By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 2013 – Calling the drawdown in Afghanistan a “herculean undertaking,” the U.S. Central Command commander overseeing it said he’s applying some of the lessons he learned in Iraq, but that he recognizes there’s no cookie-cutter formula that applies completely to the distinctly different operations.
“Your effort to make this day a reality is nothing short of miraculous,” Panetta told him.
Two years later, Austin is in the midst of an even more daunting challenge in Afghanistan, as he oversees the drawdown of the largest coalition campaign in modern history.
“The biggest challenge is simply coordinating the many different activities involved in the transition,” he told American Forces Press Service via an email interview. It is a herculean undertaking, he added, and it must be properly synchronized to achieve the stated objectives by the Dec. 31, 2014, deadline.
Complicating the process, Austin said, is the fact that the security environment remains volatile.
“We must keep in mind that we are conducting this transition while facing a determined and formidable enemy,” he said. “And, the enemy undoubtedly has a vote in determining the course of events going forward.”
As they work to meet President Barack Obama’s directive to reduce the force to 34,000 by February and to complete the drawdown by the end of 2014, Austin said, he and his staff are drawing on the experience they gained in Iraq.
“Transitioning from a theater of war represents a complex undertaking that, unfortunately, does not have a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” he said.
“However, there are a number of lessons learned from our experiences in Iraq that are being applied in Afghanistan,” he said. “We were successful in conducting the transition from Iraq, and we are now doing a good job of applying the knowledge and experience gained there toward efforts in Afghanistan.”
Particularly valuable, he said, are insights into best practices in logistics to ways to more seamlessly transfer responsibilities across the interagency community and to the host nation.
“The process of moving a mountain of equipment and tens of thousands of people out of that country, gradually reducing our physical footprint and transferring responsibilities to our Afghan and U.S. State Department partners is a carefully orchestrated effort,” Austin said.
In many ways, Austin called the challenge of transitioning from Afghanistan “even more difficult than Iraq.”
“The major difference between the two countries can be summed up in two words: geography and infrastructure,” he said. “In Iraq, we were fortunate to have access to a single ground route to the port city of Kuwait, which was a relatively short distance from Iraq.”
Not so in land-locked Afghanistan. The transition there requires equipment to be moved over several ground routes that are considerably longer and in some cases, less developed than in Iraq, he noted.
“The terrain in Afghanistan is also much harsher and more difficult to negotiate,” he said, noting that some of the ground routes traverse multiple nations, requiring highly detailed coordination.
“While we are doing well in our efforts to move equipment out of the country using various ground and air assets, the magnitude of the task at hand will continue to present a challenge and require significant resources in order to meet the desired timeframe for completion,” Austin said.
Austin visited Afghanistan personally to assess progress, and said he’s pleased with what he found.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., commander of the International Security Assistance Force, and his team “are among the best we have ever had there, and they are doing a truly phenomenal job,” Austin reported.