KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The impending drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan is readily visible at the larger bases. Two years ago, Forward Operating Base Pasab in Kandahar was home to barely 800 soldiers. Now closer to 5,000 Americans and Afghan troops make do inside its perimeter, brought in from outposts that have been closed or turned over to Afghan security forces.
The burgeoning Kandahar Airfield is plagued by long lines at the chow halls, laundry machines and shops. The internet, never fast in Afghanistan to begin with, slows down more with every wave of soldiers that arrives; many have little work to do other than packing up.
Some bases recently turned over to the Afghans look abandoned—haunted, even. Forward Operating Base Lagman in Zabul, once the major American-Romanian base in the province, is now home to just a few companies of Afghan soldiers.
Dozens of dark, empty tents where US soldiers once slept now flap in the breeze, doors open to the spring dust storms. Air conditioners with crushed radiators, not worth hauling away, line the alleys between the tents, next to broken bedframes.
A rutted gravel plain lies on the former site of Lagman's bazaar — a collection of about ten small shops selling souvenirs, jewelry, cheap knives, Pashtun clothes, rugs, pirated DVDs and local drinks. Not a trace of the bazaar remains — the few Afghan soldiers there now don't have enough disposable income to keep the shops open.
"We hauled away a lot of the scrap metal and junk from Lagman before we did the handover, but the [Afghan soldiers] got upset with us," said Col. James Crider, commander of 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. "They said, 'scrap to you is cash to us.' Now we'll leave the scrap behind."
The bases are being renamed as they are handed over. FOB Lagman was originally named for Staff Sgt. Anthony Lagman, a soldier from Yonkers, N.Y. who was killed in action in 2004. The base's new Dari name roughly means "Sniper Striker Camp," but it may have lost something in the translation.
Of course, with a new mission comes new watch words. "Right-sizing" is the military jargon of the moment; it describes leaving Afghans with equipment and facilities that will meet their needs, without overburdening them with complex maintenance and training requirements. "Retrograde" is how one says "draw down operations" in Army-ese. When a soldier is seen standing idly, officers might yell, "Hey, go retrograde something!"
Right-sizing a base sometimes means moving the walls to make it smaller or larger, and it almost always means removing generators, air conditioners, surveillance cameras, weather stations — anything that would take more fuel than the Afghans can afford or more training than they will get. Some scanning equipment used at checkpoints has to be removed because its internal components are classified, and there are concerns that they could be reverse-engineered.
At FOB Pasab, soldiers are right-sizing the base by building a smaller base inside of it. When the building is complete and the US troops are ready to leave next year, they will demolish the outer walls and leave what remains for the Afghan soldiers and district officials.
Truly retrograding a base is a huge undertaking for US forces, so they prefer to hand bases over to Afghan troops whenever possible. A base the Afghans can't use has to be completely dismantled and bulldozed to the ground to prevent the Taliban from occupying it or making a propaganda film amid the ruins and claiming victory over a surge operating in retrograde.