TAMPA, Fla. — Two years ago, as commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III was marching against a strict Dec. 31, 2011, deadline to complete the largest logistical drawdown since World War II.
I t was a mammoth undertaking, involving troop redeployments and equipment retrogrades that had peaked at the height of coalition operations in 2007 and 2008. At that time, the United States had 165,000 service members and 505 bases in Iraq – all packed to the gills with everything from weapons systems and computers networks to bunking and dining facilities.
Austin had to reduce the force to zero, collaborating with U.S. Central Command to determine whether equipment should return to the United States or be transferred to the Iraqis or sent to Afghanistan to support the war effort there.
Centcom, in lockstep with U.S. Transportation Command and its service components, redeployed the 60,000 troops who remained in Iraq at the time and more than 1 million pieces of equipment ahead of their deadline.
Then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, commemorating the end of America's military mission in Iraq at a mid-December 2011 ceremony in Baghdad, praised Austin for conducting "one of the most complex logistical undertakings in U.S. military history."
"Your effort to make this day a reality is nothing short of miraculous," Panetta told Austin.
Today, as the Centcom commander, Austin is facing an even more-daunting challenge as he carries out a larger, more complex drawdown operation, in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's geography, weather and security situation and its limited transportation infrastructure present bigger obstacles than planners ever faced in Iraq, Scott Anderson, Centcom's deputy director for logistics and engineering, said during an interview at the command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base here.
Also, there's also no other combat operation to transfer the mountain of logistics to. Everything has to be transferred to the Afghans, sold to a partner nation, destroyed so it doesn't fall into the wrong hands, or returned to the United States, Anderson said.
First and foremost among the challenges is Afghanistan's landlocked location. There's no ready access to a seaport, and no Kuwait next door, providing an initial staging point for retrograde operations as it did during the Iraq drawdown.
"Kuwait was our 'catcher's mitt,'" Anderson said. "If you were to ask me how long it takes to retrograde out of Iraq, I would say as long as it takes to get across the border to Kuwait."
In contrast, there's no similar "catcher's mitt" for Afghanistan, he said. "Leaving Afghanistan, you can't just go next door to Pakistan or up into Uzbekistan and park. Once the movement begins, you have to keep moving, and the velocity continues until [the shipment] gets home to the U.S."
Outgoing shipments — about 1,000 pieces of rolling stock and more than 2,000 cargo containers per month — are moving primarily by air or through ground routes across Pakistan, Eastern Europe and Western Asia known as the Northern Distribution Network, Anderson reported.
When flying equipment out from Afghanistan,"multimodal transport" is the most-favored option. It involves an initial movement to one country, usually by air, then a transfer to another conveyance such as a ship for the rest of the trip.
The shortest and least-expensive ground routes out of Afghanistan pass through Pakistan to its port in Karachi. Centcom and Transcom used the "Pakistan ground lines of communication" for about 70 percent of Afghanistan-bound shipments until the Pakistan government abruptly closed them in November 2011 for seven months over a political dispute, Anderson said.
That forced the United States to make greater use of the Northern Distribution Network, an elaborate network of rail, sealift and trucking lines established in 2009, to sustain forces in Afghanistan, he said. It continues to provide about 80 percent of all sustainment operations.
With agreements in place to channel an ever-increasing amount of retrograde cargo through Pakistan, Anderson said Centcom is satisfied that it has ample capacity to support the drawdown.
But recognizing lessons learned, he said the United States wants to keep every possible exit route open to ensure no single "point of failure" can disrupt the effort. "If you lose a route, you lose capacity," he said. "So you keep your options open. That's why we look to maintain redundant routes and we want to keep those routes 'warm' by using them."
Yet for now, only about 4 percent of retrograde equipment is flowing through the Northern Distribution Network.
One reason, Anderson explained, is that the vast majority of U.S. forces now are operating in eastern Afghanistan, which is closer to Pakistan than the NDN. "The majority of our cargo simply isn't leaving the northern part of Afghanistan," he said.
To get it across Afghanistan to the NDN involves crossing the towering Hindu Kush mountain range — a logistical challenge that becomes monumental during the winter.
But there are other complications to making greater use of the Northern Distribution Network, particularly for many of the shipments that initially entered Afghanistan via Pakistan or by air, Anderson explained.
Some of the physical infrastructure simply can't accommodate the heavy equipment being moved. Many of the countries involved have strict rules about what kinds of equipment can and can't transit through their territory — with particular objection to weapons systems and combat vehicles. In some cases, nations will allow these shipments to cross into their borders — but only if the contents are covered.
"For retrograde, we have had to renegotiate agreements with all the Central Asian nations" that make up the Northern Distribution Network, Anderson said. "It may not be as viable as route as we would like, but the bottom line is, we need it."
Anderson said he's optimistic that the retrograde is on schedule to meet President Obama's directive that the current force — about 60,000 — reduce to 34,000 by February.
"Between now and February, we are going to have a substantial amount of cargo moved," he said. Calling the February deadline "achievable," he called it an milestone toward the Dec. 31 deadline.
Meanwhile, Centcom leaders recognize the operational requirements that continue in Afghanistan, including upcoming elections next spring.
"Some of the equipment that we would otherwise be retrograding must remain because there is an operational imperative there," Anderson said. "So in everything we do, we are working to maintain this balance between operations going on in Afghanistan — folks who need their vehicles and equipment — and our ability to retrograde."
Emphasizing that Centcom will continue to sustain forces on the ground throughout drawdown, Anderson said signs of the transition underway will become increasingly evident over time.
U.S. bases, which once numbered more than 600, are down to about 100, some closed but most now transferred to the Afghan National Security Forces. Much of the equipment is being shared as well, although strict U.S. laws dictate what kinds of equipment can be transferred to the Afghans or any other partners, Anderson noted.
There's another consideration to weigh: leaving equipment the Afghans can't maintain over the long haul does them no good. "If we know there will be challenges in maintaining what we give them, then giving them more equipment is not going to help," Anderson said.
Meanwhile, Centcom will strive to maintain the highest quality of life for U.S. forces on the ground throughout the drawdown, he said.
One seemingly small change, however, is sending a big signal of what's ahead. Rather than three hot meals each day, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are now getting Meals, Ready to Eat for their mid-day rations.
The idea, Anderson explained, is to use up what's already available in the theater, particularly when shipping it home costs more than it's worth.
"Every day, [Marine] Gen. [Joseph F.] Dunford [Jr., commander of U.S. and International Security Assistance Force troops in Afghanistan], sits down at lunch like everyone else and eats his MRE," Anderson said. "It sets a tremendous example." In a small way, he said, it sets the tone for the entire drawdown.
"We are doing the drawdown in a balanced way, and with concern about the taxpayers' money," Anderson said. "We want to do this in the most economical, most efficient way possible, without causing excess or waste."