What to Pack When You’re Leaving a War

As the U.S. retrograde hits its peak, what will America really leave behind in Afghanistan?


Such a small word, such a giant operation. The drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan — known as the retrograde — is to be completed by the end of 2014; in raw tonnage, it’s the biggest single military logistical undertaking ever. For size and complexity, think of something in between D-Day and the moon landing. To the Taliban, the retrograde is the shortening shadow of a decade-long war against Western occupation, announcing the dawn of victory. Increasingly left to fend for itself, the Western-backed Hamid Karzai regime is under pressure to settle with the insurgents, or risk being swept away by a second Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. As America’s Afghan war draws to a close, is there a way for the United States and its allies to snatch victory from the jaws of retreat? While it’s too early to say for sure, history does not look kindly on retreating superpowers.

But before we get bogged down in the semantic quagmire of assessing what victory sounds like, let’s first take a look at the hard numbers. The U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan will fill 40,000 containers, a task requiring 29,000 personnel, and costing more than $5.5 billion. The retrograde hits its peak just about now, at a rate of 2,000 containers and 1,000 vehicles repatriated each month, before winter snows make the mountains impassable.

In-country, the retrograde consists of sorting yards at Bagram Airfield and eight other bases, where vehicles and other military equipment will be dismantled and stripped of weapons and ammo before being stuck in a seaworthy box. In all, the army has to account for approximately 2 million pieces of non-rolling stock and 24,000 pieces of rolling stock that need to be retrograded, transferred, or disposed. About 10 percent of these items will remain in Afghanistan, for the benefit of the Afghan National Army or — equally likely — as a welcome addition to the livelihood of smugglers and other traders. The rest will be removed via one of three routes: by truck, to the Pakistani port of Karachi; north through the former Soviet ‘stans of Central Asia and Russia proper to the Baltic and Black Seas on a combination of road and rail dubbed the Northern Distribution Network; or by air, to the Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia and then directly into Fort Blair and other airbases in the continental United States. Each route is fraught with dangers and limitations, together providing the retrograde with that Biblical example of logistical improbability — a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

Doubtlessly, the outbound convoys will suffer some Taliban strafing; but essentially, the insurgents are glad to see the back of the Americans. And emboldened: in July, the Taliban even opened an embassy-like office in Qatar, the better to pursue a talk-and-fight strategy. While it is not clear how much talking is being done — the office closed in July — continuing attacks on U.S. and Afghan bases are a clear sign the Taliban is testing the strength of the drawing down Western forces and their replacement, the Afghan national army.

No wonder that the U.S. retreat won’t be complete, not even on Dec. 31, 2014. Afghan and U.S. officials are still haggling over the exact figures — with an exasperated Obama reportedly threatening complete withdrawal — but the numbers bandied about vary between 5,000 and 12,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, plus a small counterterrorism force. The Afghan forces will then be solely responsible for fighting the Taliban on a "day-to-day basis," but even so a continuing U.S. military presence will be necessary to make their gains "sustainable," Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, told the New York Times in July.

Parallels spring to mind with the U.S. exit from that other Asian quagmire — Vietnam. President Richard Nixon preceded the 1973 pullout from that conflict with a policy of "Vietnamization": the transfer of combat duties to the local army, as is happening now in Afghanistan. The exit itself was the result of a self-sustaining cycle of anti-war sentiment in the United States, which informed a gradual military disengagement, which in turn emboldened the opposition. It ended in April 1975, with U.S. helicopters pushed off the decks of war ships to accommodate a swelling number of refugees, choppered in from a beleaguered Saigon.

Modern wars dwarf those of antiquity, but some lessons, mostly of the non-cheerful variety, may be drawn from military history. Take the case of Hannibal. That Carthaginian general became the patron saint of supply-chain managers by spectacularly shipping 38,000 foot soldiers, 8,000 cavalry, and 38 war elephants from North Africa to European in order to wage war on Rome.

In 218 B.C., Hannibal marched his army 1,500 miles across Spain and France into Italy in five months. Together with his elephants, they crossed the Pyrenees, the Alps, and in between the river Rhone — the animals and soldiers were ferried across on specially constructed rafts. The logistics involved in each of these crossings, especially the winter crossing of the Alps, were one of the most brilliant achievements of the Second Punic War. Unfortunately for Hannibal, it would turn out that he had extended his supply chain too far.

Hannibal ravaged the length and the breadth of Italy, never losing a battle to the Romans. At Cannae in 216 B.C., he inflicted the heaviest defeat ever on a Roman army in Italy, killing close to 80,000. But Rome itself was impregnable, and Hannibal was unable to peel off enough of Rome’s allies to form a viable coalition. Hannibal was slowly ground down by the so-called Fabian Strategy, by which the Romans avoided pitched battles with the Carthaginians, but denied them a way out of Italy. When the Romans took the war to Carthage itself, Hannibal was recalled — and defeated on his own turf.

Another general who seriously overestimated the reach of his formidable army was Napoleon, who marched into Russia with 442,000 men in June 1812, captured Moscow with his remaining 100,000 men in September, and stumbled out of Russia with a mere 10,000 soldiers three months later. The logistics of that dreadful campaign were captured to chilling effect in perhaps the best statistical chart ever: The Minard Map, created by 19th-century civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard, simultaneously represents the area’s geography, the direction of Napoleon’s advance and retreat, the size of his army (each shrinking millimeter represents 10,000 soldiers fewer), the temperature, and the elapsed time.

A century and a half later, the Russians would exploit the same combination of scorched-earth tactics — the debilitating winter, the strategic depth of the country itself — to do to Adolph Hitler’s Wehrmacht what they had done to Napoleon’s Grande Armée. The Red Army conquered Eastern Europe in spite of the gruesome losses to the Soviet Union: at least 20 million dead vs. 4 million German casualties on the Eastern Front.

For the next half century, and despite the rhetoric of socialist internationalism, the Soviets treated Eastern Europe essentially as war booty, turning their sphere of influence into a collection of satellite states obediently orbiting communism’s global center of gravity in the Kremlin. But the Berlin Wall was the high-water mark of Moscow’s plans for world domination. In 1989, the Wall fell, sparking its own retreat. The immensity of Soviet withdrawal from what was known as the Eastern Bloc is nowadays overshadowed by the 1992 collapse of the Soviet Union itself. But the drawback of half a million Red Army troops from eastern Germany in a mere three years, from 1991 to 1994, nevertheless stands as the largest pullout ever by an undefeated army.

The retreating Russians took along more than 8,200 armored vehicles, 4,200 tanks, 3,600 artillery pieces, 1,300 planes and helicopters — plus an undisclosed number of tactical nuclear warheads. The East German contingent was the Soviet Union’s largest, but not their only military presence in Eastern Europe. In all, it drew back to the Motherland 700,000 soldiers and 500,000 civilians — a movement of troops and personnel so unprecedented in scale that many of the homecomers had to be billeted in tents and other temporary living accommodations.

Adding a perhaps typically Russian flair to a logistical operation of this size, the retreating soldiers were allowed to take home anything they could carry off the base. This included window frames, electrical outlets, even an entire runway, made up of thousands of 3,000-pound concrete slabs. The permission to strip the bases was granted to alleviate the poverty to which many of the post-Soviet troops would be returning. A concrete pole repatriated to Russia was reputed to be worth five pigs back home.

1989 wasn’t only the year that Eastern Europe threw off the Soviet yoke; it was also the year the Soviets abandoned their own Afghan adventure. On Feb. 15, Gen. Boris Gromov crossed the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan, becoming the last soldier of the Soviet expeditionary force, which numbered 115,000 at its height, to leave the country. Gromov left after nine brutal years of war, which cost 15,000 Soviet and perhaps as many as 1 million Afghan lives. And all he left behind were a small cadre of Soviet advisors for an allied government increasingly isolated in Kabul. A giant Red Army tank graveyard to the east of Kabul serves as a stark, Ozymandias-like reminder of the fickleness of world history.

And we all know what happened next — an outcome less than reassuring to the present retreating superpower or current President Hamid Karzai: President Mohammad Najibullah, the embattled Soviet ally, was deposed in 1992 and fled to the U.N. compound in Kabul. When the Taliban took power in 1996, they captured and castrated him, dragging his body through the streets and then hanging it from a traffic light. The Soviet legacy in Afghanistan is now limited to rusting tank bodies, 10 million land mines scattered across the country, and the burnt-out remains of buildings like the House of Science and Culture.

Will America’s legacy in Afghanistan be equally disheartening and inconsequential? Today, even in the heart of Kabul, car bombs are a constant reminder of the state of insecurity. But perhaps the best footprint the United States can hope to leave in South Asia’s poorest, most troubled country is a favorable impression left on the hearts and minds of its people. In that respect, maybe the Americans should learn from the Brits, who know a thing or two about failed Afghan missions. As they too prepare to pack up and leave, they can proudly look back on a cultural implant taking solid root in Afghan soil — on October 4, Afghanistan’s national cricket team defeated Kenya by 7 wickets, thereby qualifying the country to participate in the game’s World Cup for the first time ever. Riotous celebrations erupted across Kabul, Kandahar, and other big cities. If the U.S. plays its cards right, the next generation of Afghan kids may yet turn their eyes away from the cricket pitches of England, and towards the basketball courts and baseball diamonds of America for inspiration. It might be worth quietly leaving behind a few balls and bats.

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