Thirteen years ago this month, few, if any of the men and women of the 276th Engineering Company possibly imagined that a war that began with a retaliatory bombardment of Taliban and Al Qaeda positions in Afghanistan, would be ending on their watch – brought to its inevitable conclusion by the hammers, wire cutters and shovels of part-time soldiers from the Missouri National Guard.
There would be no “liberation of Paris” moment; no treaty signing on the deck of a battleship; and yet with the stroke of a pen – in this case, the signing of a security pact with Afghanistan’s new president, the future of the war would be all-but-sealed.
American forces will be cut to just under 10,000 by the end of 2014. In two more years, that number will be halved again, while American forces will be restricted to Kabul, and its sentry Bagram Air Field.
That means Kandahar – with its population of more than 20,000 soldiers and contractors – and the dozens of tiny outposts that support it, must be dealt with, somehow.
Enter the 276th, and their commander, Capt. Todd Smith, who described their mission to us during a week-long embed last month.
“Basically to remove the infrastructure that allowed U.S. forces to stay here, and so once U.S. forces start pulling out, we no longer need those facilities,” Smith said. ”What we're doing right now, to me, it signals success. That what we did before was successful, that Afghans are stepping forward and they're able to complete that side of the mission.”
Members of the 276th come from all across Missouri. At home, they are carpenters, auto repair workers, and teachers. Some work at grocery stores. While still others have advanced degrees.
Here, though, they are soldiers first, and construction workers second – tasked with tearing down what NATO forces no longer need, and Afghans either don’t want or can’t defend.
"You see that ISIS is driving around in Humvees and all that stuff. I'm not going to speculate where they got them from, but I know that we're not... we're not leaving a lot that a potential enemy could use against us over here," said Lt. Adam Winters, commander of the unit’s 1st platoon.
Base commanders liken the so-called “retrograde” mission to taking apart an airplane at 30,000 feet, all the while trying to land it.
It is difficult work done under difficult conditions.
While outside the wire, hostile forces still plant IEDs, periodically lob mortar rounds, and plot ways to kill American and coalition fighters.
Base defense, then, is a serious business. The air field is guarded by ground patrols, watched from above by high tech blimps and drones, bristles with guard towers and razor wire. Artillery companies have moved the only remaining howitzer field artillery pieces in the region back to Kandahar. They’re used often in support of ground missions within their nearly 30 kilometer range.
The 276th deployed here in April. Their mission is scheduled to end sometime in November. Until then, every building torn down is another step closer to going home.