Leaving Afghanistan will not be easy

But the U.S. military knows how to exit hostile environments, and it's time to get out

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One drama to watch this year and next will be the efforts of the U.S. military to withdraw 66,000 troops and 600,000 pieces of equipment valued at an estimated $28 billion out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

There are reasons to hope this can be accomplished with success. The first is that America recently withdrew its forces and equipment from Iraq. The second is that withdrawal is something that U.S. military officers study thoroughly. It is a basic part of military education.

Afghanistan presents unique challenges, though, as it always has to any military force unwise enough to install itself there and then try to leave. Examples are the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in our own times.

Below I describe some of the problems the United States will face in leaving Afghanistan this year and next. But none of them should serve as a reason not to withdraw. For instance, the U.S. military may look for reasons to stay, citing the need for more training of Afghan forces, Afghan willingness to sign commercial contracts with U.S. defense firms, reluctance on the part of the Afghan government to face the Taliban alone or the difficulties of getting U.S. troops out in one piece.

One of the problems with withdrawal is the sheer bulk of stuff that the United States has dragged into Afghanistan over the past 12 years. This includes 40,000 large vehicles, such as tractor-trailers and tankers, mine-resistant troop transports and infantry fighting vehicles.

A second problem is that the roads in Afghanistan are terrible and vehicles traveling on them are easily attacked by Taliban and bandits.

A third problem is that Afghanistan is landlocked. When I was involved in withdrawing military forces from a hostile environment in Somalia, everything could be folded up toward the Indian Ocean beaches and hauled away by ship. No such luck with Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, there are three bad ways out. Most U.S. military equipment in Afghanistan was brought in through Pakistan. Much else was flown in, and some was moved through the "Northern Distribution Network."

The Pakistan route presents a particular problem now because the Pakistanis are very cross with the United States due to military actions carried out inside Pakistan that have killed Pakistanis, both civilians and some military personnel. The operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden is the best known example, although U.S. drone attacks, while killing perhaps thousands of possible terrorists, also have killed a number of innocent Pakistanis.

In addition, some Pakistanis have made a lot of money hauling American gear into Afghanistan and, seeing Santa preparing to ascend the chimney, will try to extract substantial amounts of money to haul U.S. materiel down to Pakistani ports once the U.S. withdrawal begins. They have closed the border "for political reasons" before. There is no reason to believe they won't do it again, for whatever combination of political and commercial motives.

The Northern Distribution Network also presents stunning problems. For one, it isn't exactly a network. It is a tortuous route that runs up from Afghanistan into neighboring Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan and then into Russia before it reaches any countries that could be called relatively hospitable. The northern route is long and expensive. It also unfortunately begins with a tunnel in Afghanistan that goes through the Hindukush mountain range. I'm not kidding.

It's too late to say we should have thought of how we were going to get out of Afghanistan before we sent so many people and so much stuff there. Now, U.S. leaders and especially taxpayers would not look kindly on leaving expensive, modern, sophisticated military equipment behind. That would be a waste, we may need it and it wouldn't be wise to leave it behind for Afghans to use against each other or to sell.

I have seen all of this before. When I was U.S. ambassador and special envoy to Somalia, the United Nations decided that efforts to get the Somalis to stop fighting each other and form a government had reached such a pass that it was time to pull out the 18,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force. It was composed of a doughty combination of troops from Bangladesh, Botswana, Egypt, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, and they had brought in the usual collection of tanks, armored cars, artillery and trucks.

The Somalis -- militias, bandits, political figures and warlords -- took the position that the United Nations had brought all this stuff into their country, so now it belonged to them. The various U.N. contingents certainly did not agree. I remember an Indian general sitting in my office and saying, "When the Indian Army withdraws it does not leave a single pin behind."

In the end, with some of the U.N. forces deathly afraid of the Somalis, the United States sent several thousand U.S. Marines to cover the withdrawal of U.N. troops. It was accomplished safely -- if I recall correctly, without the loss of a single U.N. soldier. Little if anything in terms of materiel was left behind. We told the Somalis in advance that our Marines would kill them if they interfered.

This is to say that it can be done, that the U.S. military knows how to do it and that the rest of us have every reason to expect them to get it done in Afghanistan -- despite the difficult circumstances.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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