President Obama made quite a splash with his announcement that almost everything is locked in for the withdrawal of American combat troops from Afghanistan.
This month in Chicago, he and his top NATO colleagues will nail down exactly how and when the next milestones take place, and who'll foot the bill. Obama is making the pitch that he is delivering what he promised in extricating U.S. troops from Iraq and now Afghanistan, and the final pieces are coming together.
Terrific. So how is the Army actually going to get a decade's worth of stuff home and out of Afghanistan? The vital ground supply routes through Pakistan remain closed after last year's cross-border air strike, and a senior White House national security official declined Friday to say whether it was a question of "when" or "whether" they would re-open.
"We’re not in the game of predictions here, so I’d rather not get into predicting what's gonna happen," said Denis McDonough, Obama's deputy national security advisor. He met with DoDBuzz and other bloggers ahead of this weekend's Military.com Milblog conference, taking place outside Washington.
McDonough said the Obama administration had been "very impressed watching how our forces on the ground have been able to mange the situation with them closed," and he said that commanders obviously "plan for a range of contingencies and we're ready for those." The U.S. thinks Pakistan should re-open the supply routes, and when it does, "that would be an indicator of an improved relationship," he said.
Still, despite negotiations and visits by ISAF commander Gen. John Allen and Central Command boss Gen. James Mattis, it does not appear that Islamabad wants to play ball. In the meantime, logistics costs have escalated as NATO forces have relied exclusively on their northern distribution routes and thousands of vehicles bound for the Afghan army remain bottled up in Pakistan or blocked from transport there.
As our senior Army logistics correspondent Michael Hoffman wrote this week, planners are already figuring out how they'll "retrograde" all the U.S. gear out of Afghanistan, and not having the Pakistani conduits will make that much more difficult. Even if they were reopened, the Afghanistan pullout still would be tougher than the one from Iraq.
Pakistan's decision to shut down its border to coalition convoys will make the job significantly harder. Maj. Gen. Kevin Leonard, the head of Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, said the military withdraw will cost five times more than if the Army had access to Pakistani sea ports.It'll add more expense to an already expensive war, but with public support for Afghanistan plumbing new depths, Washington may find that the handover and withdrawal will be worth the price.
Commanders who led the Iraqi withdrawal spoke Wednesday at the Association of the U.S. Army's Sustainment Symposium, telling the crowd of Army officers and defense industry leaders their counterparts in Afghanistan will struggle without access to the network of sea ports they had in Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan.
"When we talk about the complexity of Iraq and then consider the complexity of [Operation Enduring Freedom] drawdown. It is an order of magnitude higher in terms of the degree of difficulty," said Col. James B. Stanford, commander of the 595th Transportation Brigade.
The Army logistics officers called Kuwait the "catcher's mitt" as it absorbed one convoy after another packed with everything from rifles to computers to ice cream machines. From Oct. 11, 2011 to Dec. 18, 2011, the Army drove 481 convoys and "retrograded" over 16,000 truckloads of supplies.
"We don't have a Kuwait in Afghanistan so it's a different program. The relationship with Kuwait was absolutely key to the whole thing," said Lt. Gen. Raymond V. Mason, the U.S. Army deputy chief of staff for logistics. Along with its access to the sea, Kuwait provided soldiers a safe haven to collect supplies from a multitude of bases, to sort through them, and then pack them for shipment. In Afghanistan, soldiers will have to do all of that on site.
"The challenge of Afghanistan is that you're not going to get economies of scale like you got in Kuwait. You're going to always have to do it in place," Mason said. "Afghanistan is spread out, it's decentralized. When you get economies of scale you're more efficient. In Afghanistan we're not going to be as efficient as we'd like to be."