RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The long war in Afghanistan has meant bringing in tons and tons of equipment. The winding down of America's involvement in that war means packing up much of that equipment. The number of containers to be moved out is in the six figures. And there's some question of whether that can be done by the end of 2014, when the NATO mission ends. NPR's Sean Carberry visited one base where troops are in spring cleaning mode.
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SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Forward operating base Frontenac sits in the jagged mountains, in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar Province. It's an area that saw a lot of action during the U.S. troop surge, but more and more of the action today is about sending stuff back to the U.S. - a mission the military calls retrograde.
The 2-3 Field Artillery arrived here in January, and they're now spending half their time on missions and half their time on retrograde. They have to clear out 25 percent of their containers, their excess ammo and nonessential equipment by April, when the fighting season begins. Logistics officer Capt. Michael Williams leads us to the motor yard on the base.
CAPT. MICHAEL WILLIAMS: What we're doing here is, we're working on retrograde of over 50 vehicles from our task force. These vehicles aren't being used in any of our missions so we're working on pushing them out of the country. We've already sent quite a few down to KAF.
CARBERRY: That's Kandahar Airfield, the main base and staging area in the province. From there, vehicles and containers are shipped out of the country - some by air but most overland, through Pakistan. That's one thing that makes the exit from Afghanistan so difficult. When the U.S. military left Iraq, they had what they called a catcher's mitt; in other words, U.S. bases in Kuwait. They could store equipment there, and move it out at a leisurely pace. But Pakistan isn't about to provide storage services, so everything has to ship out as quickly as possible.
WILLIAMS: Our role is basically, just getting it to the Kandahar Airfield so we can get it turned in and off our books.
CARBERRY: That's one of the old - it becomes the next person's problem.
WILLIAMS: More or less.
CARBERRY: Capt. Williams says they have come across a few surprises and oddities in their two months of cleaning up the base.
WILLIAMS: For example, one of these vehicles, we have to either tow it or HET it to KAF because it has no seatbelts.
WILLIAMS: So it's a safety issue, to drive it down there. We've never actually used this particular vehicle; it was just here, and the prior unit didn't really use it either. There's actually quite a bit of that across most of Afghanistan, you know; like, over 10 years of building these places up as - so many units have accumulated so much, as - like, we're walking down here; you can see that there are hundreds of containers on this FOB. When you actually go through these containers and look at them, there's junk. There's like, torn tents. There's one container full of busted bedframes.
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CARBERRY: Getting these containers and vehicles down to Kandahar is no easy task. It's a two- to four-hour drive, and that's assuming nothing breaks down along the way. Plus, IEDs and insurgent attacks are still a threat. On a chilly morning, a cavalry troop assembles to deliver two vehicles and a truckload of equipment to Kandahar. But the convoy didn't even make it off the base before one of the vehicles to be turned in broke down.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're down one of the TI vehicles, it's not accelerating. So we're going to go park that in line.
CARBERRY: So they set off without it. Once they get to Kandahar, it can take several days to complete the paperwork before they can return to their base and prepare the next load. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kandahar.
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