For US-led force in Afghanistan, time to pack up

FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB - As Afghans await the results of Saturday's presidential election run-off, American soldiers at a dusty outpost in the country's south are tearing down wooden huts and packing up.

After 13 years of war, NATO's US-led force -- and most of its hardware -- is heading home before a December 31 deadline. From refrigerators to ammunition cases, troops are sorting through piles of gear, deciding what will be kept, what will be given to the Afghans and what will be shredded or melted down. "We just don't destroy stuff and get rid of it. We do our best to reintegrate it into the system, but some stuff is just plain broken," said US Army Major Rob Wolfenden, 37, who is helping oversee the withdrawal from Forward Operating Base Pasab in Kandahar province.

As he spoke, bulldozers pushed over dirt-filled barriers while soldiers under his command meticulously sifted through material -- as if hunting for treasure. At the "sort area", there were boxes for rubber hoses, military radios, toner printer cartridges, stretchers, camouflage nets, generators and army manuals. And there was a container for personal items full of electric fans, printers and stereo speakers, sent by families to make life on the base more bearable. In the chaotic US pullout from Vietnam, troops pushed Huey helicopters off ships into the sea.

But not this time, said Lieutenant Joe Mannor, of the 226th Quartermasters -- "We're saving double a batteries." As the Pasab post gradually shrinks, an Afghan army base is steadily growing around it, with 1,300 troops already in place. At the war's peak, more than 150,000 American and coalition forces were spread across Afghanistan, in hundreds of bases large and small. But the footprint of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is shrinking by the day and many countries' units have already departed.

There are about 50,000 ISAF troops left on the ground, including about 32,000 Americans, and most of them will exit by the end of the year. For those US soldiers still deployed, there is little chance of action on the battlefield and a lot of routine tasks to endure. "They're used to fighting and this is a lot quieter," said Captain Luke Rella, whose US Army unit is one of the last to conduct joint patrols with Afghan forces, working to safeguard Kandahar Airfield from rocket attacks. "It might not seem sexy but it's very necessary," he told AFP on one patrol.

Their hi-tech battle gear and towering armoured vehicles looked out of a place in an impoverished village, where the reception was less than friendly as locals scowled at the Americans. Looking back at a 13-year-long exhausting fight, the US officers privately acknowledge a litany of mistakes: air strikes gone wrong, strategic blunders and wasteful aid projects. But many believe the insurgency has been dealt a blow, at least for the moment. "Some people think we're just spinning our wheels out here, but we accomplished something. This place is more secure now," Rella said.

If the next Afghan president signs a bilateral security agreement with Washington, 9,800 Americans and a few thousand allied troops will remain behind at the start of 2015. Then, in two years, the Americans will pull out altogether. In the meantime, the withdrawal, or "retrograde" in military speak, is picking up pace, and a whole American brigade has been sent to oversee the gargantuan effort. Some 40,000 vehicles from ISAF countries have been removed over the past two years. The price tag for the withdrawal for the United States alone is expected to reach $6 billion.

More than 400 bases have been handed over to the Afghans, but the government cannot afford to maintain the posts at the same level. Western troops have scaled back the bases to make them more defensible, and removed water treatment machines, generators and other amenities that are too expensive to run. A large amount of equipment is being discarded, as it is of no interest to either NATO armies or the Afghan government. Even the MRAP, the lumbering armoured vehicle designed to withstand roadside bombs that came to symbolise the American military presence, is on the chopping block.

The vehicle is being offered to allies, but there are few takers. The US military has concluded it is too costly to ship all of them back and have opted to keep only some and scrap others. American commanders say that the vehicles don't fit into the military's strategic plan, which assumes the United States will not be fighting another long, drawn-out ground war against insurgents anytime soon. 

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