The Art of the Possible: Moving Mountains in Afghanistan

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Near the end of the summer in 1992, Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis, the logistical wizard behind the overwhelming coalition victory in the first Gulf War, published a book called Moving MountainsPart memoir, part leadership guide, the book described the gargantuan task of basically moving the population of Alaska, along with their stuff, halfway around the world on short notice. “Armies are a constellation of needs,” Pagonis wrote. “These needs are always numerous and complex, and sometimes contradictory.”

When the war was over and Iraqi forces had been driven from Kuwait, Pagonis then faced the equally colossal mission of retrograding (the military’s technically-sounding term for “bringing home”) all of the equipment the coalition had built up to support half a million troops. It was by no means an easy mission–they had to account for and clean thousands of vehicles and containers and pieces of equipment in the middle of the desert, get it all to a port and ship it home. As anyone who has spent time in the desert will tell you, sand gets in everything, so something as simple sounding as “cleaning” is a mission in its own right.

In late January and early February, I traveled to Afghanistan to report on the retrograde mission from this war. I spoke with dozens of people in the logistics process, both military and civilian, and Moving Mountains came up at least half a dozen times. I read the book as a young ROTC cadet and I remember being flabbergasted at what logisticians accomplished in that war. But as I saw the retrograde from Afghanistan, I realized that in 1991, they had two luxuries we don’t have now: time and space.

Time is self-explanatory. After the first Gulf War, logisticians didn’t have unlimited time to accomplish their mission, but they were not battling the drop dead timeline we face now. In Afghanistan, President Obama has set an end date for the war of Dec. 31, 2014. On that date, there will be somewhere between 8,000 and zero American troops left in the country, which means the overwhelming majority of the equipment must be gone.

By space, I don’t mean physical space (although the rolling desert of Saudi Arabia might be, in many ways, preferable to Afghanistan’s less than certain bridges, tunnels and roads). I mean tactical space. Logisticians in 1991 didn’t need to start retrograding until after the bullets stopped flying. In Afghanistan, the withdrawal is a constant balance between giving commanders what they need to keep fighting, with moving enough equipment to keep it all on schedule. Commanders are constantly evaluating the two missions and making progress on the movement, even as their main focus is on training Afghan forces to take over the fight.

In this week’s dead tree edition, (available to subscribers), you’ll find a longer piece about how American soldiers, airmen, sailors and contractors are accomplishing the retrograde. My partner on the journey from the remote reaches of Logar Province to the city-size colossus that is Bagram Airbase was acclaimed photographer Yuri Kozyrev. Some of his amazing photographs can be found here.

In the video at the top, you’ll meet two of the heroes of this mission. Major Adam Lackey, the executive officer of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, is one of the most talented and thoughtful officers I met in either my years in uniform or time reporting on the military. Though not a logistician (he is an infantry officer who has commanded conventional and Ranger units in both Iraq and Afghanistan), Lackey not only understood the retrograde process inside and out, he played a key role in the 173rd’s fight to get the momentum started.

Once the stuff reaches Bagram, most of it leaves the country by air. That is where Senior Airman Brittani Smith and her “Port Dogs” come in. Their job is to unload and load cargo airplanes. We spent part of one twelve-hour shift with her team where they downloaded 96,755 lbs of cargo in 53 minutes from a C-5 (the biggest cargo plane in the fleet), then uploaded 104,955 lbs of cargo in 37 minutes. They let do it all by hand, pushing, pulling and finagling 10,000-pound pallets on and off the cargo bay. They let me pitch in, and it’s an exhausting process, even for this 6-ft. 1-in. former football lineman. Smith is about 5-ft. 4-in. and never slowed down for a second. They are only two of the thousands of troops making the retrograde happen.

General Pagonis’s book is rightly cited by today’s logisticians for the lessons it captured from that great endeavor. Those hard at work in Afghanistan are keeping notes on lessons learned today, and I have no doubt that twenty years from now, logistics wizards in future conflicts will study this retrograde. Afghanistan is, after all, known as a logistician’s nightmare. Any one of the factors–landlocked geography, mountainous terrain, stubborn enemy or entrenched bureaucracy–would be enough to make withdrawal a challenge.

Add to that mountains of equipment amassed over a decade and it might seem an impossible mission. “The numbers look intimidating, but we’re a big organization,” says Brigadier Felix Gedney, a British exchange officer serving as deputy commanding general for transition in the 1st Infantry Division. “It’s in the art of the possible that it’s achievable.”