in Kulturkampf

Out of Afghanistan

Your attention please: the mission operations order for the Obama presidency is a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan. This has not been easy for militaries to accomplish in the past, and it remains to be seen if NATO can withdraw in good order. According to Der Spiegel, the bulk of ISAF forces will be exiting by way of Northern Afghanistan, former Soviet states, and Russia:

(Ulyanovsk), once a magnet for communist idealists, is about to become a gathering place for Western troops. When the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops from Afghanistan begins, a portion of the NATO contingent will pass through Ulyanovsk — or, more precisely, Ulyanovsk Vostochny Airport. The airport will act as a hub for one of the most costly and complex troop withdrawals in modern military history. Some 130,000 soldiers must leave Afghanistan within two years, together with at least 70,000 vehicles and 120,000 containers.

Among the weird effects of withdrawal planning is that fortification and improvement never actually stop at the center of activity. Just look at America’s withdrawals from Germany and Japan, where highly-improved bases were left derelict. This is why Nic Turse can write at Salon in February:

The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility at the massive air base in Kandahar is just one of many building projects the U.S. military currently has planned or underway in Afghanistan. While some U.S. bases are indeed closing up shop or being transferred to the Afghan government, and there’s talk of combat operations slowing or ending next year, as well as a withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the U.S. military is still preparing for a much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and Bagram airfields.

I’m going to guess that Turse has never witnessed an army moving; it is a rare sight that actually makes the ground shake. An army decamping a war zone in good order requires nearly as much organization and time as it does to mobilize an invasion, which is exactly why such occupations should be rare.

An entire mountain of food, fuel, and equipment must now be shipped into Afghanistan to get two mountains of materiél out. Moreover, while NATO withdraws all this equipment and its personnel they will still be subject to attack. These warfighters will need their infrastructure and their weapons, including drones, to safely withdraw; they don’t give a damn if Salon.com readers don’t like it.

Military logistics is such an important aspect of military success that most of a US Army armored division’s time is spent in matters related to procuring and issuing supplies. The average motor pool contains rows of vehicles whose every part was manufactured by the lowest bidder; they are maintained with each use. Tracked vehicles, for instance, require one hour of maintenance for every hour of use. This is why you see tanks riding on flatbed trucks, as wheels demand less intensive maintenance and logistics.

While those beasts are being trucked out, so are their crews. A convoy coming under fire is an army at its most vulnerable. They will want support from airborne and combat ground assets, so these will need to leave last. Getting out is a really big deal, one big enough to make Joe Biden curse. Whatever small presence remains in-country will need fortified bases and infrastructure; what kind of military gets left behind in Afghanistan is another matter.

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