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Coalition troops are ready to ‘rough it’ while closing Afghan bases

- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan — Troops stationed at bases in Afghanistan enjoy some of the comforts of home: living quarters, bathroom facilities, cooked meals, even laundry and mail services.

But as the U.S.-led coalition withdraws, life will become more "expeditionary," meaning troops will begin roughing it with fewer amenities, said the top engineer for U.S. and coalition forces.

"Does that mean we're going to be with a rucksack and living in a tent, eating MREs three meals a day? No. There's a gradual transition. Expeditionary standards do have a limit," said Army Brig. Gen. Michael C. Wehr, referring to meals ready to eat — portable, foil-encased food that does not require cooking.

"I'm being a little bit tongue-in-cheek here, but Wi-Fi is the last thing to get cut," Gen. Wehr said. "But my point is, there may be two hot meals and one meal ready to eat."

Coalition officials are engaged in hard discussions over which services to cut and when, in an effort to keep troop morale high while withdrawing from the war responsibly and cost-effectively. Nearly all international combat troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of next year.

"How do you close the gate and make sure the last guy that leaves has been fed, has had access to sewage, whatever it is that sustains that life on the base?" Gen. Wehr said.

The Afghan army and police agencies have been increasingly taking charge of security operations and missions as coalition troops take on support and training roles.

"Today the [Afghan National Security Forces] have about 80 percent of the security operations, and that requires [our] force posture to change," the general said. "And that includes closing and transferring our own coalition bases. As we step back, the Afghans take the lead."

Of the coalition's 800 bases, about 450 have been transferred to Afghan forces and 225 have been closed.

Gen. Wehr said most of the remaining bases will be closed by February and that decisions about the rest of them will be made after officials determine how many troops will stay in Afghanistan after 2014. The coalition currently has more than 100,000 troops, about 66,000 of whom are U.S. service members.

"We're now up to the larger operational bases that take some more deliberate thought," Gen. Wehr said of the process of handing over bases to the Afghans. "If we have 110-volt electricity and their standard is 220 volt, we're not going to leave something that's dangerous. And we also recognized that because these are temporary structures, they have a shelf life. And if it's not safe to hand over, we don't want to do that."

"There's some complex sewage systems we don't want them to try to operate. We will not leave a hazardous problem for future liability."

Burn pits, where trash is incinerated, and sewage lagoons such as the "Kandahar Poo Pond," where human waste is disposed, will be closed responsibly and safely, he said.

No date has been set for closing the pond, but "as long as there are people there, there needs to be a place to handle sewage," said the general, who heads the coalition's Joint Engineering Directorate.

Gen. Wehr said the coalition does not want to leave behind structures that can't be secured against thieves and insurgents.

"If there is a border outpost and it was in question that the Taliban could take it over or something, then we don't obviously want to leave that because that's a burden to secure it," he said.

Meanwhile, a $9.2 billion program is underway to shelter and train the Afghan National Security Forces. Of that, $5.8 billion will be spent on 361 projects or bases for the Afghan National Army and $3.4 billion for 762 projects or bases for the Afghan National Police.

About 45 percent of those projects are complete, and 50 percent are in progress. The remaining 5 percent are in the acquisition phase. These facilities are expected to cost $93 million a year to maintain.

Gen. Wehr said 4,050 facility engineers for the Afghan National Security Forces have been authorized and their training is continuing.

The troops are under pressure to complete the facilities as soon as possible, he said, but not all of them may be finished when the coalition leaves.

"There may be some border outposts that do not make sense. It is very difficult to try build something, then secure and hold [it]. Typically, it's secure, hold and build," he said. "So there are some locations that have been very kinetic and don't make sense to try to finish. Those are operational decisions," Gen. Wehr said.

"These facilities enable the ANSF to take security responsibility."

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