Command Faces Challenges with Afghanistan Exit
Months after the war in Iraq ended, Fort Bragg soldiers in Kuwait were still working on sending the last of the military equipment back to the U.S.
But since spring, when the final items sailed out of the country, the 1st Theater Sustainment Command hasn't had the opportunity to rest on its laurels.
Almost immediately, the soldiers began working on a logistical mission far more difficult than the Iraq drawdown: Afghanistan.
According to the Pentagon's latest biannual report to Congress, the U.S. is on track to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces and wrap up the war in two years.
To the untrained, that might seem like plenty of time to remove the tons of equipment and vehicles used by the U.S. military, but officials with the 1st TSC said the country poses unique challenges.
"We have a big mission," said Maj. Gen. Kurt J. Stein, commander of the 1st TSC. "We're not leaving today or tomorrow or the next day, but we're setting conditions for retrograde."
Stein took command of the 1st TSC in July, but he is familiar with the efforts made in the Iraq drawdown because of his past position as senior logistician for Gen. Ray Odierno in Iraq.
"I grew up in Iraq," he said. "It was hard. But it was easy compared to Afghanistan."
The differences, Stein said, are the terrain in Afghanistan is much more difficult, there's less infrastructure -- like the long, flat highways that helped ease the flow of supplies out of Iraq -- and Afghanistan has no Kuwait, a country safely out of the way of flying bullets where soldiers can sort and ship supplies.
"In Kuwait, we had miles of equipment lined up and awaiting dispensation," Stein said. "In Afghanistan, we don't have that luxury. When it leaves Afghanistan, it leaves for its final resting spot."
And with more than a decade at war, there's plenty to move in Afghanistan, Stein said.
He estimated there were more than 50,000 vehicles in the country and another 100,000 containers of equipment. All of that needs to be removed before the last soldiers can come home.
"We've got lots of stuff," Stein said. "We're already getting after it."
The command, which oversees thousands of soldiers, airmen and sailors, already has been hard at work collecting equipment related to the surge in Afghanistan, which was completed earlier this year, officials said.
Troops in Afghanistan have begun collecting nonessential equipment and moving it from small combat outposts and forward operating bases to larger troop hubs in Bagram and Kandahar, where it can more easily be transported out of the country.
Stein said officials are making sure they aren't leaving troops ill-prepared and that every step is made to make sure those soldiers have everything they need to continue their jobs.
Meanwhile, officials are working on ways to get the excess equipment out of the landlocked country.
Flying it all out is too expensive, Stein said, and officials are working with neighboring countries on developing land routes to ports.
"What I don't want is for stuff to build up," he said. "If it does, we may never get out.
"You can only get so much out so fast," Stein said. "We're not getting out overnight."
Stein, who replaced Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dowd earlier this year, hit the ground running at Fort Bragg.
He took command on a Friday in July, and by that Monday, he was in Afghanistan.
In October, when Stein marked four months in command, his office at Fort Bragg still looked uninhabited. By his own count, it was only the fourth day he had spent in his office, which overlooks a courtyard in front of the 1st TSC headquarters. Stein splits time between Fort Bragg, Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and Afghanistan.
He said the withdrawal, like its Iraq counterpart, was a team effort, with multiple units and commands.
He said some lessons from Iraq are being applied, such as the techniques created to sort equipment and to account for chain of command.
The key, Stein said, is to remember the unique challenges.
"It is different," he said. "Iraq is not Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not Iraq."