World News

08.01.14

Downsizing the War: Layoffs and Yard Sales in Afghanistan

The signs of a dying war are everywhere in Afghanistan. An officer serving there reports on the layoffs and yard sales that mark the strange last days of America’s longest war.

On July 8, a suicide bomber killed four Czech soldiers, two Afghan security forces, and at least 12 civilians a few miles outside Bagram Airfield. The bombing left another Czech soldier and eight others wounded. The U.N. reported that at least 10 of those killed, and six of the wounded, were children. The base called for blood donors, and the line of volunteers wrapped around the building within minutes.

The wounded Czech soldier succumbed to his injuries at a hospital in Prague on July 14.

The attack highlighted that the war in Afghanistan isn’t over, but as each blistering day of Ramadan fades into the next, the signs of a dying conflict are getting easier to spot. The massive drawdown of coalition forces is picking up, and the process carries many names: retrograde, transition, downsize, de-scope, withdrawal.

Military planners labor away at endless meetings, teleconferences, and presentations to form the best ways ahead for Operation Resolute Support, the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan. Uncertainty rides the air as decision makers await the results of the Afghan presidential runoff election and ink on a bilateral security agreement. For the troops, the message remains clear: Ignore the ambiguity, continue doing your jobs and don’t worry about the unknowns.

As small outposts across the country continue to close, more troops move onto the larger remaining bases. More people means tighter living conditions and maxed-out base services. More often now, troops wait in line for nearly everything.

And, logisticians on larger bases continue to battle the tons of equipment that keeps flowing in. The gear will either get sent home, be given to Afghan forces, reused somewhere else, or destroyed. On this base, there’s a row of Conexes—big metal shipping containers—units can visit to get excess supplies from closed outposts. The random goods at this warzone thrift store are constantly changing… primarily office and cleaning supplies. On our last visit, we noticed a whole pallet of Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Silver Star certificates. We joked about the untouched boxload of brand new snow shovels.

Recently, one base hosted a sort of yard sale, called a “White Goods” sale, where Afghans could purchase excess non-military equipment.

For the thousands of service members still working here, the realities of serving in a shrinking military resonate. Gone are the days of job stability as the effects of military drawdowns echo across the services. Like surplus gear, a couple services are getting rid of people too. In the past few weeks, the military has laid off some troops and sent them home early to begin an immediate transition back into civilian life. Others face career uncertainty and stagnation as promotion rates continue to drop for both enlisted and officers. In many ways we’re serving in a postwar military in the middle of war.

Troops face career uncertainty and stagnation as promotion rates continue to drop for both enlisted and officers. In many ways we’re serving in a postwar military in the middle of war.

Other hints at the changing war are less ominous, but obnoxious nonetheless. Many Americans imagining life in Afghanistan picture remote outposts where battle-weary soldiers live with Spartan conditions and constant firefights. That’s a reality for a minority of combat troops, but far from what life is like for most of us. The truth is that the long wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced sprawling bases with various amenities including shopping areas that resemble run-down suburban strip malls. It’s true that you could die from a rocket attack while enjoying your sandwich at a Subway in Afghanistan, but the reality of the war is that you get used to both the rockets and the skewed comforts of home.

When the fast-food restaurants shut down it’s a sure sign that the end of war isn’t far behind. Eateries like Kandahar’s T.G.I. Fridays and Bagram’s Popeye’s Chicken have shuttered their doors over the past few weeks. I’ve heard that some commanders have said they want the bases to get back to true expeditionary conditions.

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The other day, signs greeted people at some dining facilities notifying them that the “Midnight meal will consist of MREs, soup, beverages, leftovers, and sandwich bar.” This change will be an added hassle for some shift workers. Recently, the military decreased the variety of food at dining facilities as part of the effort to lessen the logistical challenges of the retrograde.

Despite these signs, the war continues. Earlier this week, I watched a planeload of newly arrived soldiers standing in lines outside the in-processing building. I looked at them from the other side of a chain-link fence. I noticed their new un-faded uniforms, their dust-free boots, and their duffel bags stacked high on a pallet. Some talked in small groups. Others looked at cellphones with no service, and a few just stood there waiting.

And, that’s what many of us are doing these days, waiting to see what comes next. Regardless, these are all reminders of just how strange dying warzones are. From the outside things appear largely intact, but with closer inspection the cracks are easy to find. On July 4th I saw a sign that read, “Let Liberty Bell Ring U.S. of America.” We’re keeping ourselves together, but the war is dismantling itself around us.

Nick Willard is the pen name of a military officer serving in Afghanistan. He’s previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or United States government.