America and our coalition allies are winning the war in Afghanistan. This garners little attention in the media as many are focused on the impacts of sequestration and events in other parts of the world. Even Afghans seem too busy managing their own lives to notice this gradual transition. Although there will be bumps along the way, the days of this country being dominated by the Taliban and other extremists are over. As we enter this new chapter in Afghanistan, we must responsibly retrograde and deconstruct hundreds of bases that housed thousands of coalition troops. Our failure to act could very well reverse the momentum we’ve gained through years of hard work and sacrifice.
On the ground in Afghanistan, combat commanders kept a steady pressure and broke the insurgent’s grip over Afghan civilians. While fighting Taliban, Haqqani and al Qaida elements, American Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors trained Afghans to organize a modern army and to rebuild their infrastructure. In the past decade, the Afghan National Security Force has grown in size to 352,000 troops. Its increased capabilities allow it a greater responsibility in defeating terrorism and securing the Afghan homeland. The fact is today Afghans are responsible for most of their own security and are in the lead.
This success has generated some anxiety; Afghans worry about the retrograde of U.S. forces, but they know the time has come to take ownership of their future. Instead of relying on other nations, Afghans will secure their borders, build their economy and establish credibility in their currency. Afghans, for once, have a chance to control their destiny.
It is therefore incumbent upon us to leave Afghanistan with careful deliberation that also includes proper disposal of debris from the battlefield. We’ll win the battle and lose the war if we leave Afghanistan a dumping ground. The enemy will stand on our trash heaps and proclaim victory over the U.S. just as they did with the Soviets. Getting this right — through proper retrograde, reuse and disposal systems — will also positively impact our joint ability to RESET and prepare U.S. Forces for the next contingency.
Through this transition, we seek to recover equipment and materiel from the battlefield and outposts across Afghanistan within a specific timeline. In this landlocked and rugged country, a retrograde of this magnitude is an enormous undertaking made possible through intense planning by strategic enterprises such as U.S. Central Command, U.S. Transportation Command, the Army Materiel Command and executed by units such as V Corps and the 1st Theater Sustainment Command. The entire retrograde process demonstrates good stewardship as vehicles, trailers and equipment-packed containers are received into sort yards at Bagram, Kandahar and other major FOBs and then catalogued, cleaned and shipped back to the U.S. while unneeded infrastructure and equipment are de-militarized.
Through the diplomatic efforts of our strategic partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the border crossings at Torkham and Chaman Gates opened in July 2012. In February 2013, the U.S. Army successfully loaded and sent two convoys from Afghanistan to the port of Karachi in Pakistan. This re-opening of the Southern Distribution Network restored a major piece of the retrograde strategy and has increased the pace of operations. More importantly, the SDN exemplifies the willingness between Afghanistan and Pakistan to rise above the fray and arrive at workable solutions.
At the same time, the U.S. and coalition partners continue to develop the Northern Distribution Network and push equipment through Central Asia to ports on the Baltic. After establishing Customs and transit paperwork standards, the U.S. has managed to ship equipment along these routes. Even the Salang Tunnel high in the Hindu Kush was kept operational throughout the winter to allow for the continued flow of equipment to the northern Afghan ports.
With these two retrograde lines of communication open, we have set the conditions for our retrograde. We have implemented the required processes and will meet the deadline as directed by the president in his State of the Union address. Our responsibility now is to execute the plan.
Equipment retrograde, base camp transfer and deconstruction and materiel recovery are the last steps of the war as we “run through the tape” in December 2014 and enter the decade of transformation. Responsible coordination will send needed equipment home for Service RESET, reduce extraneous infrastructure and de-militarize unneeded materiel. Again, failure to execute this final chapter could negate all of the progress made in the last decade.
(Editor’s note: Shapiro is the deputy commanding general of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command in Afghanistan and has personally directed the U.S. retrograde mission there for the past year.)