In recent years much attention has been focused on the logistics of supplying the war in Afghanistan. But now the reverse operation is gearing up, and (as anticipated) it’s no more straightforward. Here’s Nate Rawlings for TIME:
For many good reasons, Afghanistan has been called a logistician’s nightmare. It is landlocked and far from a working port. Much of the country – especially in the east where a great deal of the fighting has taken place – is covered with mountains and threaded by decades-old roads and questionable bridges. The easiest way in and out of the country is a geopolitical minefield and the other two routes are three times as expensive.
And yet, for twelve years, logisticians have supplied troops with the equipment — large and small — necessary to fight a war. They have airdropped pallets of food and repair parts on remote bases, tossed “Speedballs” — body bags filled with ammunition and water — out of helicopters to troops under fire. And along the way, extra equipment has piled up at bases around Afghanistan. According to a December 2012 report to Congress by the by the Government Accountability Office, there is the equivalent of more than 90,000 twenty-foot containers of equipment all over Afghanistan. All together, there is $36 billion worth of vehicles, weapons systems, repair parts and utter junk scattered throughout the country, and bringing it home will cost an estimated $5.7 billion.
(You can access a gallery of Yuri Kozyrev‘s photographs, all taken in late January this year, that accompany the essay here; some details of the corresponding British operation, including video, are available here).
Now AFP has confirmed that the current estimated cost of withdrawing US hardware and vehicles from Afghanistan – called a “retrograde” (sic) – will be $5–6 billion from 2012 through to 2014. According to Brigadier General Steven Shapiro of 1st Theater Sustainment Command, a veteran of the withdrawal from Iraq, ‘the retrograde from Afghanistan is one of the most challenging military transportation operations in history in terms of scale and complexity.’ It’s certainly more difficult than Iraq, when equipment was simply trucked across the border to Kuwait ‘where it was packed, cleaned, recorded and shipped on’ within a stable security envelope. Brigadier General Lee K. Levy explains: ‘If you think Iraq was difficult, I would call that getting your bachelor’s degree in logistics. Withdrawing from Afghanistan is getting your PhD in logistics and we are writing our thesis as we speak.’
In Afghanistan the most sensitive equipment will again be sent to Kuwait, though this time the US will be forced to use giant C-17 transport planes. Some of the remaining gear will be sold (but the opportunities in Afghanistan are likely to be less than they were in Iraq, when some $1 billion of equipment were sold off or simply given to the Iraqi military) or even destroyed. The process requires a labour-intensive inventory, selection and strip-down – you can get an idea of what’s involved in this short video from Bagram – and even then a vast amount will remain to be shipped out.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the operation began in earnest last month, when a trial convoy of 20 military vehicles and more than 70 containers of military hardware was trucked through Pakistan and shipped out from Karachi. According to the Journal,
The military says it now plans to move a combined total of around 100 containers and vehicles per week through Pakistan, a figure that is going to increase gradually over the coming weeks.
When the exodus is in full swing — military commanders expect the logistics push to reach its peak this August — the U.S. will be sending about 1,500 military vehicles and 1,000 containers per month out of Afghanistan. The majority — around two-thirds of that cargo — will move through Pakistan, military officials say.
Shapiro was bullish about the operation – the US Army has made no secret that what it calls the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication are critical to the success of the retrograde – and he claimed to be ‘very confident that the Pakistani military is going to help us move through Pakistan.’ But it remains to be seen whether the outbound supply chain will be any more secure than the inbound one was: today five NATO trucks en route for Karachi were torched and more or less completely destroyed 120 km. south east of Quetta.