KABUL, Afghanistan -- As the United States begins the major phase of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, military officials say equipment and vehicles are moving out of the country briskly but that planning the final details has been complicated because negotiations with the Afghan government have stalled over how many American troops might remain.
The complex push to get the equipment and vehicles out of land-locked Afghanistan and back to the U.S. is expected to cost up to $7 billion.
A year ago, the U.S. had about 50,000 vehicles in Afghanistan. About 25,000 are left, along with 20,000 shipping containers. About 1,200 damaged, worn-out or outmoded mine-resistant trucks will be chopped up and sold for scrap, and other vehicles will be loaned to partners in the NATO-led coalition here, turned over to Afghan forces or sold to friendly nations, said Brig. Gen. Duane A. Gamble, the deputy commander of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command in Kabul.
The coalition’s combat mission ends in December 2014. Senior U.S. commanders say they expect Afghanistan to sign an agreement calling for some U.S. troops to remain in the country as trainers and advisers, but negotiations over those remaining troops have been on hold for months now.
That’s forced logistics commanders to develop scenarios for what they’ll do if there’s no agreement and all U.S. forces are sent home, simply because they must have plans ready for all the possible situations.
An interim drawdown goal set by President Barack Obama is to reduce the 62,000 U.S. troops here to 34,000 by mid-February, and the departure of equipment and vehicles is essentially keeping pace with that of the troops, Gamble said.
The amount of materiel being shipped out has been relatively steady for months, but it’s expected to accelerate soon as the main part of that drawdown begins with the end of the summer fighting season.
It shouldn’t be a problem to handle that jump in volume, said Col. Jim Utley of U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees the logistics of getting people, vehicles and equipment to and from the United States and foreign operations.
“As the fighting season winds down and units start to redeploy, we’re sure the cargo pace will pick up, but I think we’ve built enough capacity that we can definitely meet the requirements, and we’re on a glide path to meet the presidential drawdown goals, so I think everything is going as well as could be expected,” Utley said.
“To be honest, up to this point, we haven’t really touched our capacity yet in terms of moving things out,” he said. “We built a lot of capacity; we have a lot of different routes, a lot of ways to move things out.”
The main route, via truck through Pakistan to the port of Karachi, for example, has about eight times the capacity that the Army currently is using, he said.
The U.S. has three basic ways to ship people and things out of Afghanistan. The cheapest by far is south through Pakistan. More expensive is the so-called northern distribution network, which is a host of convoluted routes across Afghanistan’s northern boarder through central Asia and various former Soviet bloc nations to several ports. The most expensive route is by air, either short hops to ports such as Dubai or directly back to the United States.
Sensitive cargo such as weapons and communication systems has to be flown, as does most equipment that belongs to units headed home, since they must refurbish it and get it ready in case they’re called to duty.