Equipment drawdown from Afghanistan an ‘enormous’ undertaking
March 23, 2013
KUWAIT -- With the pace of NATO’s drawdown from Afghanistan accelerating, the international coalition is faced with the unprecedented task of removing tens of thousands of tons of equipment and vehicles from a country still very much at war.
For the U.S. military, moving 35,000 vehicles and 95,000 shipping containers full of cargo to various bases in America or overseas is easier said than done.
Maj. Gen. Kurt Stein, commander of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command, said during a visit to Kuwait last month that getting the supplies and equipment out of Afghanistan will be an “enormous” mission.
“It will be historic, it’s nothing like we have ever done in the history of our military.” The 1st TSC has a leading role in the equipment drawdown, or as they refer to it — “retrograde.”
Afghanistan is landlocked, and transit routes to the nearest seaport in Pakistan are long, politically tenuous and vulnerable to attack. The alliance’s northern supply route, snaking overland through Central Asia and Russia to Poland and the Baltics, also is difficult due to the logistics of coordinating truck and rail transport.
Stein, who also oversaw the pull-out of equipment from Iraq, said there could be no comparison between the complexity of the two operations.
In Iraq, most of the gear was driven down regular highways into nearby Kuwait where logistics hubs were set up to ship it back to the U.S. after the last combat troops left Iraq. Kuwait also was a safe haven where the vehicles and equipment could be prepared without having to worry about enemy attacks.
In contrast, Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, primitive winding roads and the danger of attack present a much more daunting challenge for planners.
And, there is no neighboring country with support facilities such as were available in Kuwait.
And while NATO allies plan on moving much equipment through the northern route, Stein maintains it will not figure significantly in the U.S. withdrawal. Current plans call for most of the gear to be trucked through the Pakistani port of Karachi, and then shipped onward.
Another option — an expensive one — is to fly the equipment out.
We will use “all of the above” methods, said Stein. “Some will go straight back, but very little. Our goal is to put most of it on ships. We don’t want to fly it all the way back to the United States,” he said, citing the cost to taxpayers. The goal, offiicals said, is to move the equipment out as cost effectively as possible.
The plan is to fly equipment to bases in Jordan, Dubai and Oman, where the equipment can be taken to sea ports and sailed back to the U.S. But officials gave no estimates as to what would be transferred where.
First TSC anticipates having to retrograde 1,500 vehicles and 1,000 20-foot shipping containers a month to finish by the time the U.S. completes withdrawal of combat forces at the end of 2014.
However, Stein stresses only non-essential equipment is being moved out of Afghanistan and the main drawdown has yet to begin.
“What we’re really doing is setting the conditions for success for our future retrograde. So we’re making sure our policies and procedures, and authorities are in place to do what we have to do once the big retrograde process might begin,” Stein said, without specifying when that would be.
Troops in Afghanistan may find themselves fighting as they move equipment out of Afghanistan, a key difference from the Iraq drawdown.
However, analysts and military officials say it’s unlikely the insurgents will actively seek to disrupt the withdrawal since it’s in their strategic interest that the coalition forces leave as quickly as possible.
Stein is convinced the proper security will be in place all the way to the end of the drawdown.
And, despite all the challenges, Stein is confident the U.S. can meet its December 2014 goal: “We might still be doing a little bit of work. But it will be about that time,” he said.
“There is no other organization in the world besides the U.S. military that can do this. There is no doubt about that.”