The $5.7 billion Defense Department logistical plan to withdrawal U.S. forces and equipment from Afghanistan needs a second look to decide what's worth bringing home, said a federal watchdog agency.
The military services also need to come up with a better inventory of what they already have in Afghanistan to aid the Pentagon in eliminating excess items from the list slated for the trip back to the states, the Government Accountability Office said in a study released Wednesday.
"There is no specific guidance requiring the military services to assess and document the cost and benefits associated with the return of equipment from Afghanistan, and they have not done so," the GAO report said.
As a result, planners have little to go on in deciding whether it would cost more to bring an item home than it would to leave it behind for the Afghans or destroy it, the report said.
"Based on our analysis, this is particularly problematic when considering whether or not to return equipment that is excess to current requirements," the report said. "When an excess item is returned without consideration of the costs and benefits, there is increased risk of unnecessary expenditures on transportation and storage of unneeded items."
The report also warned that the plan for withdrawing equipment by ground – either by the northern route through Russia, or the southern route through Pakistan – could be troublesome because of the volatile politics of the region.
"Some of the transportation options have limited operational capability for the return of equipment due to the region's complex geopolitical environment," wrote the GAO. The Pentagon currently wants to pull out about 750,000 items of equipment worth of $36 billion, ranging from hulking MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles to laptops and office furniture, the GAO said. The estimated cost for transporting the gear is $5.7 billion.
Military logistics personnel have already begun moving some of the gear by air, since the northern and southern land routes are still mostly being used to bring supplies into Afghanistan, the report said.
The overall plan calls for the overwhelming bulk of the equipment – about 69% -- to come out by air, and the remainder to come out by land through Pakistan or Russia, the GAO said.
Unlike other GAO reports, the study titled "DoD Decision Makers Need Additional Analyses to Determine Costs and Benefits of Returning Excess Equipment" was not requested by Congress, but it was distributed to several committees. The report originated from Gene Dodaro, the Comptroller General of the U.S. and head of the GAO, under his authority to commission studies on his own initiative.
Despite the GAO's conclusion that the equipment withdrawal blueprint needed fine tuning, it was still far ahead of the plan for troop withdrawals under President Obama's order to have all 66,000 U.S. combat troops now in Afghanistan back home by the end of 2014.
The pace of withdrawals has been left up in the air while the U.S. tries to negotiate a new Status of Forces agreement with President Hamid Karzai on the size and responsibilities of a U.S. advisory and counter-terrorism force that would remain in Afghanistan past 2014.
Marine Gen. John Allen, the coalition commander in Afghanistan who has been tasked with developing a troop plan, also has been under investigation by the Pentagon's Inspector General over his email correspondence with Florida socialite Jill Kelley, whose complaint to the FBI led to disclosure of the affair between then-CIA Director David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell.
Coalition partners have already begun withdrawals or signaled their intentions to cut troops significantly in 2013. France pulled out all of its 3,000 combat troops this month, and Britash Prime Minister David Cameron announced Wednesday that 3,800 of the 9,000 British troops in Afghanistan would be pulled out in 2013.
In what was his likely farewell visit to the troops in Afghanistan last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Afghan National Security Forces now have the lead in about 75 percent of the country. Allen plans "to be able to transition 100 percent of the responsibility ultimately to the Afghans" in 2013.
"And at that time, what we'll do is maintain an enduring presence here," Panetta said.
At a later meeting with Karzai in Kabul, Panetta said that details on the size and mission of the post-2014 force would be worked out at a White House conference with President Obama during the week of Jan. 7, but one of the options that have surfaced is for a force of 10,000 or less.
"We'll have a presence here that will continue to work with the Afghans, work on counterterrorism, do training and assistance, continue in an advisory capacity to try to assist them, and to give them the support they need in order to accomplish the mission," Panetta said.
One of the sticking points in reaching a new Status of Forces agreement with Karzai has been the U.S. insistence for immunity from Afghan law for U.S. troops. All U.S. forces were withdrawn from Iraq when a similar agreement could not be reached.
In sending 33,000 surge troops to Afghanistan in 2010, Obama announced that all combat troops would leave by 2014. Allen's formal plans on withdrawal have yet to be sent to the White House, although Defense Department officials initially had said that they were to be ready last month.
Before leaving Afghanistan, Panetta told troops in Kandahar that "this is a long-term commitment" in Afghanistan, "but the fact is that, you know, we have -- we spilled a lot of blood here. All of you spilled a lot of blood here. We've got almost over 2,000 who've been killed in action here in Afghanistan, about 18,000 that have been wounded. And the Afghans have lost a lot of their own."
With the year coming to a close, the coalition was on track to have the fewest killed in action since the 295 (155 U.S.) in 2008. Through Dec. 20, a total of 396 coalition troops (307 U.S.) had been killed in Afghanistan in 2012, according to the website icasualties.org.