U.S. troops from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division build a base in Parwan Province, Afghanistan in 2010. Photo: U.S. Army
Here’s how you know the Afghan surge really is coming to an end: The U.S. Army is starting to pack up its stuff, close its bases and begin the arduous logistical work of downsizing in Afghanistan.
The move follows years of extensive construction all around Afghanistan before and during the surge. But as the transition to a downsized force heavily dependent on special operations troops continues — and effectively establishes the contours of a desired residual troop presence — that construction may not actually stop.
The Army wants to assemble what it calls “Base Closure Assistance Teams” to reduce the U.S.’ footprint in the country. The six- to 12-person teams will “facilitat[e] the retrograde process by coordinating the logistics and deconstruction of bases in the Combined/Joint Operations Area-Afghanistan,” according to a solicitation that will formally be released on Monday.
About 10,000 of the surge troops have either been reassigned to other areas of Afghanistan or sent out of the country since July 2011. (The remaining 23,000 augmentees are scheduled to leave by Oct. 1, leaving a force of 68,000.) Their facilities — the bases dotting Afghanistan, particularly in the south and east — have largely remained untouched until now. Representatives from the war command and the Pentagon could not recall a significant teardown of bases.
Tearing down bases isn’t necessarily an indicator of departure. Upon becoming the war’s commander in 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal actually closed bases in parts of eastern Afghanistan, far from population centers, in preparation for the 2010 surge. That was followed by a departure from the treacherous, bloody Korengal Valley in Konar province, immortalized in the classic war documentary Restrepo. In the midst of the surge, Maj. Gen. John Campbell, then the commander in eastern Afghanistan, shut down the combat outposts in the Pech Valley near Pakistan, where U.S. troops fought and bled for little strategic reason.
It’s unlikely that major bases will be affected by the closure. The giant Bagram air field, a central logistics hub about an hour’s drive from Kabul, has gotten supersized in recent years. As elite commandos become central to the U.S.’ strategy for a residual force, special operations forces are building a new Joint Operations Center at Kandahar air field in the south. Rumor has it that the ongoing negotiations with President Karzai on that residual presence will emphasize the U.S.’ desire to retain control of the bases at Bagram, Kandahar and Jalalabad — major hubs for drones in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — and perhaps a lesser-known but large base in Khost Province called Salerno.
Still, the base closure teams are among the first tangible signs that troop drawndowns in Afghanistan are about to go from rhetoric to reality. With the war seemingly careening from crisis to crisis to crisis, that probably can’t come soon enough for the 54 percent of Americans who want out faster than President Obama has ordered.