By Daniel Wasserbly
The US Army, owner of the bulk of military equipment in Afghanistan, is expecting to leave about USD5 billion worth of gear behind when it has completed a withdrawal operation at the end of 2016.
In January 2014 the army estimated that it had about USD15 billion worth of equipment still deployed in Afghanistan, where the United States has been involved in combat operations since 2001, the country’s longest-ever war.
“We’re divesting some of it. We’re destroying some of it in place [because] some of it is not economically feasible to return, and we’re determining what assets can be declared excess defence articles [EDAs] that in fact we could sell to other partners or allies,” General Dennis Via, head of US Army Material Command (AMC), told reporters during a 23 July breakfast meeting in Washington, DC.
Army staffers have specific processes for determining what will be overhauled and returned to the US or to global pre-positioned stocks – through a process called retrograde – and what is considered a lesser priority and therefore can be sold or destroyed.
Advanced weapon systems that were most recently deployed to Afghanistan are generally at the top of the list for retrograde, while broken down or non-lethal systems could stay behind.
Also expected to be left are non-programme of record systems that were quickly developed and acquired to meet specific needs in Afghanistan. For example, Gen Via said AMC is still working to settle on which and how many mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) truck variants are to return to US service.
He explained that the Pentagon provides AMC a categorically prioritised list of which systems to bring home, as well as a list of which systems can be ‘divested’, meaning they will be sold or destroyed.
The command is already working with the US Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to demilitarise or destroy some lethal equipment being left behind, and to conduct ‘white sales’ that seek to quickly offload non-lethal equipment at auction, the first of which was kicked off late last year at Bagram Air Field near Kabul.
That sale includes “a variety of previously used, commercial off-the-shelf items such as pneumatic tools, air conditioning units, office furniture, tractors, water trucks, forklifts and construction machinery”, the army said in an early July report.
The US military is withdrawing to a force of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan by the beginning of 2015, and the troop presence would then drop to a regular embassy and office sized staff by the end of 2016, so even now it requires fewer items such as showers, water trucks, or trenching machines.
The sale at Bagram is the first of several white sales planned across the country, the army said.
“War is inefficient just in and of itself; you’re going to have a percentage of loss of equipment and supplies,” Gen Via said, adding that he is “comfortable the processes that we have in place are going to bring back the equipment that we see as being most valuable to meeting future military requirements”.
Redeploying forces and equipment from Afghanistan is particularly difficult and costly given the topography and geopolitics. “It’s one of the most logistically challenging places in the world, the majority [of equipment] we’re having to fly out,” Gen Via said.
The best ground routes – the Quetta route from Kandahar and the Khyber route from Kabul and Bagram Airfield – have been closed or opened depending on relations with Pakistan, and the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) is a circuitous and costly route based on various agreements with Russia and Central Asian states. Gen Via noted that US-Russian disagreements over issues such as Ukraine and Syria have not affected that network to date.
Once gear returns from Afghanistan, the army expects it will take about three years and more than USD10 billion to ‘reset’ everything from vehicles, to weapons, and night vision devices.
“It takes a period of time after the equipment gets back to be inducted” into a depot maintenance programme, Gen Via said, adding that he projected this would be funded through supplemental overseas contingency operations (OCO) budgets over the three years, although such funding could become a difficult sell to Congress after operations wind down.
US military officials have raised concern that OCO budgets will wither too quickly following redeployments from Afghanistan, and cause the services to lose a valuable funding stream for resetting equipment that in some cases has been heavily worn down during operations but is still needed for future contingencies.
Indeed, some in the US Congress are considering legislative efforts to bar the use of OCO funding for certain functions, although so far any such amendments under consideration are meant to keep the supplemental budget from being used to obviate ‘sequestration’, legal caps on the base budget, by adding money elsewhere.