Emmanuel PARISSE - First they remove the power supply, then they tear out fixtures by hand, before a mechanical digger destroys the roof in a cloud of dust - the US military is ending its war in Afghanistan and the wrecking crews are busy.

At Bagram airfield, the largest US base in the country, 1,800 temporary buildings have been destroyed this year as the massive NATO-led fighting force pulls out after more than a decade battling Taliban insurgents.

The wooden offices and dormitories being razed to the ground were hurriedly erected at Bagram as troops first arrived in the country after 2001 and when the US sent an extra 30,000 soldiers in the 2010 “surge”.

At the height of the war, 130,000 international troops were fighting in Afghanistan, but combat operations will finish at the end of the year and only 12,500 soldiers will remain into 2015 on a training and support mission.

“This is definitely a full-time job for us,” said US Staff Sergeant Zach Smith, head of one of the demolition teams at Bagram, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Kabul.

“Part of the process is removing all the interior rooms and electrical components and separating them so they can be properly disposed of.”

Soldiers wearing yellow hardhats use crowbars and hammers to dismantle the vacated buildings that once housed desks, computers and bunk-beds.

The work is fast but painstaking as material is sifted into different components for recycling or disposal, ensuring that no electrical items or other potential bomb-making kit can fall into Taliban hands.

“We absolutely do that in the most environmentally-conscious way that we possibly can,” Smith said.

“Whenever there is fuel, oil, batteries, we dispose of those things to ensure that we leave Bagram the way we found it.”

Mountains of debris

The splintered remains of each building are scooped into dumper trucks that make endless journeys back and forth to a tipping site on the edge of the base.

Dubbed “Mount Trash-more” after Mount Rushmore - the US mountain carved into the faces of former presidents - the dump is opened to Afghan companies who salvage what they can from the debris. “Right now we’ve taken down about 1,800 temporary structures that were either living space or offices,” said Lieutenant Wes Vermillion, who oversees the project.

He said more than 2,000 buildings will be destroyed by December, with a final 500 torn down by contractors next year after the US military engineers have left.

But as the base shrinks, it is also a hub for the “retrograde” operation to remove weapons, equipment and vehicles from Afghanistan as troops draw in from the provinces.

“We have a lot of folks coming in from other bases that we’re sending home,” said Colonel Stephanie Gradford, who plots Bagram’s adaption to its rapidly changing role.

“We are retrograding equipment in preparation (for the NATO support mission) and preparing Bagram to be turned over, at some point in the next couple of years, to the Afghans.”

Cargo aircraft loaded with gear and troops wait on the runway to leave the country, while elsewhere Afghan teams scour the site of a demolished canteen, even picking up spare nails left on the ground.

Bagram’s permanent buildings and roads are being kept for the US forces that will still be deployed next year, and then for the Afghan military that will be left to thwart any Taliban resurgence.

In 2001, about 30,000 foreign soldiers and civilians were housed at the former Soviet base, but the number is down to 15,000 today and will be cut to 6,000 US troops next year.

By the end of 2016, the only US military presence in Afghanistan will be at the embassy in Kabul. The reality that, after 13 years of war, the US military’s vast apparatus is on its way out is only just sinking in even for the soldiers themselves, according to Colonel Gradford. “They want to see the mission through, so it’s tough even getting military people to understand that we are changing,” she said. AFP

Meanwhile, US could delay troop withdrawal from Afghanistan: officials

Withdrawal could be delayed

US commanders are weighing a delay in the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan after the country’s protracted election set back preparations for the transition, Washington defence officials have said.Under the current plan outlined by President Barack Obama, the US force will dwindle to 9,800 troops by January along with roughly 2,000 allied forces, and all American soldiers will be out by the end of 2016.

But after a months-long electoral dispute that postponed the signing of a crucial US-Afghan security agreement, there are questions about the readiness of Afghan forces and whether allied governments will have arrangements in place for their troops to deploy by 2015, officials said.

Pushing back the timeline is “an option” that is being looked at, but no decision has been made, said one Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“They are looking at the troop numbers to see if they can hit their mark,” the official told AFP.

The new head of the Nato-led force in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, and other senior officers are reviewing whether a larger force needs to stay in place longer than initially planned, officials said.

“Right now he (Campbell) is comfortable with the current plan and timeline,” said another military official who asked not to be named.

But “there are variables which need to be considered, such as the delay in the elections,” as well as a new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and the performance of Afghan forces, the official said.

“He is looking at risks to mission and risks to force and trying to find the right balance,” he said.

Obama has vowed to end America’s military presence in Afghanistan and a recommendation from top brass to alter the troop drawdown pace could present the US president with a difficult dilemma.

Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, the number-two ranking officer in Afghanistan and head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) joint command, separately told reporters that Afghan efforts to prepare for the end of ISAF’s combat mission had been set back by the drawn-out election.

“The government of Afghanistan, the current president (Ghani), is concerned about the time they’ve lost” because the bilateral security agreement with Washington was only recently signed, Anderson said via video link from Kabul.

“It’s cost them a lot of money,” said Anderson, referring to the effect of the delay on Afghan forces. “It’s cost them time to get their systems in place. That’s everything from pay rolls to contracts, to budgets, to logistical forecasting.”

Officials said it was too soon for Campbell to submit his recommendation for troop numbers to US Central Command and to Nato because he had taken over his post only about two months ago and Ghani was sworn in as president in September.

At its peak, the US force rose to more than 100,000 in Afghanistan, and there are now 27,000 troops deployed.