Afghanistan’s Big Sort: Separating Trash from Treasure in a Container City

In one forward operating base, the number of containers outnumbered the U.S. soldiers by about 2,000 — a gauge of what America faces as it dismantles its presence in Afghanistan

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

A helicopter flies over hundreds of containers full of equipment stacked in the yards of Forward Operating Base Shank, the logistical hub for American operations in Logar Province, Afghanistan, Jan. 27, 2013.

This is the third in a series of dispatches on Afghanistan in retrograde, stories documenting the logistical withdrawal of U.S. forces and matériel from the war-torn country. Retrograde is a military term for the dismantling of installations.

The road from Forward Operating Base Altimur runs mostly downhill during the 20 minutes or so it takes to drive to Forward Operating Base Shank, across a desert valley floor. Every couple of days — sometimes every day when stuff can be loaded fast enough — the troops of Bull Battery, 173rd Airborne Brigade, make the short trip to Shank, hauling away most of the remnants of the American presence up at Altimur.

“Descoping” the base is the first element, and one of the most important, in the process of retrograding America’s matériel presence in Afghanistan. When it comes to ending the longest war in U.S. history, it’s still fairly early in the process, and the key guidance for commanders in the 173rd is to keep the momentum going. “If you can keep those trucks turning,” says Colonel Andrew Rohling, the 173rd’s commander, “that’s the velocity we’re trying to get to.” The paratroopers of the 173rd are hoping that the trips downhill from Altimur to Shank are the beginning of momentum that will carry them home.

(MORE: Afghanistan in the Rear-View Mirror)

But if movement is one crucial piece of the puzzle, organization is perhaps just as important. The soldiers of Bull Battery know what’s in the containers they’re sending down the road — duffle bags filled with personal gear, building material from the base and repair parts. For the most part, they packed them themselves. But at a larger base like Shank, that’s often not the case. When the 173rd landed at Shank in early July last year, 20-ft. containers seemed to be everywhere: they were stacked up behind the gym, arrayed in dirt yards and lined up on the roadways. Rohling ordered his soldiers to count the containers, and on the base of about 6,200 troops, they found more than 8,000.

Inside, they discovered ammunition, broken equipment, building material and years-old pallets of water. For the past few years, especially during the troop surge of 2010, as units needed more equipment and the logistics system focused on pushing goods quickly out to far-flung bases, the giant boxes stacked up in yards and along roads on bases throughout Afghanistan. As units focus more on moving that equipment home, they’re getting some help in the form of a small team called Forward Retrograde Elements. Led by a lieutenant with vast logistics experience in the Air Force, the team is made up of sergeants who have been on previous combat tours.

“Give it to us and we’ll take it” is the unofficial motto of the team, according to First Lieutenant Chad Frizzell. In a small yard in the middle of Forward Operating Base Shank, Frizzell and his team open the containers that the units bring in, sort the equipment and prepare them for convoys traveling to eastern Afghanistan’s logistics base, Bagram Airfield. Much of what they get is equipment that can still be used; some of the goods hauled to them simply need to be trashed; and occasionally they find small treasure troves among the rubble.

On a cloudy day in late January, Frizzell’s team sorted the treasure from the trash. Much of the haul was either repair parts or building materials, which they organized by type. They had separated the scrap into piles to be given to the Afghan government soldiers and another, which must be disposed of by destroying it. Then finally, everything else was lumped in with like equipment. There were bins filled with batteries, piles of tires, collections of rakes and snow shovels, broom handles, folders and binders. On the other side of the yard, Frizzell leaned into a box and pulled out the helmet used by a bomb-disposal team and enough pieces of bomb-resistant suits to outfit a small team.

(MORE: Pulling Out, Without Giving Up)

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Frizzell says, pointing to the far side of the yard, where his troops do the sorting. “And that’s where the money meets the pocketbook,” he adds, gesturing toward the road where trucks will line up to haul the equipment away. In a way, it’s both. Each truck, a contracted vehicle driven by an Afghan driver, costs about $5,000 for a haul to Bagram. So it makes little sense to send boxes filled with junk or half-full containers.

The other thing Frizzell’s team tries to do is to keep unnecessary convoys off the road. Most of the trips to Bagram have escort teams, and every drive down the highway is another chance for insurgents to attack.

There is nothing glamorous about the great sort. But it is the first step in figuring out what’s reusable and what’s not, all of which should help get the U.S. out of Afghanistan sooner and save money. “Why are we retrograding? It’s not just to get out of Afghanistan,” says Major Adam Lackey, the 173rd Airborne Brigade executive officer who oversees much of the retrograde of Forward Operating Base Shank. “It’s so that we can recoup some of the taxpayer dollars we’ve dumped into here.”

Perhaps no one is happier about Frizzell’s team’s efforts than a group of local Afghans who rolled into the yard at midmorning. Without much fanfare, half a dozen men picked pieces from a pile of wood, and in the span of about 10 minutes, they filled the back of their white, flat-bed truck with plywood and random pieces of lumber that were once used to frame a room for soldiers at the small outposts.

The lumber could just as easily become one more pile of junk to scrap before moving. But not to the locals. When asked what they’ll do with the small mountain of wood, the men said they might use some for a small building, but most will wind up as heating fuel. That night, as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the temperature dropped below freezing, several families in the villages around Shank likely slept a little bit warmer, while on the base, containers and trucks sat stuffed and ready, waiting for the signal to begin the next part of the journey down the road.

MORE: In Afghanistan, the U.S. Is in the Most Difficult of Maneuvers