in the summer for most security operations, U.S. military leaders planned from the start to keep significant numbers of troops in Afghanistan throughout the so-called fighting season.
The president’s goal of withdrawing 34,000 American troops from Afghanistan by February 2014 is “still on track,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Stars and Stripes in early December. Drawdown efforts will likely go into overdrive in coming months to meet that mark.