A wall surrounds Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, May 3, 2021. As U.S. troops pack up to leave Afghanistan, the Americans are dismantling their portion of Bagram, their largest remaining outpost in Afghanistan.

A wall surrounds Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, May 3, 2021. As U.S. troops pack up to leave Afghanistan, the Americans are dismantling their portion of Bagram, their largest remaining outpost in Afghanistan. AP / Rahmat Gul

Time Crunch for Afghanistan Withdrawal Is Producing a Big Trash Pile

One senator objects to the way troops are destroying equipment they don’t have time to sort. But there are reasons for it.

Sen. Joe Manchin is worried about the military’s wasteful destruction of equipment in Afghanistan, but analysts say troops are on such a tight timeline to leave, that they don’t have any other options.

Troops have sent more than 1,800 pieces of equipment to the Defense Logistics Agency to be destroyed, U.S. Central Command said in a statement Tuesday. In addition, more than 100 C-17 cargo planes of material have already been taken out of the country. 

 But destroying vehicles and other assets in Afghanistan “doesn’t make any sense,” said Manchin, D-W.V. 

“After all that we have spent, after all that we have endured, after all the blood that has been shed there by Americans,...now we destroy everything...to make [the Afghans] think ‘Who are these Americans? They have no value for anything whatsoever,’” Manchin said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to consider the nominations of Michael McCord and Ronald Moultrie, who were tapped to be the comptroller and undersecretary for intelligence and security, respectively.

Both nominees demurred, saying they suspected it came down to the cost of transporting old equipment home, but didn’t know the details since they are still outside of the department. 

‘It’s going to be messy’

President Joe Biden announced last month that all American troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11. Multiple experts agreed that the five-month timeline to withdraw does not leave the Pentagon with enough time to carefully examine each piece of equipment and evaluate whether it should be destroyed, sent home, or given to the Afghans.

“You have to just throw everything away that you don’t have time to get in aircraft,” said Daniel Davis, who helped oversee an earlier Afghanistan drawdown in 2011 as an Army officer. “It’s going to be messy. There’s no way around it.”

Part of that mess is the Pentagon’s own fault, Davis said. President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, committing to be out of the country by May 1, 2021. But the announcement didn’t seem to prompt the military to take action on moving gear out of the country, Davis said, adding that his past experience suggests that equipment should have started leaving Afghanistan three or four months after that initial agreement. Instead, based on the military’s assessment on Tuesday that it is between 6 and 12 percent finished with the withdrawal, Davis says it seems the effort just started when Biden gave the go-ahead in April.

“There’s almost no chance to get it done in any kind of a professional way in this timeframe,” he said. “When we had the time to do it right, we didn’t take it. Now that we don’t have the time, it’s just a mess.”

Uniformed officials reportedly did not want to leave Afghanistan, prompting Davis to say he believes troops put off the withdrawal in hopes that Biden would make a different decision and they wouldn’t have to. 

But the delay also could have been prompted by a lack of decisive guidance from the Trump administration, said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the center for Strategic and International Studies. While Trump did say troops would leave in May 2021, that agreement with the Taliban was contingent on a peace process in Afghanistan that never happened. 

“We didn’t have a peace process,” Cordesman said. “The lack here of clear planning and timing was essentially a problem at the White House and NSC level.” 

No easy answer

Manchin proposed a solution to the wasteful destruction of equipment: giving everything to allies in the region who could make their own choices about what to do with it. 

“If we turned everything over to the people that we do trust, or think we trust, shouldn’t we leave it up to them then to make those decisions?” he said.

The Defense Department did not respond to a request for comment about how it is evaluating what it should send home, destroy, or give to partners in the region. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Matthew Trollinger, the Joint Staff’s deputy director for politico-military affairs, told the House Armed Services Committee in a separate hearing Wednesday that the Pentagon is evaluating the potential risks of giving equipment to the Afghan government. 

“As we conduct our orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, we’re taking a hard look at things we can transfer to the government of Afghanistan and to the [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] that they can use to provide security to the country,” he said. 

But it’s not that simple, especially because American troops have sometimes had to fight against their own weapons that fell into the hands of the Taliban. 

“I don’t think we fully trust the Afghan military, at least the entirety of it,” said Sameer Lalwani, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center. “We’ve known all along that they’re a leaky force, then you add in factors of corruption or Afghan forces abandoning their posts and equipment. …The people we might return to as trusted partners today could be allied with threats tomorrow.” 

Or as Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., put it in a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, “My concern is that the Afghanistan government might be the Taliban at some time subsequent to our withdrawal.” 

There’s also the problem of how the Afghan military will maintain equipment they receive without American help. As of December 2020, the Afghan National Army was completing just 20 percent of its existing maintenance requirements, according to a February report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. 

“That’s scarcely an incentive to load them up with a whole bunch of things…with no spare parts or support,” Cordesman said. 

In the meantime, troops are turning vehicles into scrap metal, shredding tents, and destroying generators, to the disappointment and anger of some Afghans.

Davis said he believes the military should be striking a better balance for things such as tents or sandbags that could be used by civilians.

But Lalwani points out that officials are considering more than just operational needs when deciding what to destroy. 

“If the Taliban ends up using these tents, what’s the political cost for any leader that authorized that?” he said. “What if the Taliban is using U.S. tents camped outside Kabul for their offensive? …The simpler and safer bet is to just scrap it all.”