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Afghanistan: The Long Withdrawal

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Five years ago, the war in Afghanistan began to escalate drastically. Troop surges soon pushed the number of NATO troops up to more than 140,000, and the levels of violence grew to match the surge. At the time, I felt the conflict was being under-reported relative to other international stories, especially considering the level of commitment involved, so I began a monthly series dedicated to covering the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Now, more than 60 monthly photo essays later, I'm ending the series as a regular feature. I will continue to post photos from Afghanistan through the withdrawal, as well as after the handover—but as an occasional entry, not monthly. In this time, I've been fortunate enough to feature more than 2,000 amazing images of Afghanistan taken by incredibly brave and skillful photographers—telling many aspects of a very difficult story. As of today, there are reportedly fewer than 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with a withdrawal deadline looming at the end of the year. How many soldiers will stay after the deadline remains in question, as the outcome of the recent Afghan presidential election remains in dispute, and the signing of any long-term agreements is on hold. For the past year, many coalition forces have been involved with what they term retrograde operations, defined by the U.S. Army as "defensive tasks that involve organized movement away from the enemy." Gathered here are images of recent retrograde operations in Afghanistan, from demolition and remediation to demilitarization and evacuation. Today's entry is the last of the monthly series here on Afghanistan. [38 photos]

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Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles wait in a staging area for onward movement at an undisclosed base in Southwest Asia. The joint team of Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Central Command's Deployment Distribution Operations Center is playing a major role in moving the more than 50,000 coalition military vehicles in Afghanistan that will need to be recovered or pre-positioned in contingency stocks abroad. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Master Sgt. George Thompson)
Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles wait in a staging area for onward movement at an undisclosed base in Southwest Asia. The joint team of Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Central Command's Deployment Distribution Operations Center is playing a major role in moving the more than 50,000 coalition military vehicles in Afghanistan that will need to be recovered or pre-positioned in contingency stocks abroad. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Master Sgt. George Thompson)
An Australian soldier takes the Australian flag after it was lowered at Joint Multinational Base Tarin Kot, Afghanistan, on December 11, 2013. The base was transferred over to the Afghan National Army, as the last of Australian troops left Tarin Kot. (U.S. Army/Cpl. Harold Flynn) #
A CH-53E Super Stallion assigned with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 462 (HMH-462) transports a Humvee over Helmand province, Afghanistan, on October 7, 2013, as part of demilitarization operations. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Gabriela Garcia) #
U.S. Soldiers with 229th Engineer Company, Wisconsin Army National Guard, help clear out Combat Outpost Talukan in the Panjwa'i District of Kandahar province. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Kimberly Hackbarth) #
U.S. Marine Cpl. Armondo Cortez (left), a data network specialist, and Cpl. Estevan D. Hernandez, a telephone switchboard and personal computer intermediate repairer, with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment, discuss their plan for the deconstruction of the command operation center during the retrograde of Patrol Base Boldak in Helmand Province on August 14, 2014. (USMC/Cpl. John A. Martinez Jr.) #
A member of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing drags tent material through a tent at Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, on March 6, 2014. Personnel from various units volunteered to assist in reduction efforts at the transit center, which was transferred to Kyrgyz control in June of 2014. (USAF/Senior Airman George Goslin) #
Col. Mirbek Imayev, Chief of Staff of the Kyrgyz National Guard, holds up a symbolic key as he departs a transfer ceremony held at the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, on June 3, 2014. The event signified the representative transfer of control of the Transit Center from the United States to the Kyrgyz government. The facility stood up 12 and a half years ago after the terrorist attacks in America on Sept. 11, 2001. The center was the premier transportation and logistics hub supporting combat operations in Afghanistan. (USAF/Capt. Cory O'Brien) #
Airmen from the 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron, Bagram Air Field, load MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles onto a C-17 from McChord Air Force Base, Washington, on August 11, 2014. (USAF/Maj. Brandon Lingle/Released) #
Army engineers with the 1223rd and 955th Engineer Companies deconstruct a building at Kandahar Air Field on February 18, 2014. The units have deconstructed over 1,000 structures during their deployment and have been vital in aiding with the closure of numerous bases. (US Army/Spc. Aaron Ellerman) #
Staff Sgt. Angel Tavarez (driving), a native of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, consolidates excess metal scrap from base closure operations for reuse on different bases or to sell to Afghan locals, in the evening hours on Forward Operating Base Walton, on July 15, 2014. (US Army/Staff Sgt. Whitney Houston) #
An Afghan driver watches as Defense Logistics Agency personnel load a water truck purchased by his company onto his flatbed truck on Bagram Air Field on June 25, 2014, during the first white goods sale in the country. (US Army/Capt. Devon McRainey) #
A convoy of U.S. Marine Corps MRAP vehicles utilized by 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (1/7), carrying the last 1/7 Marines from Suicide Charley Company and material retrograding from Forward Operation Base (FOB) Sabit Qadam and FOB Nolay travel down Route 1, near Gereshk, Helmand province, on May 4, 2014. Operation Lee removed the last remaining ISAF presence in Sangin and turned control of FOBs Sabit Qadam and Nolay over to the Afghan National Army (ANA). (USMC/Lance Cpl. Lance Cpl. Cody Kelley) #
Task Force Guam Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 294th Infantry Regiment, Guam Army National Guard, sit tightly packed into a CH-47 Chinook filled with duffel bags and rucksacks during a flight out of Camp Phoenix, Kabul, Afghanistan. (US Army National Guard/Sgt. Eddie Siguenza) #
A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II with the 303rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, Bagram Air Field, peels away after being in-air refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker over Eastern Afghanistan on August 16, 2014. (USAF/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.) #
Estonian soldiers, part of the Estonian contingent to Afghanistan, fold their nation's flag for the last time in a ceremonial flag lowering aboard Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, on May 9, 2014. The lowering of the Estonian flag formally concluded the county's participation in Operation Enduring Freedom. (USMC/Lance Cpl. Darien J. Bjorndal) #
A scrap wood pile created during retrograde operations at Forward Operating Base Pasab in Kandahar on June 2, 2014. Scrap wood is one of the reusable materials that ISAF allows others including the Afghan military to sort through and take what they need. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images) #
Army engineers with the 1223rd and 955th Engineer Companies deconstruct a building at Kandahar Air Field on February 18, 2014. (US Army/Spc. Aaron Ellerman) #
This photo taken on June 2, 2014 shows a member of the US Army using an M-88 to demolish Hesco barriers ahead of the withdrawal from Forward Operating Base Pasab in Kandahar province. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images) #
A sign still remains on a door of an abandoned hospital site which is in an area on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank that is no longer used due to a shrinking population on the FOB on April 3, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images) #
Engineers with the Hammonton, New Jersey,-based 150th Engineer Company, attached to the Portland, Maine-based 133rd Engineer Battalion, use heavy equipment to clear the remains of structures from a deconstruction site at Bagram Air Field. (US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Jon Cupp) #
A guard tower that was once in a heavily populated area on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank is now surrounded by open land and abandoned building sites on April 3, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan. (Scott Olson/Getty Images) #
A welcome mat and foundation are all that remain of a building site in an area on Forward Operating Base Shank that is no longer used due to a shrinking population on April 3, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images) #
From left to right: Spc. Jamie Morris, Spc. Daniel Adensam, Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin King, Spc. Ricky Schumann and Spc. William Banks, all serving with different battalions of 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Inf. Division, retire and fold the U.S. flag on July 15, 2014, as base closure operations come to an end and U.S. troops prepare to leave Forward Operating Base Walton. The FOB served as a strategic joint operating base with Afghan National Security Forces during Operation Enduring Freedom, and was officially closed the next day. (US Army/Staff Sgt. Whitney Houston) #
Multiple vehicles with Combat Logistics Battalion 7 line up as they prepare to convoy back with the last supplies, equipment and team members of Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 4-215 from Forward Operating Base Delaram II, Nimroz province, Afghanistan, on April 8, 2014. The Marines and sailors of CLB-7 were instrumental in retrograding more than 300,000 pounds of equipment and supplies and the last of the Marines and sailors of SFAAT 4-215 back to Camp Leatherneck from FOB Delaram II. (USMC/Sgt. Frances Johnson) #
U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Brent Stevens, right, and Maj. Devin Cummings, both pilots with the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, fly a C-130 Hercules aircraft out of Forward Operating Base Sharana, Paktika province, on September 28, 2013. Airmen with the unit transported the last cargo from FOB Sharana before command of the base was transferred to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. (USAF/Master Sgt. Ben Bloker) #
Soldiers with the Kingdom of Jordan fold their flag during a ceremony aboard Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, on July 23, 2014. The ceremony marked the end of mission for the Jordanian army serving with Regional Command Southwest. (USMC/Sgt. Jessica Ostroska) #
This photo taken on June 1, 2014 shows a worker cutting metal while demolishing a building that once housed a TGI Fridays restaurant ahead of the withdrawal by military forces, at Kandahar Airfield in Kandahar province. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images) #
Airmen from the 376th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron demilitarize camouflage netting in a waste holding yard here on May 9, 2014, in preparation for the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, closure this summer. The airmen tear the netting into small, unusable pieces that are less than 12 inches square. (USAF/Lt. Col. Max Despain) #
Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 1, Regional Command (Southwest), motion to a Tractor, Rubber-Tired, Articulated Steering, Multi-Purpose vehicle operator during a retrograde operation aboard Patrol Base Boldak, Helmand province, on August 14, 2014. (USMC/Cpl. Cody Haas) #
Spc. Adam Alvarez, a native of Chicago, who serves as a mechanic with Special Troops Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Inf. Division, guides trucks full of wood and other materials off Forward Operating Base Walton, on July 16, 2014. The FOB closed the next day, having served as a strategic joint operating base with Afghan National Security Forces during Operation Enduring Freedom. (US Army/Staff Sgt. Whitney Houston) #
Royal Tongan Marines assigned to Tranche 7, the seventh and final rotational contingent of Royal Tongan Marines to Afghanistan, participate in a "haka," a ceremonial dance, during a flag lowering ceremony aboard Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, on April 28, 2014. The lowering of the flag symbolized the end of the Kingdom of Tonga's participation in Operation Enduring Freedom and return to their homeland. (USMCLance Cpl. Darien J. Bjorndal) #
A panorama shows the retrograde of Patrol Base Boldak in mid-August of 2014. (USMC/Cpl. John A. Martinez Jr.) #
Australian soldiers load up the back of a plane before departing Joint Multinational Base Tarin Kot, Afghanistan. The base was transferred over the Afghan National Army as the last of Australian troops has left Tarin Kot. (US Army/Cpl. Harold Flynn) #
Lance Cpl. Matthew Ghibaudi, a UH-1Y Huey crew chief with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, performs a weapons check before an aerial assault support mission covering ground convoys in Helmand province, on May 3, 2014. Before the last Marines and sailors of Forward Operating Bases Nolay and Sabit Qadam convoyed out of northern Helmand to return to Camp Leatherneck for the final time, the "Gunfighters" of HMLA-369 and "Heavyweights" of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466 provided overwatch for returning vehicle convoys as well as retrograde support. (USMC/Sgt. Frances Johnson) #
Soldiers with the Republic of Georgia lower their flag during a ceremony aboard Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, on July 15, 2014. The ceremony marked the end of mission for the Georgian army serving with Regional Command Southwest. (USMC/Sgt. Jessica Ostroska) #
Sgt. Charles Nelson, a heavy equipment operator for the Calhoun City, Mississippi,-based 858th Engineer Company, attached to the Portland, Maine-based 133rd Engineer Battalion, uses a bulldozer April 21 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan to level an area where engineers with the 133rd recently deconstructed several structures. (US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Jon Cupp) #
U.S. Marine Cpl. Travis Shotland, a radio operator with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment, removes data cables from a command operation center during the retrograde of Patrol Base Boldak in Helmand Province on August 14, 2014. (USMC/Cpl. John A. Martinez Jr.) #
U.S. Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 462 (HMH-462) load a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter into a C-17 Globemaster at Camp Bastion, Helmand province, on November 1, 2013. HMH-462 retrograded the aircraft as part of ongoing demilitarization efforts. (USMC/Sgt. Gabriela Garcia) #

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