Sand in the gears

imageI’ve just agreed to join a panel at next year’s Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago to discuss Deb Cowen‘s The Deadly Life of Logistics: mapping violence in global trade.  I obviously haven’t had time to give much thought to what I might say – these invitations seem to arrive earlier each year, no doubt a reflection of the ‘deadly logistics’ of conference organisation – but I had at the back of my mind the connections between Deb’s work and my own sketches of military logistics in Afghanistan: see, for example, here, here and here.

But now an elegant essay at The disorder of things has prompted me to think about other connections between our projects.  In ‘Logistics, circulation, chokepointsCharmaine Chua uses Deb’s work to reflect on Block the Boat for Gaza and other counter-logistical movements (for a report, see here).  She borrows ‘counter-logistics’ from Jasper Bernes – who pithily suggests that ‘logistics is capital’s art of war’ – to envisage movements like Block the Boat as moments in a dispersed guerilla campaign:

As capital has restructured itself away from industrial production, the mass labor force expelled from the factory floors of the world has now spilled into the streets, articulating their dissatisfaction with the state of things through uprisings, strikes, blockades, and riots. But if it seems that these struggles themselves are scattered across the globe, we might do well to also remember that the world of logistics, even as it has fundamentally restructured capitalist accumulation, is itself an irrevocably scattered form: it is at once a form of economic calculation that manages capital circulation in the totality of its system and a coordinated yet dispersed set of regulations, calculative arrangements, and technical procedures that render certain objects or flows governable. If the global supply chain that has dissipated democratic energies and foreclosed collective action can be thought of as a scattered entity, then, the question arises: what are the supply chain’s points of vulnerability? What would it mean to pay special attention to the materiality of capital flows – and to the possibilities that arise from interrupting the massive concentration of commodity capital at sites of its coagulation or through which it flows? How, in other words, might those rendered apparently powerless in the face of a logistical world find ways to recapture capital’s chokepoints?

Chokepoints – the concentration of the circulation of commodities at certain key sites along the supply chain – might thus present the possibility for strikes and protests to articulate resistance not only symbolically but also materially, by literally grounding capitalist circulation to a halt.

They also present the possibility of throwing sand in the gears of war machines.  There’s nothing novel in recognising the vital importance of logistics to the exercise of military and paramilitary violence (see also Jeff Patton here); time and time again militaries have targeted enemy supply chains – hence all those bitter arguments over the effectiveness of air raids on marshalling yards and petroleum, oil and lubrication stocks in the Second World War; all those insurgent attacks on convoys trucking supplies through Pakistan to ISAF bases in Afghanistan; and the Israeli military’s current preoccupation with Gaza’s tunnel economy.  And in countless wars saboteurs have worked to degrade the supply of materials.


But the global constitution of military supply chains makes it possible to think through a new, more dispersed politics of resistance lodged in sites far from the conflict zone.  I’ll keep you posted.


UPDATE:  I’ve pasted this response from Charmaine from the “Comments” section because the suggestions she makes are too interesting to be missed:

Dear Derek,

Thanks for featuring my essay on your blog and, more importantly, pointing us to the fascinating links between military and commercial logistics. I’m excited to be a part of this conversation. Of course, not only is logistics important to the exercise of military violence — but the military supply chain is at the very root of commercial logistical innovations, exemplified by the fact that containerization was only popularized in the shipping industry after its successful use during the Vietnam War. Cowen’s book details these links brilliantly.

But I’m most interested in your last suggestion, that “the global constitution of military supply chains makes it possible to think through a new, more dispersed politics of resistance lodged in sites far from the conflict zone.” It strikes me, reading this, that the spatial displacements between sites of production and consumption under global capitalism – which many think of as disempowering for and dispersing of struggle – have actually enabled possibilities for resistance in ways and spaces not previously available to the larger public. Toscano, via Sergio Bologna, has pointed out in this vein that the “multitude of globalization” working across the supply chain is composed of both the manual labor of the working class, AND the intellectual labor of those who produce the technological systems which enable logistical flows. Perhaps an obvious point – but I very much like the idea that the logistics multitude encompasses even those of us in academia, so that we too can be part of this “dispersed guerrilla campaign”.

Charmaine Chua

Military logistics

Wartime logistics in Afghanistan

Following up my posts on military logistics in Afghanistan (see here, here and here), Dave Clement and Ryan Evans have produced a new report for Chatham House, ‘Wartime Logistics in Afghanistan and Beyond: Handling Wicked Problems and Complex Adaptive Systems‘.  Part of the discussion inevitably concerns the familiar problems faced by US forces – during both the occupation and the ‘draw-down’ – but the main focus is on the British military:

Over the past decade, thousands of military vehicles and tens of thousands of tonnes of supplies and equipment have been moved into Afghanistan in support of NATO operations. In the near future, this matériel will have to be disposed of or moved out of the country. For the UK military this will be the biggest logistics operation since the Second World War. The process of moving supplies into, around and out of Afghanistan is a resource-intensive operation that has already resulted in numerous instances of local and regional corruption, which have often been accepted as a cost of doing business. 

This report looks at how these and other problems arise and how the United Kingdom’s military supply chain can adapt to deal with them. It makes recommendations for utilizing supply chain resources to serve strategic and operational goals during the build-up and drawdown of forces. It analyses how broader opportunities can, over time, be extracted from managing the military supply chain and its component parts. These include improving local transport infrastructure, supporting reconstruction and development efforts, and delivering influence at local levels. These opportunities could be realized through a variety of means, including increased employment of local workers, targeted resource distribution, and intelligent contracting coupled with robust financial oversight.

Military supply routes, Afghanistan

You can’t read military strategists these days without falling over ‘wicked problems’, but for me the originality of the report lies in its UK focus: a useful complement to the US discussions.  (The map, incidentally,comes from US Transportation Command’s Annual Report for 2011; the 2012 report is here).

You can read a summary, and access the full Chatham House report, here.

Retrograde logistics

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.’

1st Infantry Division's retrograde yard at FOB Sharana, Afghanistan

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.

Soldiers inventory Stryker combat vehicle for retrograde, Kandahar, March 2013 (Sharonda Pearson)

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.

Saucepans, sources and bombers

Sometimes you’re blind to things close to home…  When I wrote about war and logistics I wasn’t aware of my colleague Matthew Evenden‘s excellent work on the supply of aluminium in the Second World War.  How I missed it I have no idea.

Matthew’s essay, ‘Aluminum, commodity chains and the environmental history of the Second World War’, appeared in Environmental History 16 (2011) 69-93.  Reading it made me realise that Martin van Creveld’s classic account of ‘supplying war’ misses a crucial dimension: the technical transformations of modern war constantly draw new materials (and frequently distant sources) into the supply chain.   Creveld is right to emphasize the importance of what he calls ‘the products of the factory rather than the field’ to modern war, but those products are moving targets in more ways than one.

Aluminium provides a brilliant example.  As Matthew says, its strategic importance was tied to the expansion of the air war: aluminium was lightweight, flexible and durable, and an essential component of the new generation of aircraft.  According to Leo McKinstry‘s Lancaster (John Murray, 2009), the production of each Lancaster bomber required nearly ten tons of light aluminium alloy (‘the equivalent of eleven million saucepans’).  The production process was remarkably intricate: each aircraft involved half a million different manufacturing operations spread out over 10 weeks. (For images of production lines in aircraft factories on both sides of the Atlantic, by the way, see the show-stopping series here; as far as I’m aware, there’s no British equivalent to Bill Yenne‘s The American aircraft factory in WWII [Zenith, 2006]).

McKinstry’s equivalence between saucepans and bombers was entirely appropriate.  As the demand for aluminium sky-rocketed, so wartime campaigns to recycle aluminium were started on both sides of the Atlantic: you can hear a satirical radio treatment of “Aluminum for Defense” in the United States, complete with crashing saucepans and “collection parties” (the antecedent of Tupperware parties?), here.  In Britain too saucepans and even milk bottle tops were collected for their aluminium, a campaign that began immediately after the fall of France in 1940.  According to one contemporary report:

‘Although these contributions were to be voluntary, the timing of the appeal, its tone, and the manner in which it was put forward left the impression that the country’s need for scrap aluminum was urgent. As a result, the response from the housewives was immediate and their contributions were reported to be of quite considerable proportions.  Almost as prompt were the criticisms and complaints raised from trade and parliamentary quarters, as well as by some groups of skeptical housewives. Thus many scrap metal merchants became indignant when the appeal was made, calling attention to the tons of scrap in their yards for which they were unable to find a market. To this objection it was pointed out in Parliament that not all aluminum scrap was suitable for use in aircraft production. This limitation was especially true for the scrap held by these dealers, whereas that obtained from household utensils was excellent for this purpose.’

Incidentally, those who yearn for a time when air forces have to raise funds through bake sales might contemplate the “Wings for Victory” campaign, and its enlistment of children to contribute savings stamps for the purchase of new bombers.  When one of these aircraft was exhibited in Trafalgar Square in 1943, children lined up to plaster their stamps all over a thousand-pound bomb.  Here – as in the clarion call for the nation’s saucepans – war becomes domesticated, even homely.  War enters the domestic interior in countless other ways of course – through air raids, conscription, evacuation, and rationing, for example – but the enrollment of everyday objects, like savings stamps and saucepans, contrives to make violence not ‘harmless’ exactly but certainly ordinary, mundane, as this photograph from the Imperial War Museum shows.  Here two women factory workers fill bombs covered in savings stamps in what, to my eyes at any rate, looks like a ghastly parody of cooking; the biggest so-called ‘blockbuster’ bombs were called “cookies”, perhaps not incidentally, and aluminium was a vital component in many explosive mixes too.

Aluminium was needed for aircraft besides the Lancaster:

‘Saucepans into Spitfires’ (Imperial War Museum)

And, given the demand right across the sector, the British had to look further than their doorsteps and kitchens, though surprisingly McKinstry says nothing about this in his otherwise fascinating discussion of the production process (Chapter 12: “At the machines all the time”).  The British government soon realised the need to bring domestic aluminium production under state control, and by the early 1940s an intricate system of Acts, statutory Orders and commercial contracts had extended the security of the supply chain across the Atlantic to Canada (there is an excellent, if dry account in Jules Backman and Leo Fishman, ‘British wartime control of aluminum’, Quarterly Journal of Economics 56 (1) (1941) 18-48, from which I took the previous quotation about domestic recycling).

Matthew describes in detail a commodity chain that started in British Guiana (which provided most of the bauxite used in North America’s smelters), and reached across the Caribbean to the eastern seaboard of the United States, where it was transported by rail into Quebec for smelting.  The ingots were then shipped out to rolling mills and fabricating plants in Canada and the United States, across the Pacific to Australia, or across the Atlantic to Britain.  As he emphasises, the chain was militarised at every point, and a primary concern was to secure the supply chain by providing air cover or convoy escorts: the great fear was of a U-Boat attack.  The map below, taken with permission from Matthew’s essay, “reminds us of the unprecedented capacity of the Second World War to gather and scatter materials with untold human and environmental consequences, linking diverse locations with no necessary former connections.”  And here too, as I argued in a previous post, the friction of distance is no simply physical effect: it is shot through with political, economic and strategic calculations.

Not so trivia:  When Sir Charles Portal, Arthur Harris’s predecessor as commander of Bomber Command, retired from the Royal Air Force he became Chair of British Aluminium.  And the roof of the new Memorial for Bomber Command in Green Park is made from aluminium recovered from a Halifax bomber that was shot down over Belgium.

One last note: Matthew’s article is a much richer argument than I’ve conveyed here, and his primary interest is embedding this supply chain in a wider environmental history – so in a future post I want to turn my attention to some of the connections between modern war and ‘nature’…

Logistics and the fortunes of war in Afghanistan

More on post-Host Nation Trucking in Afghanistan from “Mohammad Jawad” in Kabul.  Reporting for Afghanistan Today, Jawad notes that by the middle of 2012 3,515 logistics companies had been registered with the Afghan Investment Support Agency, but this has not brought an end to the monopolies and insider-dealing of the old contracts: ‘Most contracts at the giant US base at Bagram go to a handful of companies, including one run by a former interior minister.’  A primary focus of their operations continues to be supplying fuel to the military:

‘The amount of fuel needed to power the war machine is vast and it now mainly arrives at Hairatan from Uzbekistan by train in 60-ton or 110-ton wagons. “The amounts arriving at night differ, but usually it is 70 to 100 wagons coming for ISAF but only 30 to 35 wagons for civilian use,” said an Afghan oil trader at the port.  A 16-ton tanker load of fuel moved from Hairatan to Jalalabad for civilian clients earns hauliers 700-800 US dollars, according to insiders. But ISAF pays up to 220 dollars per ton, meaning the same load earns contractors around 3,500 dollars if delivered for the military.’

For ‘sensitive supplies’ (including fuel) in particularly dangerous areas like Helmand the US military provides an escort:

US Marines escort 35 Afghan trucks through northern Helmand, July 2011 [US Department of Defense/Sgt Rachael Moore]

US Marines escort a fuel convoy outside FOB Edinburgh, Helmand, September 2011 [US Department of Defense/Cpl Michael Augusto]

But security for much of the supply chain continues to be privatized.  Jawad again:

‘”There is no single approach for securing convoys, it varies,” said a company owner. “In some secure areas, no one is paid protection money because companies have shareholders and allies who are warlords, which ensures the convoys safely reach their destinations. In other areas, people use private security companies that have links with the Taliban, and they pay them not to touch the loads.”

The re-opening of the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication has been uneven.  Border crossings into Afghanistan were closed to NATO convoys in November 2011 and re-opened on 5 July 2012 –  but the Torkham Gate at the Khyber Pass closed again on 24 July after an insurgent attack killed one driver and injured another.   Trans-border shipments were resumed a fortnight later (on 5 August) under paramilitary escort.  Cargoes are supposed to be restricted to non-lethal supplies, and trucks crossing at Torkham were inspected to ensure that they carried no weapons. Even so, now that the border has re-opened the black market in arms and other military supplies is picking up.  An arms dealer from Quetta told Amir Laatif that business had really suffered during the closure, “But, thank God, things have been settled down, and we are going to reactivate our business.”   Although prices shot up during the closure, dealers had little stock on hand, but now they believe “Good days are back.”

Yet many of the black-market US-made weapons circulating in Pakistan have crossed the other way: intelligence sources estimate that more than 70 per cent originate from Afghan smugglers who buy them from soldiers in the Afghan National Army or members of the Afghan National Police.

And soon NATO supplies will be flowing the other way too.  Much of logistics planning by the military is now geared towards reverse-engineering the supply chain as the draw-down of NATO forces accelerates.  Working from what they call the Reset Playbook, Graham Bowley reports the Pentagon reckons it ‘will have to wrangle 100,000 shipping containers of material and 45,000 to 50,000 vehicles like tanks and Humvees from all across Afghanistan.’  There have already been complaints from front-line troops that the roll-back is disrupting combat operations. Rob Taylor for Reuters quotes one officer: “It’s a nightmare. We barely have enough guys to cover our area, let alone get ready to pack up.”  For that reason it is possible – in fact likely – that in the short term more troops will be sent to Afghanistan to clean, pack and ship equipment back.  But they also plan to ship all weapons, ammunition and other ‘sensitive equipment’ out by air, so the arms dealers may yet be disappointed .

War and distance: logistics

My earlier post about War and distance emphasised the historical significance of the telegraph because it allowed information to be transmitted without the movement of messengers, but these systems obviously required the installation and maintenance of physical infrastructure.  Still, in August 1870 the Montreal Gazette was already anticipating the vital role of the new communications network in the emergence of frictionless war:

‘Modern science has brought each dependency of the Empire within swift reach of the controlling centre.  The communications are ever open while the command of the sea remains…  There converge in London lines of telegraphic intelligence … [and] it needs but a faint tinkle from the mechanism to despatch a compelling armament to any whither it may be called…  The old principle of maintaining permanent garrisons round the world suited very well an age anterior to that of steam and electricity.  It has passed out of date with the stage coach and the lumbering sailing transport.’

The Gazette was ahead of itself; even today, the United States garrisons the planet, and waging war over long distances still usually involves the physical movement of troops and supplies (the cardinal exception is cyberwar: more on that later).  Martin van Creveld‘s Supplying War (1977; 2004) suggested that ‘logistics make up as much as nine tenths of the business of war, and … the mathematical problems involved in calculating the movements and supply of armies are, to quote Napoleon, not unworthy of a Leibnitz or a Newton….  From time immemorial questions of supply have gone far to govern the geography of military operations.’

Halvard Buhaug and Nils Petter Gleditsch reckon that this is still the case; they concluded (in 2006) that ‘The main factor to limit the military reach of armed force is not the range of the artillery or the combat radius of attack planes.  The largest obstacles to remote military operations relate to transportation and logistics.’

Stores for the Prussian siege of Paris at Cologne station

There is a contentious backstory to Creveld’s main thesis – that before 1914  ‘armies could only be fed as long as they kept moving’, foraging (and pillaging) as they went – which has sparked an ongoing debate about the logistics of early modern siege warfare and pitched battle.  But by the time of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) it was already clear – to the Prussians at least – that the railway had transformed the business of war.  ‘We are so convinced of the advantage of having the initiative in war operations that we prefer the building of railways to that of fortresses,’ Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke had declared: ‘One more railway crossing the country means two days’ difference in gathering an army, and it advances operations just as much.’

Armand Mattelart discusses the strategic implications of this in The invention of communication (1996, pp. 198-208), but the role of the railway in supplying modern war has been described in great detail by Christian Wolmar.  He contrasts the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 – ‘the last significant conflict before the invention of railways’ – which was over in less than a day, leaving 40,000 men dead, with the Battle of Verdun, ‘which lasted most of 1916’ and resulted in 700,000 dead and wounded soldiers.  The crucial difference, according to Wolmar, was the railway, that ‘engine of war’, and here – as elsewhere – the chronology is complicated.  The Franco-Prussian War was indeed a significant waystation, but events didn’t work out quite as von Moltke had envisaged.  The railways certainly speeded the mobilization of Prussian troops but, as Wolmar explains,

‘The Germans had expected to fight the war on or around the border and had even prepared contingency plans to surrender much of the Rhineland, whereas in fact they found that, thanks to French incompetence, they were soon heading for the capital.  The war, consequently, took place on French rather than German territory, much to the surprise of Moltke, upsetting his transportation plans, which had relied on using Prussia’s own railways. The distance between the front and the Prussian railheads soon became too great to allow for effective distribution, and supplies of food for both men and horses came from foraging and purchases of local produce.’

Back to a world of foraging and laying siege.  The decisive moment was probably (as Wolmar’s vignette abut Verdun suggests) the First World War of 1914-1918.  Even as late as 1870, Creveld argues, ammunition formed less than 1 per cent of all supplies, whereas in the first months of the First World War  the proportion of ammunition to other supplies was reversed:

‘‘To a far greater extent than in the eighteenth century, strategy became an appendix of logistics.  The products of the machine – shells, bullets, fuel, sophisticated engineering materials – had finally superseded those of the field as the main items consumed by armies, with the result that warfare, this time shackled by immense networks of tangled umbilical cords, froze and turned into a process of mutual slaughter on a scale so vast as to stagger the imagination.’

Empty shell casings and ammunition boxes,  a sample of the ammunition used by the British Army in the bombardment of Fricourt on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916 [Australian War Memorial, AWM H08331]

In August 1914, for example, British field guns had a total of 1,000 shells available at or approaching the front lines; by June 1916 each eighteen-pound gun had 1,000 shells stockpiled at its firing position, and by 1918 Britain had over 10,000 guns, howitzers and trench mortars in the field.  An elaborate system of light ‘trench railways’ was constructed on the Western Front to transport the ammunition to the front lines. (A note for afficionados of crime fiction: see Andrew Martin’s The Somme stations [2011]).

Supply of munitions on the Western Front

It’s that toxic combination of movement and stasis that was (and remains) so shattering.  As Modris Eksteins described it in Rites of Spring: The Great War and the birth of the modern age (1989),

‘The war had begun with movement, movement of men and material on a scale never before witnessed in history.  Across Europe approximately six million men received orders in early August [1914] and began to move… [And them for two years, 1916 and 1917] this new warfare that cost millions of men their lives … moved the front line at most a mile or so in either direction.’

And it was locked down in part because men and material continued to be moved up to the front lines.

Now Creveld’s argument was limited to ground forces – he said nothing about sea power or air power – and was confined to war in Europe, and these are significant caveats.  During the Second World War the Battle for the Atlantic was crucial.  Churchill famously declared that ‘Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.’   There is a rich literature on convoys and submarine attacks that I’m only just beginning to explore.  Although the Allies lost 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships, however, more than 99 per cent of ships sailing to and from the beleaguered British Isles survived the crossing.

If we enlarge the scale to consider the supply of war materials beyond the European theatre – as in this graphic which shows US global logistics during the Second World War – then the complexity and vulnerability of the supply chain becomes even clearer.

The deployment of air forces also imposed logistical problems, as this graphic from the Illustrated London News showed:

It’s worth remembering that today’s use of UAVs like the Predator and Reaper in distant theatres of war and conflict zones also requires the transport of the aircraft, ground crews and the crews responsible for take-off and landing; once airborne, the missions are usually flown from the continental United States but they involve an extended global network of supplies, personnel and communications.

In fact, writing in 2004 Creveld concluded that since 1945 the logistics burden had not eased nor had armed forces increased their operational freedom.  The two most important changes have been an even greater reliance on petrol/gasoline (a key target of Allied bombing in the final stages of the Second World War) which, by the 1990s, had displaced ammunition to become the single bulkiest commodity to be shipped to supply distant wars, and a dramatic increase in outsourcing through the use of private military contractors.

I provided a sketch of how these two developments bear on the contemporary logistics of supplying war in Afghanistan in a long essay at open Democracy, and I’ve provided a short update here. This was my conclusion:

‘Over the last decade a new political economy of war has come into view.  We have become aware of late modern war’s proximity to neoliberalism through privatisation and outsourcing (‘just-in-time war’) and its part in the contemporary violence of accumulation by dispossession.  The rapacious beneficiaries of the business of war have been swollen by the transformation of the military-industrial complex into what James der Derian calls the military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET). And the very logic of global financial markets has been subsumed in what Randy Martin calls today’s ‘derivative wars’.  These are all vital insights, but it is important not to overlook the persistence of another, older and countervailing political economy that centres on the persistence of the friction of distance even in the liquid world of late modernity.  To repeat: the world is not flat – even for the US military.  In a revealing essay on contemporary logistics Deborah Cowen has shown how the United States has gradually extended its ‘zone of security’ outwards, not least through placing border agents around the world in places like Port Qasim [in Pakistan] so that the US border becomes the last not the first line of defence through which inbound flows of commodities must pass.   She shows, too, how the securitization security of the supply chain has involved new legal exactions and new modes of militarization that materially affect port access, labour markets and trucking systems.  Affirming the developing intimacy, truly the liaison dangereuse between military and commercial logistics, the US Defense Logistics Agency envisages a similar supply chain for its outbound flows that aim to provide ‘uninterrupted support to the warfighter’ (‘full spectrum global support’) and a ‘seamless flow of materiel to all authorized users.’  And yet, as I hope I have demonstrated, this is the ‘paper war’ that, 180 years ago, Clausewitz contrasted so scathingly with ‘real war’.  The friction of distance constantly confounds the extended supply chain for the war in Afghanistan.  This is no simple metric (‘the coefficient of distance’) or physical effect (though the difficult terrain undoubtedly plays a part).  Rather, the business of supplying war produces volatile and violent spaces in which – and through which – the geopolitical and the geo-economic are still locked in a deadly embrace.’

And, as that last phrase signals, I’ll need to deepen and extend all these arguments for the book-length version of Deadly embrace.  We are still a long way from the Montreal Gazette’s nineteenth-century dream of ‘frictionless war’.

Logistics and dialectics

Shortly before Pakistan re-opened its borders with Afghanistan to NATO’s military convoys, I described the (political and economic) frictions of distance involved in supplying the war in Afghanistan in an essay for Open Democracy.  I described the two main supply lines, the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication and the Northern Distribution Network, and the intricate system of political concessions and pay-offs each involved.

The border crossings reopened on 5 July, after a break of seven months, but the convoys have been reduced to a trickle by bureaucratic delays and by drivers’ demands for compensation for the long lay-off.

Re-opening the border provoked angry demonstrations in Pakistan.  Standing at the Torkham Gate at the Khyber Pass a local leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, a right-wing Islamist party, declared that ‘NATO supply is haram [forbidden] and against sharia’ and promised to issue a fatwa against it.

But, according to an AP report this morning, it is not only the US military that is relieved at the opening of its supply lines: so too are the Taliban.  Previous reports in The Nation by Aram Roston, together with a scathing Congressional investigation, Warlord Inc., documented the routes through which the Pentagon’s logistics contracts made provision for payments to insurgents not to attack their convoys.  The central mechanism for the privatisation of the supply chain was Host Nation Trucking, which was cancelled in August 2011 (three months before the border closed).

It was replaced by a new National Afghan Trucking contract, but more than half of the 20 contractors involved in the new scheme had been prime or subcontractors under the previous contract, and convoy security was still in the hands of private contractors.  John Tierney, the Democrat chair of the original Congressional investigation, was exasperated: ‘We are right back to the same people that were involved in the problem that instigated the investigation.’  And, as the AP report suggests, this includes the Taliban:

 ‘The insurgents have earned millions of dollars from Afghan security firms that illegally paid them not to attack trucks making the perilous journey from Pakistan to coalition bases throughout Afghanistan… Pakistan’s decision to close its border to NATO supplies in November in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops significantly reduced the flow of cash to militants operating in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the convoys travel up from Pakistan, said Taliban commanders…

 “Stopping these supplies caused us real trouble,” a Taliban commander who leads about 60 insurgents in eastern Ghazni province told The Associated Press in an interview. “Earnings dropped down pretty badly. Therefore the rebellion was not as strong as we had planned.” A second Taliban commander who controls several dozen fighters in southern Kandahar province said the money from security companies was a key source of financing for the insurgency, which uses it to pay fighters and buy weapons, ammunition and other supplies.  “We are able to make money in bundles,” the commander told the AP by telephone. “Therefore, the NATO supply is very important for us.”

[The] commanders said they were determined to get their cut as the flow of trucks resumes from Pakistan…  “We charge these trucks as they pass through every area, and they are forced to pay,” said the commander operating in Ghazni. “If they don’t, the supplies never arrive, or they face the consequence of heavy attacks. … We have had to wait these past seven months for the supply lines to reopen and our income to start again… Now work is back to normal.”‘