This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – With national debates raging on immigration, guns and budget issues, Americans tend to forget that this country is in the midst of the complex and expensive process of extricating itself from the longest war in U.S. history.
After several days in Afghanistan, U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart – the former adjutant-general of the Illinois National Guard – said that, despite the many challenges, he thinks it’s still possible to withdraw most of the 66,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of next year.
“There have been great strides made, and I think the timetable is still realistic,” said Enyart, D-Belleville, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “But I hesitate to speculate on whether or not it might become some sort of political football” in Congress over the next couple of years.
If President Barack Obama’s administration sticks to its current withdrawal schedule, by the end of 2014, Enyart says, “we should be down to 6,000 to 8,000 U.S forces and a smaller number of NATO forces from other countries” in non-combat training roles. As Obama said in his State of the Union speech in February:
“American troops will come home from Afghanistan. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
But the withdrawal poses daunting logistical challenges, considering that more than 600,000 pieces of U.S. equipment – with a total value above $25 billion – was amassed during more than 11 years of war in Afghanistan. Major problems: It’s a landlocked country, the Taliban remain strong in some border areas, and Pakistan has closed some of the most logical exit routes for U.S. military traffic.
“They're putting together the necessary infrastructure to pull out the equipment,” Enyart told the Beacon on Thursday. “Before they send it back, they've got to clean it up to make sure there is no agricultural contamination like insects.” That’s why “there are large 'wash racks' and processing space to clean, load and ship back the equipment.”
That equipment includes “everything from weapons and communications gear to Humvees and MRAPs." While jeep-like Humvees are relatively easy to transport, the big MRAP mine-resistant troop transports and the Stryker infantry fighting vehicles – each of them reinforced by tons of armor – will be a major challenge.
The focus of Enyart’s trip – as part of a wider delegation of U.S. lawmakers in late April – was on special operations, military development, intelligence and cooperation among the various American agencies that are operating in Afghanistan. They got high-level briefings but also met with elisted soldiers.
“While the American presence in the war is drawing to a close, important funding and military deployment issues will continue to require the full attention of Congress in the months ahead,” Enyart said.
He and other lawmakers “chatted with several Afghan generals and leaders. It's clear there have been great improvements in infrastructure and in training Afghan forces over the last five years.”
Enyart, who headed the Illinois National Guard from 2007 until last summer, also sought out Illinois soldiers, including one from his congressional district: Capt. Daniel Rendleman of Carbondale. Enyart said morale seemed to be good.
“I had dinner with five soldiers from Illinois and had the opportunity to talk with them outside the presence of officers,” Enyart said. “They all seemed to value what they were doing.”
In contrast to the last time he visited Afghanistan in 2008 – when about 3,000 troops from Illinois' 33rd Infantry Brigade faced “extremely hazardous” conditions – Enyart said there is now far less immediate danger.
“It is certainly not the safest place in the world, but the situation has greatly improved since the last time I was there,” he said. “Now the Afghans are doing most of the actual combat patrols. The Americans and the NATO forces are much more in an 'advise and assist' role. But they are not doing as much of the actual combat now.”
In contrast to 2008, Enyart said, there are now only “a small number” of Illinois Guard troops. (As of Friday, 344 members of the Missouri National Guard were in Afghanistan, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.)
As part of the U.S. drawdown, Enyart said, the plan is to get the Afghan forces "into a situation where they can take care of the actual combat."
So far, at least, U.S. operations in Afghanistan have been insulated from the “sequestration” cutbacks that have have an impact on other parts of the military. “The Defense Department is trying to make sure there is no interference with the operations in Afghanistan. That's why the cuts have been felt much more in the States,” he said.
“They want to make sure that the troops in Afghanistan and those headed overseas are getting the training and the equipment that they need.”
In February, the administration announced that 34,000 Americans would be brought home from Afghanistan over the next 12 months, and further reductions would continue through the end of 2014. Enyart said that, based on his impressions, that goal is still doable.
“I think we have the capability to do that, but I don't have a crystal ball. I can't predict what the future will bring, but I think we're on track to do that.”