Romanian Hub Used By U.S. Military Is In A Strategic Location There are 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 20,000 will head home shortly. Millions of them transited in and out through a base in Kyrgyzstan, until the government there didn't renew the lease.

Romanian Hub Used By U.S. Military Is In A Strategic Location

Romanian Hub Used By U.S. Military Is In A Strategic Location

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There are 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 20,000 will head home shortly. Millions of them transited in and out through a base in Kyrgyzstan, until the government there didn't renew the lease.


After a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, the NATO alliance has turned its attention this week to another conflict, the fighting in Ukraine and new tensions with Russia. Turns out these conflicts, old and new, are related. The standoff with Russia has complicated the work of ending the war in Afghanistan, specifically when it comes to bringing Americans home. There're some 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan; most will return to the United States by the end of the year. Here's NPR's Sean Carberry.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: For homebound troops, it can take hours or days just to get to this spot, the customs area at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul. Troops transit here from bases across the country. This night, it's the turn of the North Carolina National Guard's 211th Military Police Company to fly out of Afghanistan. Specialist Brian Alaneebra says this last day in country has seemed like forever.

BRIAN ALANEEBRA: I did a full body workout. I ate all three meals at chow. I played video games - like, every video game they had. I played pool. After that, I took a shower. Man, I'm telling you, I did everything. I took a nap. And I woke up after all of that and it was, like, four o'clock in the afternoon.

CARBERRY: And he still has hours to kill before checking in here. Staff Sergeant Wesley Barton says this is his third deployment. His first one to Afghanistan in 2001 was extended at the last minute, as was his tour in Iraq.

STAFF SERGEANT WESLEY BARTON: Right now, I'm just like - I'm kind of just waiting for the shoe to drop and say, OK, guys, get back on the bus. (Laughter).

CARBERRY: So basically, until you're on the plane, wheels up, you're not entirely convinced you're actually leaving?

BARTON: Exactly. But right now, it looks pretty promising. At least we have our baggage here now. (Laughter).

CARBERRY: After several hours of sitting and waiting, the troops grab their bags and head through customs and security and settle into their seats in the cavernous body of a C-17 cargo jet.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi, welcome aboard. We're going home to America.


CARBERRY: Their first stop will be near Constanta, Romania, at air base Mihail Kogalniceanu, which Americans call MK for obvious reasons.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Our flight time to Constanta is approximately five hours.

CARBERRY: That's double the flying time to Manas in Kyrgyzstan. Since December, 2001, more than 5 million U.S. and NATO troops flew through Manas. It closed this summer, after Kyrgyzstan, who had been under pressure from Russia, didn't renew the lease with the U.S. This spring, the U.S. shifted transit operations to MK in Romania, which is a NATO ally.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right, guys, we have exited Afghanistan.


CARBERRY: Were it not for the fact that we were speaking in the cockpit over headsets, you'd be able to hear pilot Lieutenant Colonel Todd McCoy explaining how MK is a vast improvement over Manas. It's about 2,000 miles closer to the U.S. The infrastructure is better, and there's less air traffic in and out of the airport, making landing much easier.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right, guys, welcome to Romania.

CARBERRY: These new arrivals will spend the next day or two here at MK, relaxing before continuing on to the U.S. Army Colonel Dave Brown is in charge of U.S. operations at the base, which is entirely owned by the Romanians. Besides being a vast improvement over the base in Kyrgyzstan, there's another reason that the U.S. decided to move transit operations to MK.

U.S. ARMY COLONEL DAVE BROWN: You can just look at a map of the region, and you can see what strategic value this location has.

CARBERRY: Romania borders Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been battling the pro-Western government. There have been a number of high-level U.S. visitors to MK in recent months. They've been exploring the long-term potential of the base.

BROWN: We're at a point where there are forces available because things are drawing down. So what are we going to do with them?

CARBERRY: U.S. Marines have been conducting training operations here since 2005. Under consideration now is basing more troops here and expanding joint NATO training missions. But for now, the focus at MK is getting troops moving through as efficiently as possible. Operating costs at MK are about a quarter of what they were at Manas, and the time troops spend on the ground waiting to transit has been cut almost in half.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: See you on the flip side.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Take care of yourself.

CARBERRY: As many as 2,000 soldiers and Marines can transit through MK in a day. The grounds look like a small, agricultural college in Iowa. The air is humid and fresh, with a faint bovine aroma. Private farmland bisects the base. Pot-bellied Romanian farmers graze their livestock around the perimeter. Troops here don't carry weapons or body armor.


CARBERRY: Instead, they spend time in the gym or the rec center, playing ping-pong or pool. After a couple of days of decompressing here, the 96th Transportation Company is getting ready to fly back to the U.S. Captain Wesley Fink is marshaling his troops through the passenger tent.

CAPTAIN WESLEY FINK: You know, it doesn't matter if you're gone for six months, eight months, first deployment, last appointment. You're always excited to go home. You know, you miss your family. You miss your kids. And you miss being able to just do whatever you want.

CARBERRY: He and his company go through customs and load onto busses to head to the air field.


CARBERRY: They slog their gear up the stairs into a charter 747 and settle in for the long flight back to the U.S. But this 747 didn't arrive empty. Though most troops are heading home, some are still deploying.


CARBERRY: And the next morning, new troops are on a C-17 flying to Afghanistan. Sean Carberry, NPR news.

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