In October, in the sprawling complex of Camp Bastion, the Union flag was lowered, signifying the end of the UK’s 13-year operation in Afghanistan. It was the UK’s longest conflict in modern times, one that saw 453 British soldiers lose their lives and thousands more injured – many permanently. Some estimates suggest the war against the Taliban will have cost the British public upwards of £37 billion, around £2,000 per household, rising to £40 billion by 2020.

The UK’s forces formed part of the larger NATO operation, which at its peak saw 140,000 troops on the ground, the bulk of which were American. According to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the group set up to assist the Afghan Government in the establishment of a secure and stable environment, there were still over 50,000 NATO troops serving in the region from 49 contributing nations as late as February this year. Mobilising such huge numbers – along with the armoured vehicles, ammunition stockpiles, communication equipment and more – is an intensive logistical exercise, one which requires the expertise of specialist taskforces.

The Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) is a multinational team designed to be NATO’s spearhead into operations. It is ready to fully deploy worldwide within five to 30 days and is dedicated to supporting, sustaining and protecting the headquarters once up and running. Assigned to NATO, it’s made up of 60% British troops, with Italians forming the second-largest nationality. Its previous missions include Bosnia (1996) and Kosovo (2000), both of which were on a much lower scale in terms of kinetic activity compared with Afghanistan.

"In order to withdraw equipment from theatre, you need secure service line communications, but these are complicated by the geopolitical environment."

In 2006, the ARRC was brought into Afghanistan with the intention of overseeing operations and conducting counter-insurgency missions, replacing the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps in Turkey in the process. It was redeployed there again in 2011 to take over the command elements inside ISAF Joint Command (IJC). While it had no direct role in the eventual withdrawal, it lent assistance and expertise when required.

"We consider ourselves to be primus inter pares inside NATO HQ," says Brigadier Alistair Deas, deputy chief of staff support with the ARRC headquarters. "We’ve been to Afghanistan twice, but came back a couple of years ago and during that time our role was really as a source of man power, as well as a command structure to go into the IJC and get the HQ out of Afghanistan."

Moving out
The withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a lot less problematic than the withdrawal in Iraq. Prior to his work with the ARRC, Deas was awarded the QCVS for operations in the Second Gulf War (a war the ARRC played no part in) and saw firsthand the challenges of extracting from the state.

"That was much more problematic than Afghanistan, geography was more favourable coming out of Iraq and I was involved in part of that, but it started off in a different place," he says. "It was an invasion force that went in; we were there to take apart the Iraqi Army and the associated defence, so it started off as an absolutely massive force that went in. It then drew down very quickly, and of course there are arguments as to whether it drew in too quickly or not, but it meant there was a lot of equipment that had to be brought back or disposed of in the theatre.

"There was a lot of stuff that arrived in Iraq for a good purpose way back in 2003, which had lost any meaning by the time we got to 2009. The whole process of getting out of Iraq produced the lessons that we’re able to use in the withdrawal from Afghanistan. An awful lot of the mistakes that were made in Iraq have not been repeated."

With so much equipment transported, keeping accurate records of everything becomes a significant logistics task in itself. New processes and systems in place should make tracking equipment easier, halting superfluous deliveries of equipment and ensuring necessary gear isn’t erroneously held back.

"People weren’t sure if they’re going to get the right stuff at the right time at the right scale," says Deas. "Arguably we learnt those lessons in the first Gulf War, but we didn’t fully sort them out. Inside the UK we’ve adopted a new process and system called the management and joint deployed infantry, to correct these mistakes. In future contingency operations, it would also mean we don’t over-insure at the start of the operation and guarantee we know where everything actually is. The new process gives us visibility right across the whole of the support chain."

Lieutenant Colonel Greggs Hughes was previously the lead planner for the redeployment of UK forces from Afghanistan. He now works permanently in a similar role for the ARRC’s headquarters and has spent the past four years ordering the logistical element of the UK’s redeployment plan. He was well positioned to understand the issues presented by the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"The various modes of transport were a particular challenge. In order to withdraw equipment from theatre, you need secure service line communications, but these are complicated by the geopolitical environment," he says.

"We need to make sure we don’t send equipment to the back lines of communication where there’s an unnecessary level of risk. There’s a careful balance between exploiting surface lines of communication where there risks to achieving movement are probably greater and airline communication, which is more reliable and secure, but inherently more expensive."

Local knowledge
Compared with Iraq, the withdrawal from Afghanistan was also more complicated because it’s a landlocked nation surrounded by countries with geopolitical complications. Negotiating with these states is not only politically loaded, but it raises the price significantly of land transport options.

"We also have to take into account the fact we have 57,000 different kinds of thing we need to move, meaning we need to consider the many different ways of accountancy, movement and manner in which we provide security as it’s taken to and from theatre," says Hughes.

The cost of transport vs the value of the asset is a huge factor in determining how to bring equipment back to the UK post-operation, if at all. The ARRC now uses a specially developed software tool, which employs a set of algorithms to determine the value of equipment, the purity of communication lines, the necessity of its return and the total cost of returning it.

If the asset is reasonably low-value and expensive to transport – open boxes of ammunition for example – then it will either be securely disposed of, or sold on to regional allies. The decision is made from an insurance perspective as well as based on the recommendations from the algorithms.

"We have a pretty sophisticated way of disposing of equipment in theatre, it depends on the nature of the assets or material involved," says Hughes. "If it might attract the attention of criminals and terrorists it’s imperative we dispose of it to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands; if it isn’t, though, then we have contractors that take care of generating revenue from it on our behalf.

"Ammunition is a good example of this because it’s expensive to bring back once it’s been taken out of the original box, there’s a lot of safety work involved in putting it back on the shelf. It’s not cost-effective. We would instead use a specific small arms incinerator where a complex chemical process will essentially destroy the ammunition, but still allow us to sell on the remaining brass afterwards."

Even with the recent tightening of defence budget, Hughes is confident the operation was delivered to the best value for the UK taxpayer. The logistics operation was conducted with an end-to-end approach, one that emphasised efficiency throughout, but the challenge now was to ensure future missions improved on this performance, particularly in the face of yet more cuts.

With the operation now over, the ARRC can begin to take stock and evaluate how it deploys in future operations. For Deas, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, like that of Iraq before it, will prove invaluable for managing operations in later conflicts. "In terms of our involvement in the withdrawal, we had no direct role, but we took a great interest in it because the lessons learnt in Afghanistan are going to be absolutely key in how we configure ourselves for future operations."