Video: Mind-blowing scale of the operation to bring forces home
- Credit: Mark Nicholls
The withdrawal of British combat personnel and equipment from Afghanistan involves one of the biggest logistical operations carried out by the UK armed forces in modern times. Mark Nicholls reports from Kandahar Airfield on how it is being done.
In a few weeks' time the last physical evidence of British combat operations in Afghanistan will disappear, seemingly erased from the map.
Vehicles, equipment and personnel will have been shipped home in an unprecedented logistical operation.
What will remain, however, is a new Afghanistan where Taliban influence and control has been penned back and the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) in control.
An Afghan government of unity is also in place with rival presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani having signed a power-sharing agreement in succession to President Hamid Karzai.
It is 13 years since the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York provided the catalyst for operations in Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban – as hosts of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden - a few months later in 2002.
From there, troop numbers rose swiftly. The UK military presence eventually reached almost 9,500 personnel, 453 of whom gave their lives with the latest fatalities coming at the end of April this year with five personnel killed in a helicopter crash near Kandahar Airfield.
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From the deadliest fighting of 2007-2010, security across the country has stabilised with the ANSF leading 98% of ground-based military operations.
And now, it is time to go home.
Within the coming weeks thousands of tonnes of UK equipment and combat personnel will have left Afghanistan following Prime Minister David Cameron's pledge of October 2012 to withdraw all UK combat personnel by December 31, 2014, at the latest.
In tandem with the combat commitment nearing its finale, the logistical operation to ship that equipment back to the UK and extracting the remaining combat personnel is reaching a crescendo.
It is not just a case of putting troops on aircraft and flying them home. Equipment will be moved out by air on C-17 and C-130 Hercules cargo planes or by land and sea. Some items, though, will not be returning and will be sold on instead.
The scale of the operation is mind-blowing: 3,345 items of major equipment and vehicles and 7,500 shipping containers to transport with the Ministry of Defence costing the UK withdrawal at £300m.
This compares with the £3bn-£4bn cost of the US withdrawal and shipment of 20,000 containers of equipment and 24,000 vehicles and major items.
From a UK perspective, the 135 forward operating bases (FOBs) that were a critical element of the British operation across Helmand province have gone and the two main bases of Camp Bastion – set up in the arid Helmand desert landscape in 2006 - and Kandahar Airfield are shrinking rapidly.
At its busiest Camp Bastion was the size of Reading with 35,000 UK, US and coalition personnel. It now has 3,000 UK personnel among a total of 8,000, while Kandahar's population of 22,000 has similarly fallen to 8,000 (800 British).
Camp Bastion will be handed over to 215 Corps of the ANSF, with Kandahar remaining an active support base and operational airfield.
US troop numbers in Afghanistan will fall to 9,800 by late December with further reductions over the following months.
British forces will continue to support and mentor Afghan forces throughout 2015 with the codename Operation Herrick replaced by Op Toral.
The real challenge for the British military is in shipping the thousands of tonnes of equipment ranging from small admin and support items through to trucks, forklifts, lorries, JCBs and specialist combat and patrol vehicles such as Mastifs, Foxhound or Ridgeback troop carriers.
REME Captain David Carter has responsibility for ensuring the vehicles – many of which have evolved to meet the demands of the Afghan theatre - are in an adequate state to transport home and be re-used.
'Working alongside the RAF, my role is to make sure all the equipment is prepared, ready and in an appropriate state to take back to the UK,' he said.
'Some of those vehicles have been here for 10 years and are heavily weathered and worn. The first task is to wash them down so we can inspect them thoroughly.'
That means identifying those that are beyond repair or highlighting the extent of the repairs required for others and carrying out as much maintenance as possible such as ensuring they have no leakages when put on giant UK-bound C-17 transport aircraft.
A key stage is the biological wash to clear the vehicles of any potentially-harmful pesticides, chemicals, seeds or microorganisms that may be inadvertently imported into the UK.
At present between 30 and 50 vehicles a week are being processed in this way for shipment, but as Captain Carter - whose family live on the Norfolk/Suffolk border - points out there, is a fine balance to be achieved.
'We need to get the vehicles back home while still maintaining a military capability until the end,' he said.
Co-ordinating the airlift is Wing Commander Andrew Garbutt, commanding officer of the Tactical Air Transport Detachment. His fleet of C-130s – which can carry combinations of pallets, vehicles and 40-75 passengers – is providing an air transport link between Kandahar, Camp Bastion, Kabul and Bagram.
The focus is on moving people and equipment out of Camp Bastion and redeploying it to Kandahar, or back to the UK.
'Each week we have moved 200 tonnes of freight and 650 passengers, mostly between Bastion and Kandahar, but have more crews coming in to support a surge and could be doubling that to 400 tonnes of freight and 1000 passengers a week soon,' he said.
That is alongside tasks such as aero-medical evacuation, flying people home on compassionate leave and other routine movements.
Group Captain Andy Martin, commanding officer of 904 EAW at Kandahar and the senior RAF officer on the base, said the success of the complex challenge of the withdrawal lay in balancing the three key priorities of maintaining operations such as with the Tornados of 31 Squadron, maintaining protection of the force and bases and meeting the draw down deadline.
'This is probably one of the most complicated things we have done for a very long time,' he added.
While the dusty, grey expanses of Kandahar Airfield is shrinking rapidly, a short flight away, the once a massive military base of Camp Bastion has contracted beyond recognition.
Where once stood huge accommodation blocks and tents, storage units and admin buildings is now grey emptiness.
As one serviceman observed: 'It has become easy to get lost in Camp Bastion, even though it is reducing in size, because the landmarks we use for direction are disappearing overnight.'
Also being removed is the memorial at Camp Bastion, built to honour British servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan with plans to rebuild it at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
The drawdown is now at a crucial phase.
Air Commodore Alan Gillespie, UK Air Component Commandant overseeing Expeditionary Air Wings at Camp Bastion and Kandahar and others across the Middle East, said the challenge lay in maintaining an appropriate operational posture, shipping out what is no longer essential while continuing to operate a busy airfield and transport capability.
Kandahar, he said, is the fundamental staging point in the UK extraction from Camp Bastion which will also have to maintain capability until the final day of its operation.
'We have to make sure we do not draw down too quickly but also ensure we do not leave too much to do at the end,' he said.
With every hour, every day and every week that passes from now on, the UK military footprint in Afghanistan will continue to shrink.
As troops, support personnel, vehicles and equipment are airlifted out, the Tornados from RAF Marham's 31 Squadron will provide a shield of aerial protection until the final day when they will be among the last to leave.
When the time comes – the precise day is shrouded in operational secrecy - it will mark the end of 13 years of UK combat in Afghanistan, a campaign many military personnel from the eastern region will have fought in.
*See Monday's EDP for the final part of Mark's series from Afghanistan.