Getting Out Of Afghanistan

By the time we thought about leaving Afghanistan, we’d been tossing gear into the country for more than a decade. This is the story of how we moved out.

Getting Out Of Afghanistan
A burn pit at Forward Operating Base Goode.

The convoy of army trucks, cranes, and flatbeds has been chugging its way under cover of darkness through the craggy mountains of eastern Afghanistan for hours. Now just a few miles from its destination, an outpost in the town of Chamkani, a stone’s throw from the border with Pakistan, the sun is beginning to uncloak the convoy’s movements. The gunners are swiveling back and forth atop armored trucks, searching the steep mountain walls for signs of an ambush. Combat engineers at the front of the line—the bomb hunters, known as sappers—scour the road for signs of IEDs. The soldiers are pretty sure they’re going to get hit. They just don’t know when.


No one in this convoy is looking for a fight. They’re mostly logistics guys, the United Van Lines of the U.S. Army. Their mission is to pack up the last of the gear from Combat Outpost Chamkani so that the place can be handed over to the Afghan army. America’s longest war is over for U.S. troops for the most part. All these guys want to do is bug on out.

Too bad the enemy around here doesn’t care. As long as there are Americans in the area, they’re going to keep hunting. When the Soviets tried to leave in the 1980s, the mujahideen trapped soldiers on narrow mountain roads just like this one and massacred them. Today’s insurgents have even more reason to attack. They’ve got PR points to score—every successful attack on the Americans moves them up the global jihadist scoreboard.

The sappers halt the convoy. They want to reconnoiter a patch of road on foot, maybe peek into a culvert to see if the Taliban have left them a present. The soldiers further back are on guard. Military intelligence officers warned them there’s a fighter around here who can hit convoys from the mountainsides. A few months ago, he slammed a round into a truck belonging to another unit, slicing a soldier in two. Not moving like this, the soldiers are sitting ducks. As the sappers inspect the road, the gunners keep scanning the mountain walls. Not finding anything, the sappers climb back into their trucks. The soldiers up and down the column let out a collective breath as the trucks start rumbling forward again.


And that’s when they get hit.

Leaving Afghanistan has become one of the most difficult operations the U.S. military has ever undertaken. “Certainly in our lifetime, it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest operation in terms of complexity, size, and cost,” said Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason, who headed Army logistics until he retired last year. A Pentagon official called it a “nightmare,” and the colonel in charge of packing up Afghanistan last year called it “a logistics Super Bowl.”

Packing up a war is never easy. Anyone who’s ever moved house can relate. There inevitably comes a moment when you stare at all your stuff and wonder, What is all this crap? The process of dealing with it all—deciding what to take, what to post to Craigslist, and what to simply toss out on the curb—can overwhelm even the sturdiest of souls. When it came to packing up Afghanistan, the military had that problem on steroids.


What began in 2001 as a special operations mission to go after Al Qaeda progressively expanded to become a full-scale war. Along the way, we spread out across the country, building up more than 500 bases and outposts. And these weren’t flimsy M*A*S*H-style encampments either. They were small villages and medium-size towns, as well as giant bases that could rival small American cities. They had roads and streets and the equivalent of city blocks, packed with wooden structures and cement buildings, trailers, and three-story-high, industrial-grade hangars. There were dining facilities packed with hot lines and short-order grills, salad bars and sandwich bars, and glass-fronted refrigerators crammed with sodas, sports drinks, and even flavored soy milk. The gyms had weights and treadmills and stationary bikes. On the larger bases, you could shop at stores, eat popcorn at a makeshift movie theater, and get your hair done at beauty parlors where 300-pound men dipped their fingers into manicure bowls.

And then there was the actual military gear. Command centers packed with arena-style seating, video-conferencing systems, and giant screens for monitoring the war. First-aid stations and hospitals outfitted with operating theaters, CT scanners, and MRI machines. And miles of generators to power it all. Along with traditional weaponry, like howitzers, mortars, and Apache helicopters, we dispatched miniature robots, thermal imagers, electronic listening systems, and blimps to keep watch over bases. And drones—big ones flown by pilots back in the States and small ones so easy to operate that young grunts could launch them single-handedly from remote outposts.

We tossed in vehicles too. We shipped over thin-skinned Humvees, and then armor to fortify them. When those proved no match for IEDs, we sent out new armored trucks called MRAPs (for “mine-resistant, ambush protected”). And then we spun out several generations of those as well. We brought over backhoes, cranes, excavators, and earth movers. SUVs and John Deere Gators. Container handlers with tires as big as a man and giant claws that could hoist shipping containers. We had 52,000 vehicles over there. If you took all of those and lined them up across the U.S., in a convoy, they would stretch from Los Angeles to Boston.


All of this piled up. “We basically had been shipping equipment into Afghanistan for 13 years and had taken very little out,” said General Dennis Via, commander of U.S. Army Materiel Command. By the time we thought about leaving, we’d been tossing stuff into the country for more than a decade. Now we had to go into the metaphorical basement and figure out what it all was and what we were going to do with it.

And we had a deadline. NATO and Afghanistan had agreed that the bulk of foreign combat troops—and their gear—would be out of the country by December 31, 2014. U.S. planners started thinking about the problem in 2011. Three years might sound like plenty of time to pull it all off—until you consider the innumerable obstacles in our way: the crappy roads, the forbidding winters, the insufficient numbers of local flatbeds available for lease, and the lack of viable exit routes—not to mention the people who were trying to kill us every step of the way. Spin the globe, and you could not have found a more difficult place to leave. They don’t call Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires” for nothing. Many outsiders before us, including the Soviets as well as the British, have found it deceptively easy to enter and almost impossible to leave.

This is the story of the huge effort involved in getting us out of Afghanistan, a process the military calls “retrograde.” It begins in the fall of 2013, when bases across the country were being folded up and handed over to the Afghans. The journey follows three convoys that moved gear from an outpost at the far edge of the country to bases progressively inward, and on up to Bagram Airfield, from which it left the country altogether. We in the media are eager to cover the exciting beginnings of wars, and the bloody middles. We’re not as good at showing you what’s involved in shutting a war down. But we should—after all, you’re paying for all this.


When it comes to the cost of war, the numbers tossed around are so large that they start to lose meaning. $686 billion is the total cost of the war in Afghanistan, so far, according to the Congressional Research Service. But who can picture what that really means? If we take it down to a single convoy, however, it becomes more manageable. How much did it cost to move that load from Chamkani: four shipping containers, two refrigerator trucks, four generators, a fuel blivet, a fuel pump, a forklift, an old Humvee, and assorted other items? Fast Company‘s rough calculation suggests that convoy alone—a mere 72-mile round trip from Leg 1 of our trip—used at least $403,000 in resources. Overall, we’re estimating that the entire effort to pack us up cost at least $28 billion (for a detailed explanation, read this). That’s as much as we spent on the war in the first year alone. It’s not an official number. The military doesn’t have one. It doesn’t track its spending that way. But we’ll show you how that number was derived as the story unfolds.

What’s made getting out of Afghanistan harder, more dangerous, and more expensive is that while the military is genius at optimizing everything involved in winning battles, it’s not as good at setting itself up for a smooth and efficient exit. “It’s like any large organization,” said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank. “The focus is on the cool things, not the enablers.” Historically, less energy has been invested in capturing lessons about how to leave a war than how to win one. As one Army historian told me when I asked for details on previous demobilizations, “It’s just not a well-studied topic.”

We ended up having more supplies on the ground in Afghanistan than we really needed and therefore more to pack up. We scrambled to set up the right systems to move everything home. And the deficiencies in our inventory processes meant we spent a lot of time simply trying to locate gear.


In the end, the military did manage to pull it off. And it was a noteworthy feat. Some of it was due to the on-the-ground innovation by the troops (and civilians) handed this dog’s breakfast of a task. Some of it was due to lessons learned in Iraq’s wake, where planners struggled to get their arms around the task of packing up a theater. Some of it was just due to sheer brute force. But some of the pain and expense could have been avoided if the military as an institution thought as strategically about how to wrap up a war as it does about developing new weapons systems or mastering battlefield strategy.

Leg 1: GDZ – CMK

Combat Outpost Chamkani must have had one of the most beautiful views in all of Afghanistan. The snug outpost was set on the side of a hill overlooking an emerald green valley with dramatic mountains jutting up on either side. Like many posts along the border, it started as a special operations encampment designed to interdict fighters sneaking over the border. It grew into a forward operating base, full of regular soldiers trying to win hearts and minds and trainers trying to whip the Afghan army and police into shape. In its final days, it collapsed back into a small outpost, with just a few barracks, a first-aid station, a command center, a kitchen, a chow hall, and two laundry sheds. By the fall of 2013, the bulk of its gear had been sent out already, by convoy and helicopter. Now Able Company, a unit of the 1-506 battalion of the 101st Airborne, was waiting for this last run so they could finally dispatch the remainder of their gear and go home.

The trip would start 36 miles west, at Forward Operating Base Goode, the 1-506’s headquarters. The afternoon before the run, about 30 soldiers gathered outside Goode’s command center, more than 7,000 feet above sea level and lying in the shadow of two crumbling fortresses said to have belonged to Alexander the Great’s armies. On the ground was a sand table, about 8 feet by 15 feet. Mounds of dirt indicated key mountain peaks. The route the convoy would take circled between them. The few places where helicopters could land to evacuate wounded troops were clearly marked. “If you take one or more casualties,” one of the officers said, “move to the HLZ and then call medevac.”


The soldiers had two definite threats on their minds, along with a theoretical third. There was the shooter, of course. But there was also an IED maker. He hadn’t been heard from recently, but he had the skills to make the giant bombs capable of sending the 18-ton MRAPs into the air and twist them around like Silly Putty. And then there was the possibility of a ground ambush. The Americans didn’t think the insurgents had the numbers to pull one off, but it couldn’t be ruled out.

Earlier in the war, logistics teams like the one supporting the 1-506, Echo Company, handled this kind of trip on their own. But now, in the waning days of the war, no one headed out alone. The generals didn’t want to lose any more lives this late in the game. “Every time I leave the wire, I assume I’m in enemy territory,” Echo Company’s commander, Capt. Kinard Egleton, told me.

And so the sappers would head out ahead of the main body, and an infantry unit would come along as muscle. The logisticians would follow behind, with half a dozen Afghan flatbeds hired from local trucking companies to help with the hauling. (The Army didn’t have enough trucks of its own.) An explosive ordnance team—EOD, or The Hurt Locker guys—would come along to handle any bombs. Overhead, drones would look for signs of ambush. Apache helicopters would stand ready to pound lead into anyone who attacked the convoy. Fighter jets would either circle above or be on deck nearby, in case someone needed a 500-pound bomb dropped on them. Medevac choppers would be at a base nearby.


It was a Monday, and the convoy was supposed to head out in the middle of the night. But that evening, after lightning flashed above the high mountain passes between Goode and Chamkani, the trip was postponed. Helicopters could not fly when the clouds were low. Storms delayed the trip for two more nights. Then, late Thursday, the troops got the word: They were a go. The soldiers donned their body armor, slapped their magazines into their rifles, and, shortly after midnight, fired up their trucks.

Despite the short distance—the equivalent of a drive from San Francisco to Palo Alto or Boston to Gloucester—it would take the trucks at least seven hours to creak their way along the rudimentary roads. Sappers looking for IEDs move particularly slowly. They have to suss out anything that looks like a disturbed patch of road or a wire leading to a manual trigger.

The convoy trudged along at a decent pace. An hour from Chamkani, the engineers still hadn’t found any bombs. Maybe the IED maker had moved away. Maybe he’d been killed. Maybe he’d just stopped putting bombs out there, now that the fight had been handed over to the Afghans and the Americans weren’t out on the roads as much. Shortly after daybreak, the sappers had finished their dismounted sweep. They climbed back into their trucks and set off again. And then whistle, and BOOM.


A round slammed into one of the sappers’ trucks. As the drones and choppers scrambled to find the shooter, the guys on the ground went into combat mode. The soldiers inside the truck that had been hit did a quick head count. One guy had shrapnel cuts on his neck and arm. Gunners on the surrounding vehicles searched the mountainsides for more incoming, but none came. As he had done before, the shooter fired just a single round and then melted back into the landscape.

The damaged truck was hooked up to a good one, and the convoy moved quickly to Chamkani. Once there, choppers arrived to evacuate the guys from the truck that had been hit. (They’d need to be checked for concussions.) Meanwhile, the logistics guys started working on the gear: the shipping containers, the refrigerator trucks, the generators, and the other items. Some of it had been laid out on the helicopter landing zone next to the outpost. Some of it was in a yard below. Afghan soldiers from the base next door watched as the soldiers craned and drove and forklifted the equipment onto the flatbeds, and the Afghan drivers secured the loads onto their rickety trucks. Three hours later, the convoy was ready to go. It set off back down the road, in the same order it’d taken on the way over. The engineers left first, followed by the infantry. Choppers and drones flew overhead. The Afghan trucks and the logistics guys followed. They made it back to Goode shortly after dark.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne awaiting an airlift out of COP Chamkani.

Able Company stayed at Chamkani for the next few days to shut down the remainder of the outpost. The last day, only a few odds and ends remained: a fan, some kind of machine that had been used to work on trucks, some cables, a shipping container full of Meals Ready to Eat. Soldiers from the Afghan base next door came over to pick up boxes of medical supplies—bandages, ointments, a pair of crutches—things not worth endangering U.S. lives to ship out. Other soldiers walked more Afghans over to the shipping container containing the MREs.


Two local Afghan workers who did odd jobs on the outpost were instructed to take a mallet to the fan. Then it, the cables, and the other odds and ends were taken to a burn pit. The Afghan commander next door had asked for the cables, but Able’s commander had dodged the question. The soldiers told me there were things like these they couldn’t leave for the Afghan army. Anything with a motor. Anything cylindrical. Anything with wire in it. “If we give it to them,” one of the soldiers said of the cable, “they’ll sell it in the bazaar, and it will end up in IEDs.”

That night, the soldiers stepped out of the outpost one last time. Two giant Chinook helicopters were on the way to come pick them up and fly them out for good. As they stood there in the dark, a handful of Afghan officers stepped into the outpost, which now belonged to them. Soon sounds of chaos drifted out onto the landing zone. The men of Able Company could hear the Afghans banging through the buildings, shouting to each other, and turning things over, as they raced to discover if the Americans had left anything else behind.

The military doesn’t tabulate the costs of in-country convoys—not the way a moving company in the private sector would. It tracks globally how much it spends on things like fuel and maintenance, but not the costs of any individual type of operation. “The vehicles are making trips all the time,” Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told Fast Company. “It would have been extraordinarily difficult to parse out that this particular container is going to Bagram for retrograde and this other one for some other purpose.”


Still, for a sense of scale, we wanted to figure out how much a convoy like the one to Chamkani might cost if it were being calculated by a private company. We were aiming for a ballpark estimate, if nothing else. The best tool we could find was the average soldier in Afghanistan’s fully loaded day rate—$3,562. That’s not pay. That’s the cost of everything required to support the troops in country—the food, the barracks, the vehicles, the fuel, the latrines, even the movie theaters and recreation centers. We multiplied that by the number of troops we estimated would have participated on a run like this—113—and we came up with a total of $403,000. (And, of course, this doesn’t include the costs in lives lost or injuries sustained. We asked a U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan for those numbers, but he said they don’t split out combat casualties by type of operation.)

Here are some of the elements used on a 36-mile logistics run to pack up a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan. The configuration of each convoy varied according to the threats faced on the ground. But as Colonel Ken Dyer, who oversaw retrograde operations in Afghanistan last year, told Fast Company, “Every one of them was handled as a combat operation.” You made the assumption, he said, that you were going to get attacked. Illustrations by MGMT.

That’s just to haul some bunk beds, generators, shipping containers, and assorted other items 36 miles. And the run to Chamkani was one of thousands the military had to do over the past three years to empty out the country. According to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, we had enough gear in the country to fill 62,000 shipping containers. Picture for a moment more than 500 bases spread out across the country, with a spider web of veins slowly ferrying equipment inward toward progressively larger nodes until finally reaching Bagram or one of the other super bases serving as staging areas for gear leaving the country. That’s the level of activity that’s been taking place all across the country for the past three years, just to get us home.


Every other U.S. war has ended before we moved out. “In past operations, we’ve concluded combat operations, and then we’ve begun to retrograde,” said Army Materiel Command’s Via. Logisticians could move about without worrying about being attacked. And many wars at least had a front line. Not so in Afghanistan. Colonel Ken Dyer, who managed retrograde operations on the ground in 2014, said, “Every single convoy was handled as a combat operation.”

Leg 2: GDZ – SHK

Gear from two other outposts, in addition to Chamkani, flowed into a collection yard at FOB Goode—as did gear from Goode itself, which was also closing down. Anything that wasn’t worth risking U.S. lives to ship out would be sold directly to local scrap vendors: filing cabinets, gym equipment, and assorted other metal objects.

A team of reservists from Puerto Rico had been sent in to help the 1-506 pack up. They were part of the CENTCOM Materiel Recovery Element (CMRE), a new unit created in 2012 after the struggles of leaving Iraq. Historically, combat units on the ground were responsible for packing up their gear when they were done with a mission. But since the units on the ground in Iraq, and now Afghanistan, were still consumed with fighting, the military sent in more than 4,000 extra soldiers and civilians just to enable the military to make it out in time to hit the looming deadline.

Echo Company kept track of what needed to be moved on and scheduled loads for the next stop on the road out, FOB Shank, an 8,000-person logistical hub halfway between the border and Bagram. The convoy from Goode to Shank was mercifully short—usually—only about two and a half hours. It was good news for me, since I was tagging along. There’s one small problem with convoys: Once you step inside a vehicle, you can’t get out until you reach your destination. Certainly not for a bathroom break. The guys don’t care, of course. When nature calls, they just pull out an empty water bottle. It’s more complicated for women. For convoys, I resorted to what some military pilots call “tactical dehydration.” I stopped drinking 12 hours ahead of time. It was the only way I could have confidence I wouldn’t suddenly have to go once we were on the road.

The actual distance between Goode and Shank was only about 27 miles. The road was “hardball”—or paved—which left fewer places for insurgents to plant IEDs. But it crossed over a steep ridge with nail-biting switchbacks. It was tricky territory for the mammoth trucks that would be driving the route this night. By winter, when gray skies dropped snow and ice over the mountains, this road could become impassable.

The trucks lined up in a yard near the top of Goode in pitch darkness. Why no lights? Bases often observed nighttime blackout protocols, to make it harder for insurgents to hit them with mortars or rockets. Inside the trucks, soldiers were running pre-trip checks.

Myriad systems had been built into the trucks. They had Blue Force Trackers, a GPS-networked system that showed the location of every nearby “friendly” on an iPad-size monitor bolted to the front passenger dashboard. A long convoy would show up as a string of blue dots. Click on one and you’d see what unit they were from. You could even use the system to communicate with the other vehicles via chat.

Other large metal boxes covered in knobs and switches were stuffed in the back. There were jammers to disable radio signals that could be used to detonate IEDs, and a sensor that identified the origination point of a rifle shot or RPG launch. The unconventional nature of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq forced the military into a nonstop R&D tear in search of better ways to protect troops against small-scale enemies with unorthodox tactics. As the tools came online, they were cobbled into the trucks Frankenstein-style. So now, although the trucks looked huge from the outside, inside, they were quite cramped.

As we waited to leave, I asked John McNerney, Echo Company’s First Sergeant, how planning one of these missions differed from planning a similar move back in the States. “It’s pretty much the same,” McNerney said. Then he caught himself. It was pretty much the same, except, back in the States, they didn’t need to tap the Intelligence guys for details on who was likely to attack them. There were no combat engineers, attack helicopters, or surveillance drones flying overhead. As for the medevac choppers on standby, that was actually pretty standard, McNerney said. You never knew when some knucklehead 20-year-old was going to roll a truck.

Tonight’s cargo was the equivalent of a Goodwill run—a bunch of boxes, spare machines, and excess parts—loaded onto two massive flatbeds. The trucks were also towing four excess MRAPs. Newer models would head back to the States. Older models were often destined for destruction at the scrap heaps here in Afghanistan. (Yes, we were moving stuff so it could be dismantled.) These trucks had been built specifically to withstand the dangers of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military didn’t think it needed as many of them going forward. There was no point in paying as much as $100,000 to ship the beasts home when they would never be used.

A wrecker was also coming along, a heavy-duty version of your trusty neighborhood tow truck. If a vehicle got hit or just broke down, the soldiers would not leave it behind. They couldn’t allow insurgents to get their hands on the technology inside.

Items at turn-in yards were sorted into about a dozen categories, such as medical goods, spare parts, and hazardous materials.

By 1 am, we were ready to go. I made one last porta-potty run. The gunner in our truck climbed into the turret, and the driver revved up the engines. The sergeant settled into the front passenger seat and tossed a single-serving cup of cereal onto the dashboard. The convoy shimmied its way out the base exit. We rolled through the dark, sleeping city of Gardez and headed toward the foothills before starting our climb.

Unlike on the Chamkani run, the soldiers this night weren’t particularly worried about artillery or ambushes. The biggest threat on this trip was the roads themselves. The soldiers faced a paradox: You wanted to be moving as fast as possible in case you hit an IED, that way it would do less damage. On the other hand, Afghan roads were primitive. The country is the size of Texas, and covered in high-altitude mountains. But a 2005 assessment by an Army logistician reported it only had a fifth as many roads, and 90 percent of those were unpaved. The roads had been designed—if they had been designed at all—for passenger cars and jingle trucks, not lumbering multiton military vehicles. (The Russians, with their tanks, found this out the hard way.) On these tight mountain switchbacks, your biggest worry was rolling off a cliff.

A little after 3 am, we arrived at the gate to Shank. I began counting the minutes until I could hit the john. There’s something about knowing that you can’t go to the bathroom that makes you feel like you have to. It didn’t help that the heavy plates of my armor dug into my bladder. Just then we got word that one of the flatbeds, while attempting a wide turn into the intentionally twisty base entryway (designed that way to thwart head-on attacks), slid down a sandy embankment a few feet below the road, and it couldn’t get back up.

Our truck turned around and headed back out. Assorted soldiers on the ground tried to direct the truck back up onto the road. Meanwhile, our gunner stood guard. Being stationary on a road like this was not good. You never knew when someone might roll up on a motorcycle with an RPG.

After 45 minutes, the beast was back up, and we headed back onto the base. Once again, I started looking forward to getting out of the truck. Then one of the towed combat trucks got its front wheel mangled in a rectangular hole in the concrete that lined the entry point. What the hole was for wasn’t clear, maybe to inspect the bottoms of Afghan vehicles coming onto the base. The towed truck went over it wrong, and now its wheel was torn off—maybe the axle too, along with the RPG netting meant to repel rocket-propelled grenades.

The trip took twice as long as projected. Dawn broke as we pulled up next to the turn-in yards. The bleary-eyed soldiers tumbled out of their trucks and shuffled over to look at the damaged vehicle. Then they made for a dining hall. I, meanwhile, went looking for a bathroom.

Amount spent on this trip? Using our makeshift algorithm, counting about 92 personnel, it’s a bit less than the last: $328,000. We assumed that, this time, any aerial assets (helicopters, drones) supporting the trip had not been dedicated to it alone. They had probably served other missions that day. So, from Chamkani to here, we’ve racked up $731,000 in travel charges for 63 miles worth of transit. And we’re only halfway to Bagram.

As compounds on bases were torn down, living conditions became increasingly tight.

Shank was in massive deconstruction mode. Entire compounds had been razed. Bulldozers were knocking down plywood buildings. Cranes were picking up 12-foot-high cement blast walls and moving them onto flatbeds. Notices were tacked to barracks doors warning residents to get assigned new digs or risk becoming homeless.

The 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division had inherited Shank in early 2013. The base was scheduled to be handed over to assorted Afghan agencies the following year, and 4BCT had been told to get it ready. But they soon realized they didn’t even know what was on the base. The war had always been run on a contingency basis. No one ever knew how long it would last. There were no detailed records of what was here.

I headed out one day with a group of civilians who’d been hired to do inventory. We hopped on a base shuttle and rode south through an empty, sandy expanse that bore a strong resemblance to Tatooine. We disembarked at the end of the line, next to a small compound near the base’s southern gate. The civilians were part of a Base Closure Assistance Team (BCAT), another unit the military had organized to help shut Afghanistan down. There were five of them on today’s jaunt, four men and one woman.

“When the war started, they just pulled from everywhere,” one of the auditors told me, explaining why no one knew where anything was anymore. “If someone said, ‘We’re setting up a camp, and we need a hundred tents,’ it didn’t matter who it belonged to. They shipped it.”

The BCAT members worked their way around the compound, seeking out air-conditioning units and generators, marking down serial numbers, makes, models, and other notes onto blank sheets of paper on clipboards. Another auditor looked for things that were permanent, like the cement tarmac at the entrance and chain-link fences. Those things would be priced out so the military could keep track of the total dollar value of the items they were handing over to the Afghan government.

Their mission complete, the auditors headed back to the shuttle stop when they noticed two other compounds off in the distance. No one seemed to have been aware that they were there. We trudged on over.

One of the compounds turned out to be a hazardous-materials disposal site manned by a single civilian contractor—an ex-Army captain who’d left the service five months before and had returned to Afghanistan to make some real money. Long rows of batteries—the big 12-volt kind you use in your car—stood in neat lines across the yard. The man showed us how he was destroying them by hand. He would pour out the acid into a large barrel and then neutralize it. The bodies would be sold to local scrap vendors after the posts were hammered back into the shells.

“So the Taliban can’t use them for a charger,” one of the auditors said.

“I don’t know why they would want to haul a 12-volt battery to the side of a road,” the hazmat specialist replied.

“You’d be surprised what people will go through to blow stuff up,” the auditor said.

As we wandered back to the bus stop, I asked the auditors about the clipboards. Coming from Silicon Valley, the whole process struck me as painfully time-consuming, not to mention highly vulnerable to transcription errors. “Wouldn’t it be easier to use a tablet?” I asked. Scannable bar codes and RFID tags seemed better solutions. “If we had that it’d be great,” one of them said. “But we don’t.”

Meanwhile, U.S. officials in Kabul and Bagram were working with the Afghan government to figure out who would move on to Shank after we left. As much as we’d like to, we couldn’t just up and leave. We first had to identify the new tenants—the army, the police, or some other agency, like the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Health. Then they would tell us how they planned to use it, so we could reconfigure the base accordingly.

That’s right, we rebuilt the bases according to the needs of the Afghans we were giving them to. The Afghans weren’t going to take more than they could use, and they didn’t have the money to do any reconstruction themselves. An Afghan army unit that was given the whole of Shank, for example, would find itself overburdened with maintaining the place, with no time left to police the district. Worse, they might abandon it altogether, leaving a state-of-the-art fortress for the Taliban. Insurgents had already taken over a small outpost the Americans had abandoned early on—and posted video about the “liberated” base online. The military didn’t want that to happen again.

Leg 3: SHK – BAF

It was about 69 miles from Shank to Bagram. Late one night, six Army trucks making the night’s run to Bagram gathered in an empty gravel lot. The team had been delayed getting ready. Insurgents had been hammering Shank with rockets, as they did many bases around the country. Earlier that evening, an incoming round had hit the latrine next to the transporters’ barracks. Nerves were frayed and preparations delayed.

This convoy was escorting 30 Afghan flatbeds loaded mostly with vehicles: The funny looking sapper trucks. A compaction roller. A Bobcat mini-excavator. A power company-style bucket truck and an SUV belonging to civilian contracting companies. (We had to pack up their gear too.)

Green lights glowed through the Army trucks’ front windows while music boomed out the back from jerry-rigged sound systems. The soldiers clustered around the trucks’ lowered back ramps. They were mostly young guys in their early twenties. Three of them were women, truck drivers who would be manning three of the wheels. They cracked jokes, traded gossip, and pulled on smokes. Squint, and this could be a tailgate party. The only thing missing was a keg.

With a call to circle up, an intelligence officer briefed the team on the latest threats. There were reports insurgents were planning to hit a convoy in Kabul with a VBIED—a vehicle-borne IED, or suicide car bomb. The officer told them what kinds of vehicles to look out for. The chaplain prayed over the team. “Though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death,” he said, “I fear no evil, for God is with me.”

This team wouldn’t be getting an infantry escort. They were truck drivers, not fighters, but they’d been trained in combat before coming out. There would be helicopters and drones overhead, at least until Kabul. But these soldiers needed to be ready to handle any attackers on their own. “It’s imperative that you keep your head in the game,” another officer told the crew. “The enemy threat is alive and well.” And then with a “Hooah,” the soldiers climbed into their trucks and turned on the engines.

I settled into the back of one of the MRAPs. Tucked under straps on the ceiling were tourniquets, gauze, and an emergency seal for a sucking chest wound. As I clicked into the five-point harness that would keep my head from slamming into the roof if we hit a bomb, one of the soldiers in the truck dug out a rifle.

“Do you know how to use one of these?” he asked me.

When I said no, he explained where the safety was and how to switch it to single shot or multiple burst.

“If something happens to me and him and him,” he said, pointing to the other soldiers in the truck, “you’re going to have to shoot.”

I absorbed the implications. The six Army trucks would be spread far apart. With the Afghan flatbeds dispersed among them, the entire train could stretch out as much as three miles. If our vehicle got attacked, we’d be on our own.

The soldier made sure I knew where the weapon was stashed and pointed out the extra ammunition. Helicopters thumped overhead as we pulled forward. With a quick stop at a shooting range where the gunner fired off a staccato of bullets to confirm his weapon was in working order, we were soon underway. It was a little before midnight. If all went well, we would reach Bagram by daybreak. As we passed out of the base and hit the road, the driver put on “Good Day” by DJ Greg Street.

We’re gonna have a good day
And ain’t nobody gotta cry today
‘Cause ain’t nobody gonna die today

About 20 minutes in came the first delay. We came up behind another slower-moving convoy. The soldiers were not happy. Convoys were supposed to be coordinated so that you didn’t have more than one on a road at any one time. Between Shank and Bagram lay Kabul. The soldiers had planned on breezing through the city in the dead of night. Daytime Kabul was a congested morass. “A madhouse,” the lieutenant in my truck called it. “I don’t think they have any traffic rules up there.”

Then, an hour or so later, word came that the sappers up ahead had found an IED. In a perfect world, they would just blow it up, and the convoy could keep moving. But this night, they’d been told them to wait for an EOD team. Maybe the commanders wanted to bring the bomb back whole to identify the maker or see whether the enemy’s technologies were evolving. Maybe they just didn’t want a big hole in the road that would annoy the locals and possibly halt the convoys altogether.

The EOD team, unfortunately, was all the way back at Shank. Our convoy moved off the road and circled up on a hillside next to an Afghan army base. “It’s a more secure area,” the lieutenant explained. On the road, the convoy would be spread out for almost a mile. “You’d just be waiting for someone to take potshots at you, or go home and get their RPG.”

Some of the soldiers and all of the Afghan drivers sunk down in their seats and went to sleep. About an hour later, the lieutenant, who’d been monitoring developments, asked the guys in the truck, “Do you want the bad news, the worst, or the good?”

“Bad,” the guys answered.

“The bad news is that EOD has not left Shank yet,” the lieutenant said. “The worst is that once they blow this, there will be another huge convoy in front of us. The good is that LSU is beating Florida.”

EOD was waiting for an infantry escort, and the infantry guys were at another compound altogether.

A little after 4 am, we heard that the EOD guys were a few kilometers away. But moments later, a loud explosion punctured the silence up ahead. RPG? the soldiers wondered. Recoilless rifle? Maybe an IED that the sappers missed and that had been set off when a local truck ran over it? We soon learned that the sappers had finally just set off the bomb themselves. The soldiers joked that they must have gotten tired of waiting.

Still, we were told to sit tight. We watched civilian cars zip along the road down below as dark night eventually gave way to a misty gray morning. A little after 5 am, we got the okay to get going again. The sleeping soldiers and Afghan drivers shook themselves awake. The engines came alive, and the convoy rolled back down to the road.

A little later, we passed the sappers on their way back to Shank. They weren’t needed in Kabul. A few minutes later, our gunner spotted a Special Forces unit driving towards us at the same time that a giant Afghan truck was trying to pass us from behind.

“Get the fuck back!” the gunner yelled at the Afghan driver.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Kabul, rush hour had set in. We slowed to a crawl. The road was crammed with jingle trucks and passenger cars. Afghan army pickup trucks jostled for space with overflowing minibuses. Low-slung buildings lined the side of the road, at first spread out, and then, as we neared the city, tucked more closely together. Shopkeepers pulled back shutters. Men greeted each other on the sidewalk. Children kicked about in empty lots, getting ready to go to school.

The gunner in our truck had speakers of his own up in the turret. One of his jobs was to communicate with people outside the truck. He was the only one who could. (The windows on an MRAP do not roll down.) In Afghanistan, this mostly meant waving cars off. The best way to defend against bombers was to keep everyone else away. It could make for tense moments. Most civilians were just trying to go about their day. But the gunner in this truck had come up with his own way of defusing tensions. He had hooked up a smartphone to the speakers and blasted music as loudly as any Camaro-driving homeboy back in the States. This morning, he played Motown. As the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” rolled out into the streets, the people on the ground perked up. Two small children started dancing. A girl in a pink dress with loafers too big for her came bouncing down an alley. It was as if the circus had come to town and we were an elephant lumbering by. An older man with short white hair and a neatly pressed salwar kameez looked up with an amused smile, as if maybe he recognized the song from his youth, when Kabul was sufficiently Westernized that young women could walk about in miniskirts and DJs could play American pop. Later, the lieutenant told me that the gunner had the music down to a science. “He knows exactly what to play depending on what reaction he wants to get,” he said.

By now, city traffic had us in its maws. Cars and people and buses and carts pressed up against each other. The lieutenant urged the convoy to stay tight. Passenger cars trying to move faster would bob in and out of the convoy, spreading it out further. The gunner kept his head on a swivel. We passed a ministry building, and out of nowhere, an Afghan guard in one of the towers pointed his rifle at us. The gunner whipped around and took aim. A second guard yanked the first one back, and then leaned out the window and waved a hand in the universal sign for “sorry” before giving a thumbs-up.

“That guy pointed his weapon at me,” the gunner yelled, his speech louder and faster than usual. “I guess his buddy convinced him that wasn’t a good idea.”

So-called “insider attacks” were an ongoing problem. Lone Afghan soldiers or policemen sometimes shot U.S. or NATO soldiers. Sometimes for political reasons. Sometimes for personal. Either way, just because the guy in the tower was wearing a uniform, it didn’t mean he wasn’t a threat.

At the center of Kabul, the traffic pushing around a roundabout threatened to break up the caravan further.

“Want to flex this?” the gunner asked the lieutenant.


The truck pushed into the center of the circle and blocked off traffic. The trucks in our caravan rolled through quickly. A police officer on the ground, who’d been directing traffic until we’d showed up, was positively apoplectic. When the next gun truck arrived, it took our place, and we pressed on.

I asked the lieutenant about this later, and he reminded me of the VBIED threat. “When you’re going through Kabul, you’re surrounded,” he said. “As long as we keep moving, the better off we are.”

In another hour, we finally squeezed out of Kabul, and another hour after that, we made it to the outskirts of Bagram. Trucks were lined up for what seemed like a mile. Some were convoys like us, bringing up gear. Others were tractor-trailers with food or fuel that arrived here from ports down in Pakistan or via routes up north through the former Soviet states. Some were empty trucks slated to take on gear leaving the country.

As we made our way to the base gates, we passed by large yards piled with busted treadmills, air-conditioning units, truck axles, mattresses, scrap metal, scrap plastic, desks, and chairs. By the time we finally rolled through the gates, the sun was high in the sky. It had taken us 12 hours to get here. At 69 miles, that was a pace of 5.75 miles an hour. A garden variety ultra-marathoner could have made it here in less time.

Cost of this leg? Our makeshift algorithm puts it at less than the others—$146,000. In Leg 1, we assumed that all units were assigned to that operation for the day. But here, we’re assuming that many of the units—the EOD team, the helicopters, and so forth—participated in other missions that day. So using our back-of-the-envelope calculations, the entire journey, from Chamkani to BAF, came out to a little under a million dollars. $877,000 to go 132 miles—or the distance from New York to Atlantic City. What would be an easy three-hour drive in the States was a three-convoy, 22-hour ride in Afghanistan. Back in 2001, we’d plunged into the war fairly quickly, and now, a decade later, we’re discovering that leaving is turning out to be a bitch. And the journey’s not even done. We still have to make it out of the country.

Bagram felt like a low-rise industrial city. Paved roads sliced through neighborhoods of wooden barracks, triple-decker-containerized housing units, Soviet-era cement buildings, and enormous yards teeming with shipping containers and vehicles. It could take half an hour just to drive from one side of the base to the other, particularly since you had to skirt the enormous international-size airstrip that dominated the center of the base. The roads were clogged with SUVs and pickup trucks, fuel trucks, and flatbeds. Tens of thousands of people lived here—soldiers from myriad NATO countries and an equal number of civilian contractors. There were coffee shops and fast-food joints, movie nights, salsa dances and karaoke competitions.

Supplies had funneled through here for most of the war, and then on out to posts in the rest of the country. Now the flow was reversing. Thirteen years worth of war was being turned in to collection yards. One yard collected howitzers and other weapons. Another collected smaller pieces of unit gear, like radios or batteries. A third processed vehicles.

In a warehouse set up on a hill, civilian contractors dismantled the combat trucks. Whether they were headed out of the country or to the bone yards, they had to be stripped bare. Off came the RPG nets. Off came the forests of antennas. Out came the radios. Out came the Blue Force Trackers and the jammers. Forklifts removed the turrets. The air clanged with hammering and pneumatic whees.

In yards elsewhere, the doomed MRAPs were torn down further. Workers pulled off their thick, blastproof windows. They removed the seats. They ripped out the classified armor. The bare shells were handed off to workers at a third yard, who methodically cut them up into scrap using plasma cutters in a process so secret that workers were told never to use the same pattern twice and photographs weren’t allowed. (They didn’t want enemies to learn where the weak parts were.)

Destruction was going on elsewhere on Bagram. Giant machines with dinosaur-like jaws chewed metal machines into tiny bits. Workers patiently carved large rectangular holes into fire extinguishers. Others snipped apart RPG nets. Fluorescent lightbulbs and other excess supplies went into industrial shredders. The detritus went off to Afghan scrap dealers.

The military was in a bind. In Iraq, we’d been able to give much of our excess inventory to that country’s army. But the Afghans, poorer and less advanced, had neither the money nor the skills to operate and maintain a lot of the equipment. An MRAP, in most cases, would soon become nothing more than an enormous paperweight. And as much as the Afghan people would happily have made use of our more pedestrian castoffs, there was a long list of things that were not allowed to go out into the local economy. If an Afghan MacGyver could figure out a way to turn it into a bomb, it had to be either shipped out or destroyed and then sold as scrap. As a worker in one of the destruction yards put it to me, “We’re the last ones in the line to protect every one of our soldiers who goes outside the wire.”

Despite the fact that United States Forces-Afghanistan had released a roadmap in the summer of 2013 for how the country would be broken down, improvisation remained constant. “It’s like turning an aircraft carrier,” Brigadier General Duane Gamble told me one day as we drove around Bagram. Gamble was the deputy commanding general of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command, the lead organization in managing the retrograde. Joining us in the vehicle was Colonel Todd Heussner, the commander of the 43rd Sustainment Brigade, and the CMRE unit that had been sent over just to pack up gear. We were on our way to see the 401st Army Field Support Brigade, which acted like the countrywide lending library, but for military gear.

“For seven or eight years, this organization has been doing what it was designed to do: issue stuff to units and get them into the fight,” Gamble said. Now the 401st had to turn their operations on their head. “Eighty percent of their day-to-day business is getting crap out of here,” Gamble said.

The majority of people doing this work weren’t soldiers, they were civilians. “They have about 180 military and like 12,000 to 15,000 civilians and contractors,” Gamble said. The use of contractors allowed the military to expand and contract its workforce as necessary. But when the work changed significantly—as it did with the retrograde—entirely new contracts had to be hammered out. “They’re having to totally change their business plan.”

When it came to the retrograde, there were no manuals. We were starting from scratch, without clear rules. “There’s no doctrine for retrograde,” Heussner said. “There’s no doctrine on how to get out of the theater.”

To be fair, most every conflict that the U.S. military had engaged in since Vietnam had been short and contained. Grenada, Panama, the First Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo. Units brought their gear, slept in tents, ate MREs, and then packed themselves up when they were done. Other than Iraq, we hadn’t actually moved in to a country, much less stayed for 13 years. “The whole thing in Afghanistan is atypical,” said Cary Russell, the Government Accountability Office’s director for defense capabilities and management, who has led audits of the military’s retrograde plans.

One day I grabbed lunch with Huey Hughes, an Army veteran who had parachuted into Grenada and served in Panama. He was a civilian employee of the Pentagon now, helping run the 401st’s Bagram operations. He talked about the limitations of operating in one of the poorest countries in the world. “There are only 800 white trucks in the whole country,” he said, using the military term for local hired trucks like the Afghan flatbeds. That alone would squeeze our ability to meet the 2014 deadline.

There was another problem: loosely maintained inventory systems. Take shipping containers, for example. The military used them for transporting gear, including into Afghanistan. But in a country as infrastructure-starved as this one, they were quickly turned into structures. A shipping container could become a storeroom, an office, a dorm. They were used as walls, entry gates, and foundations for guard towers. In theory, units were supposed to record their containers in a centralized database. But the system wasn’t enforced well, and compliance was spotty.

A screen saver on military computers.

Many containers didn’t even belong to the military, but to the commercial shipping companies, who’d hauled our gear over. When the military failed to return them, those companies started charging late fees. By 2013, we had paid $610 million for lost containers.

We couldn’t leave without locating and disposing of all the containers—commercial and military. At the beginning of 2013, military databases said we had 108,000 containers in the country. But who could say for sure? One BCAT member at Shank told me he found a container on a base up north that was logged as being hundreds of miles away—in the Pakistani port of Karachi. The military was forced to create Mobile Container Assessment Teams whose sole job was to hunt down those containers. And yet, just this past November, a GAO report on the subject said the military’s ability to keep detention fees low was still “limited by inaccurate and incomplete data.”

And it wasn’t just containers that got lost. The Army repeatedly got dinged by Pentagon inspectors for not keeping track of its gear. In Iraq, units had passed around spreadsheets to find out what they were supposed to do with excess equipment. It wasn’t until Afghanistan that the military introduced an online system to manage it all. At one point, the Department of Defense Inspector General said the turn-in yards in Afghanistan had lost $420 million worth of equipment. The yards replied that the items weren’t lost, per se. They knew they had them; they just didn’t know where they were. The influx of gear had been huge, and they hadn’t had enough staff on hand to keep up with the paperwork.

Meanwhile, as all this hunting and scrounging and dismantling was going on, as new doctrines were being created and policies fleshed out, insurgents continued to rocket bases all over the country. The barrages at Bagram got so intense while I was there that anyone going outside at night was required to wear body armor. One night, as a record 18 rounds rained down on us, I found myself hunkered down in a bunker next to a soldier who’d brought along his Wi-Fi-enabled iPad. It was football season, and he wasn’t going to let the Taliban interrupt his game.

Leg 4: Leaving The Country

If you were going to war inside any country other than a next-door neighbor, you’d want to choose one with a seaport. Ocean-shipping is by far the cheapest way to move your equipment. Afghanistan, however, is landlocked. The next best option is to choose a country that’s right next to another country that you’re really good friends with—one that will let you set up bases inside of it and give your soldiers the freedom to shepherd your gear in and out of your war without worrying about customs and other bureaucratic annoyances. In Iraq, Kuwait played that role for us. Unfortunately, we had no such buddy next to Afghanistan. Instead, we had to set up supply routes.

Iran, to the west, had a port, at Chabahar. But we’d been saber-rattling with them since the 1980s. A route into Afghanistan via the former Soviet republics to the north wasn’t significantly better. To reach Afghanistan, you’d have to put in at ports up along the Baltic Sea and then travel almost 3,000 miles south across Russia and into the ‘Stans (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). The tiny border with China, on the northeast, is at such a high altitude, and the roads so poor, it was never worth considering. Flying, of course, was an option, and it was one we used heavily in the beginning and during the surges. But it was enormously expensive. Shipping by air could cost 5 to 10 times more than going overland.

Pakistan, then, to the east and south, always seemed like the best option. The port of Karachi stood 714 miles from Bagram (and less from Kandahar Airfield). The roads in both countries weren’t great, and the mountains of Afghanistan presented a challenge—the route to Bagram would take you up and over the Khyber Pass. But, still, it was doable, and Pakistan was amenable—at least at first.

By the time military planners started thinking about getting out, however, things had changed. We’d vowed to get rid of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but by then they’d fled to Pakistan, using the country’s autonomous tribal areas as a base for their continued fight. We went after them, even if it meant crossing the border.

Initially, Pakistan tacitly accepted our use of drones to target militants. But when civilians started dying in the strikes, things turned sour. It was one thing to take out Al Qaeda militants or Taliban fighters. It was another to kill Pakistani citizens, even if unintentionally. Over time, the Pakistani government found itself subjected to increasingly strong domestic pressure.

The 2011 raid on Abbottabad, which killed Osama Bin Laden, didn’t help matters. We’d sent our troops into Pakistan without the country’s permission. The final straw came in November 2011, when a U.S. helicopter hunting Taliban fighters accidentally took out 24 Pakistani soldiers instead. The Pakistani government slammed the border shut, and a long standoff ensued.

With the drawdown on the horizon, and an imperative to get everything out by the end of 2014, we simply couldn’t afford to have the border stay shut. After a lot of negotiation, and concessions to Pakistan, the border swung back open. But the crossing remained volatile, closing again periodically in response to domestic pressure.

An old Afghan army helicopter had to be removed from FOB Goode before the base was closed down, and the land was returned to the local families from whom it’d been leased.

Back in 2008, the military’s Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) anticipated these problems. So with the State Department, they started working on building out the supply lines they had wished to avoid, the ones through the former Soviet republics. By the time retrograde rolled around, a spaghetti bowl of routes wound their way through more than a dozen countries. But when NATO and Russia started butting heads elsewhere in the world, “the route got more unreliable,” a logistics officer told me.

Despite all the plans and efforts, the cheaper overland routes proved elusive. “We found that if we had delays of 30 days or more, it was less expensive to simply fly cargo out,” said Major General Rowayne Schatz, director of operations for TRANSCOM. In 2014, when much of the remaining equipment left the country, 85% of it went out by air.

At the end of December, President Obama announced that Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, had finally come to an end. The next day, NATO officials in Kabul lowered their green-and-white flag. By then, almost all of the U.S.’s core gear was out of the country. Some 10,800 U.S. troops remained in the country to train the Afghan army as part of a new mission, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, slated to continue through 2016. But the bulk of the retrograde was complete.

The military doesn’t track the cost of the retrograde the way a business would. It only tracks external costs—such as payments made to commercial carriers or transit fees to Pakistan. Using that methodology, the Pentagon says the cost of moving out was $6 billion. But that leaves out all the costs incurred by the military inside Afghanistan—running the convoys, staffing the turn-in yards, destroying all that equipment. Fast Company wanted to get a sense of how much the whole thing cost—at a ballpark level, if nothing else. So we approached the calculations more like the private sector would. If only a fifth of the effort and expense of U.S. operations in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014 was directed toward retrograde operations—a conservative assumption by any measure—the total would be $28 billion. (For a more detailed explanation, click here to see how we did the math.)

The military is working to ensure the next withdrawal is not as difficult as this one. The Army has developed a “FOB in a Box,” a complete base-camp kit, which ensures units don’t bring more gear than they need. Online tools that let frontline troops better manage supply levels—including an SAP-based system called Global Combat Support System-Army—are being developed, and some are already online. “If we’d had G-Army at the beginning of the war,” Mason, the former Army logistics chief, said, “we’d have had less stuff.”

Both the Army and the Marine Corps are researching solar energy systems that would reduce the number of generators required in the field—not to mention the number of fuel shipments that are both expensive and dangerous to conduct. Organizations all over the military are slowly expanding their use of RFID tags and scanning technologies.

Meanwhile, TRANSCOM leaders are flying around the world laying down the groundwork with countries where we might need to set up supply lines in the future. It’s taking cues from companies like FedEx and UPS to ink agreements with nations and municipalities and investing in building out other countries’ airfields and seaports.

The Army is also studying how much stuff we really need to bring to war. Our soldiers have gotten used to the idea that, when they deploy, they’ll enjoy a certain standard of living. “Emotionally, I want everybody to have four hot meals a day, steak, gymnasiums, a PX, and all that stuff,” Mason said. “But what’s the cost?”

The Army Logistics Innovation Agency has created a tool to help ground commanders assess the logistical costs of “quality of life” amenities, from showers to fast food joints. Another study is looking at how those enhancements impact actual soldier performance. Do soldiers need to be able to do laundry every day, or just once a week? How fast does the recreational Internet need to be?

There’s also a newfound emphasis on thinking about the end back at the beginning. “Culturally we’re starting to acknowledge that as soon as you start thinking about committing military forces, you need to start thinking about: How does this end? How do we get out of here?” said Major Bryan Fencl, a logistics officer for the 10th Mountain Division, who wrote a master’s thesis on retrograde operations. “As officers and units go into future operations,” echoes Army Materiel Command’s Via, “retrograde needs to be part of the planning process, even when you’re entering the operation.”

Of course, we rarely choose to enter a long war. “The politicians are going to say, ‘We’re going to win fast, and we’re going to come home,'” said Mason. That may limit our enthusiasm to invest strategically in infrastructure like the FOB in a Box or RFID systems. And that’s too bad. Because only if we look at retrograde as strategically as we do new weapons systems, only then will we have learned the $28 billion lesson of Afghanistan’s end.

Photographs by E.B. Boyd.
Illustrations by MGMT.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story stated that the number of vehicles in Afghanistan would stretch from L.A. to Boston when placed nose to tail, but the military told us that would only be the case when lined up in an open column convoy with distance between each vehicle. The raid on Abbottabad took place in 2011 rather than 2010. And a quote about using tablets to track goods included an inaccurately transcribed quote from an auditor which, while it did not change the meaning of the paragraph, has been modified. The piece has been updated to reflect these changes.


About the author

E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan