KABUL — When U.S. Marines withdrew from Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan’s Helmand province last month, they faced a task that was something like cleaning out a stuffy attic covering 10 square miles. In a series of multibillion-dollar decisions, the Marines and Pentagon planners decided what stayed, what went and what got tossed into the trash or burned.
The Marines decided to leave 420,000 bottles of water, which if lined up end to end would stretch for more than 50 miles. They incinerated about 10,000 MREs (meals, ready-to-eat) that might have been used to feed Afghan troops but were nearing their expiration date.
More than 7,500 computers were destroyed or removed. But the television sets remained. What about the 1.6 million pounds of ammunition stored on the base? Afghan soldiers taking over will be lucky to find even a single live bullet.
The Marines’ departure from Leatherneck — the largest base closure to date of the United States’ longest war — offers a detailed look at the decisions U.S. military leaders are making as coalition forces withdraw from Afghanistan. Mindful of Afghan forces’ limitations — and seething over the Islamic State’s seizure of former American military compounds and equipment in Iraq — the forces departing Afghanistan appear to be stripping bases to the basics.
Although about 20,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, President Obama has promised to reduce that number to 9,800 by the end of the December, and all the troops are supposed to be gone by the end of 2016. So far this year, about 60 coalition bases have been closed or handed over to the Afghans. Twenty-five remain, including the sprawling Bagram and Kandahar airfields, and they will probably be turned over to Afghan control within two years.
“We are trying to figure out how to leave as little as possible in terms of infrastructure and equipment, but on the other hand giving them as much as they can handle,” said Marine Col. Doug Patterson, the logistics officer who managed the withdrawal from Leatherneck.
Before leaving Leatherneck, the Marines dismantled 300 buildings, flew out hundreds of armored vehicles and tried to use up vast stockpiles of fuel. What was left included concrete buildings and bunkers, generators, air conditioners, television sets and underground utilities.
Since January, about 600 million pounds of U.S. military equipment has been transported out of the country, including a total of 25,000 vehicles and 20-foot containers packed with materiel ranging from artillery pieces to coffee pots. The U.S.-led coalition plans to move out about 8,000 containers and vehicles before the new year, commanders said. The U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is expected to cost $5 billion to $7 billion, according to the U.S. Central Command.
“It’s been a very steady glide path,” said Lt. Col. Michelle Ager, an Australian who heads the international coalition’s Redeployment Cell. “We are nearly where we need to be to conduct” the post-2014 mission.
Patterson and Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commander of the coalition’s joint command, said concerns that the Taliban might do in Afghanistan what the Islamic State did in Iraq are a minor factor in the decision-making. U.S. military leaders say their choices are based on efficiency, cost to American taxpayers and the ability of Afghan forces to maintain hand-me-downs.
Maj. Gen. Sayed Malik Malook, commander of the Afghan army unit that took over Camp Leatherneck, said he was satisfied with what remained.
“They left behind lots of televisions, and that is enough for us,” Malook said. “Things like MRAPs [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles], we can’t maintain that stuff because we don’t have the workshop and we don’t have the spare parts.”
But some Afghan commanders say they have felt slighted by coalition forces elsewhere.
“They left behind a generator, two containers and some gym equipment like weights, which were usable,” said a commander at a Kandahar base that was handed over to Afghan forces this year. He commented on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “But they took the things that we really needed, like their radios and Internet systems.”
“In another nearby base, they left just a few tents,” he added.
The closure of Camp Leatherneck vividly illustrated the choices Pentagon leaders are making as they pass responsibility for security to the Afghan military, which is struggling against a resurgent Taliban.
Worried that the Afghans wouldn’t be able to maintain a base built to accommodate 26,000 people, the Marines sold many wooden and metal buildings on the scrap market to shrink the base to one that can house 10,000 people.
One of the buildings left standing is a 64,000-square-foot, $28 million command-and-control structure — constructed for U.S. forces but never used — that became a symbol of Pentagon excesses during the war.
“It’s basically bare-bones but has lights and power,” Patterson said. “We did put some furniture in there.”
Of the 298 concrete buildings left standing, many are still equipped with air conditioners and generators. Marines also trained Afghan troops on how to use and maintain water wells and the sewage system.
But the Marines removed all the computers from the base, even those that did not handle classified material. A Marine spokeswoman said 1,800 were flown out of Afghanistan.
One Marine even tossed his $500 Xbox game system in the trash because he was unable to take it with him.
“If you leave it, then you have to help take care of it,” Patterson said of the decision not to leave computers.
In all, Patterson said, 16,000 pieces of major equipment were removed from Leatherneck, requiring 2,000 sorties in just the last 22 days of the Marines’ mission. Among the items were hundreds of MRAPs and other armored vehicles, which they quietly flew out of Afghanistan in early October.
During their final days on the base, located in one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces, Marines were left with beat-up trucks and all-terrain vehicles. The base’s quick-reaction force, a heavily armed contingent designated to respond to a Taliban assault or a similar emergency, rode around in a white minivan. The Marines had as much fuel as they needed to get out of Helmand, Patterson said.
The Marines made sure that the base’s vast stockpile of ammunition was gone before Afghan troops took control. About half was blown up on site; the rest was flown to the United States or to military depots in Kuwait or other parts of Afghanistan. The last 873 Marines to leave the base carried out about 103,000 rounds of ammunition.
Patterson said U.S. commanders are particularly worried that Afghan forces will be overwhelmed with maintenance responsibilities if too much materiel is left behind.
“If you give them too much, then they become a garrison force focused on infrastructure instead of the people and ensuring that the country is safe,” Patterson said. “There was a lot of discussion: Do we leave everything or take everything down to desert?”
The office of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, which is investigating the military’s procedures for handing over bases and excess equipment, says Congress has appropriated $66 billion to the Defense Department since 2002 to support Afghan security forces.
John F. Sopko, the inspector general, wrote a letter last month to senior Pentagon leaders seeking greater clarity about which items were being handed over to Afghan forces and which were being destroyed or flown home. He cited an August Washington Post story about items that were being sold at auction in Afghanistan for just pennies on the dollar.
According to a CENTCOM statement, “equipment still required to meet current and future military needs” is being returned to the United States, but “unneeded equipment will be offered to Afghan forces if the equipment meets the needs of Afghan forces.” Equipment determined to be of no use to the Afghans is being offered to U.S. allies or “disposed of in Afghanistan,” the statement said.
Shortly before Marines departed Leatherneck, commanders discovered about 10,000 MREs, which Patterson said cost about $6 each.
Although the cash-strapped Afghan military usually feeds its soldiers just rice and vegetables for lunch, Patterson said the MREs were burned because officials feared Afghan troops wouldn’t be able to eat them before the expiration date. (Afghan troops are also hesitant to eat American-prepared food for fear that it might contain pork products.)
But the Marines did leave the dining hall, as well as all those bottles of water.
Bottled on site over the years, the water left by the Marines was added to a stockpile of 3 million bottles left by departing British forces, a Marine spokeswoman said.
The water may come in handy, however, if the 1,800 Afghan troops who are expected to live at Camp Leatherneck decide to take up weight-lifting. The Marines left at least 14 fully equipped gyms to help Afghan soldiers bulk up for the continuing fight against the Taliban.
“They say they are going to work out,” Patterson said. “Now whether they actually do or not, we’ll see.”