With pullout looming, NATO forces now disassembling larger bases in Afghanistan

McClatchy Foreign StaffSeptember 12, 2013 

— Sometime in the next few weeks, local workers will rip out the fancy cooking equipment in the gleaming, $20 million armored dining hall on the German-run military base at Kunduz, Afghanistan, and replace it with crude wood-burning stoves built on what is now a loading dock.

Another team of laborers is finishing a massive, half-mile-long brick wall that cuts the base in two, a measure that the Afghan government sought before it would agree to accept the base for use by two branches of its security forces.

The Germans, who are pulling out of Kunduz in a few weeks, were bemused that Afghan police and army units wanted such a firm boundary between each other, but agreed to pay the $460,000 construction cost of what they quickly dubbed "the Berlin Wall."

The separate ministries that oversee the police and army also asked for separate water and sewer systems.

Coalition troops at the German base and an adjacent U.S. camp are packing up and shipping out equipment, trying to decide what to destroy, what to sell and what to give to the local Afghan security forces, trying to orchestrate a safe, orderly final withdrawal even as they dodge the occasional incoming rocket and respond to intelligence reports of bombs along the roads they’re using to truck equipment and people out.

With the U.S.-led coalition’s drawdown shifting into high gear – the American force of 62,000 will be reduced by half by late winter – its efforts to shut down its bases have hit a complicated peak.

Until now, most of the 700 or so bases demolished or turned over to the Afghan government or private land owners have been small and relatively simple, often little more than a perimeter wall of sand-filled boxes.

But now comes the complicated part.

Three quarters of the 100 bases that remain are giants like the sprawling Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, or are considered medium-sized, like the adjacent German and American bases at Kunduz, which held a few thousand troops at one point.

Eventually all that would be left in coalition hands are the nine bases that the U.S.-led forces reportedly are seeking to maintain in a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government. Negotiations over that deal reportedly are stalled.

Several medium-sized bases are being prepared for closing now, and then the coalition will target a larger group in October and November, said Col. Jose Aguilar, chief of basing for the coalition’s operational command.

"We’re getting to that point where the bases we are dealing with are they’re bigger, which means we have to plan them out with a lot more resources and plan them out a lot further ahead in time," Aguilar said.

The coalition has the last word on what to do with its bases, but the team that leads the decision-making consults weekly with of an Afghan base closing commission to get their views on which will be transferred and which demolished.

The adjacent German and American-run camps at Kunduz are a case study in the two basic ways that the collation is handling such bases.

If they’re deemed safe, sustainable, securable and useful for the Afghans, like the German side of the complex, they are cleaned up and modified to make them work for whatever use the Afghans plan.

Those that are too small, poorly located, or, like the American camp, too flimsily-built – it’s mostly tents – are being torn down and the land restored to their pre-war state.

The German side, with roads and buildings and a sophisticated wastewater system that would service a European town, is now a hive of German-funded construction workers scurrying around to build the wall as well as modify buildings, like the installation of wood-burning stoves in the dining hall. Afghans are more experienced at cooking with wood and such a system will be simpler for them to maintain than a modern gas one.

Among the many tasks to come are what to do with each of the 1,300 or so steel shipping containers scattered around the base. A few hundred, including those filled with valuable equipment and those built originally as high-grade housing, shower and latrine units, will be shipped back to Germany. Others will be turned over to the Afghan security units. Containers deemed not useful are being sold to locals.

Teams of German soldiers move around the base daily, examining each container, determining what to do with it.

"It’s really complicated, and there are so many parts you can’t think of everything," said Capt. Matthias K., who under German rules is not allowed to give his full name. "Every day is a surprise what comes next."

The Kunduz base has hugely important to the Germans. Of 35 German troops killed in action, 25 died in Kunduz. When Germans think of the war, they think of Kunduz.

The American camp, meanwhile, is being demolished, and like many camps that are being torn down, it will be cleaned up and returned to the state in which it was found.

That includes removing unexploded ordnance from the firing range as well as any hazardous material such as spilled aviation fuel that environmental teams find.

A huge part of the job has been yanking up 20,000 plates of metal matting, most of them eight feet long, that made up the air strip, said Army Maj. Matt Gooding, executive officer for the 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, the unit now occupying the base. At $1,000 a plate, they’re too valuable to leave behind.

The Americans have been working on the tear-down for several months and are now well past the halfway mark. The troops from both bases are expected to leave for good in a few weeks.

That, however, requires significant coordination not just between the forces at each base but with commanders at the regional base to the west, in Mazar-e Sharif, and at coalition headquarters in Kabul. Closing any one base has a cascading effect on people and missions elsewhere.

"As you retrograde and close some small bases, certain functions fall back to the medium bases, then when you close those, they fall back to large ones, "Aguilar said. "So it’s not as simple as saying we’re closing, we’re done with it.”

Turning larger bases into substantial facilities with life-spans of up to 60 years also can save money, said Col. Butch Graham, the engineer overseeing the NATO program to build facilities for the Afghan security forces.

For example, the Germans are spending million on converting the base here, but that will save Graham’s program about $20 million that would have been spent on a new base for the police, he said.

Hooking the base up to the electrical grid along will cost the Germans nearly $1.25 million, but it will save the Afghans huge amounts of money in the cost of running generators. And the Afghan security budget comes mainly from the U.S. and other foreign donors.

The complications of closing a base, large or small, aren’t just logistical. Some are potentially fatal. That’s why no one wants to publicize precise date the troops will leave. The final convoy is likely to include dozens of vehicles and be an attractive target even as it’s leaving.

Email: jayprice@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul

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