Leaving Afghanistan demands tough logistical choices
By Matthew Gaul
The U.S. military has tens of thousands of vehicles in Afghanistan. As they depart, the troops can’t just leave all that equipment behind. The Pentagon sells some vehicles to governments in the region … and simply destroys others.
The military sends the rest back to its bases in the U.S. But that ain’t cheap—and might not even be worth it. Now a new report from the Government Accountability Office details the incredible cost of bringing surplus vehicles home.
The GAO looked at vehicles—including Humvees and bomb-deflecting MRAPs—that the Army and Marines returned to the U.S. between October 2012 and October 2013.
“[The Pentagon] returned from Afghanistan or destroyed 14,664 vehicles, an average of 1,128 vehicles per month,” according to the report.
The investigators found that the Defense Department didn’t need more than 1,000 of the trucks. In those cases, the price to ship the equipment outweighed the benefit of keeping it. But the military apparently isn’t considering transportation costs when it decides whether to hold on to a particular MRAP or Humvee.
The Pentagon spends a little more than $5,000 dollars to ship a small vehicle from Afghanistan—and more than $100,000 for a large one like an MRAP. According to the GAO’s numbers, the Defense Department blew between $5 million and a $100 million hauling around stuff it really didn’t need.
And that’s just for a single 12-month period ending in 2013. The rates have gone up since then.
“[The Pentagon] anticipates that the drawdown from Afghanistan will be more complex than was the Iraq effort … one of the most complex logistical operations in U.S. military history,” a senior Defense Department official told investigators.
Army and Marine logisticians apply a complex formula to decide what to keep. They consider the price to repair the vehicle, assess the equipment needs of other bases and consider the possibility of foreign sales.
For some reason, they don’t consider the cost of shipping. Again, transportation between Afghanistan and the U.S. can run more than $100,000 per vehicle.
The Pentagon requires the Army and Marines to get waivers for sending home equipment it doesn’t obviously need. But investigators found that neither the Marine Corps nor the Army is doing that paperwork.
“An item may be returned because it is the newest model of a certain type of equipment, or because there may be an increased requirement for an item in the future,” military officials told investigators.
But the investigators found no documentation to back up such claims for the gear coming back from Afghanistan. Logisticians aren’t maintaining records for what they’re keeping.
The 14,464 vehicles the Pentagon shipped or destroyed in 2013 are only the beginning. There are thousands more still lying around in Afghanistan. And the military can’t decide what to do with them because it doesn’t have a clear idea of what its mission will be in Afghanistan after 2014.
“Units have retained equipment because of uncertainty regarding the future of operational needs in Afghanistan,” a top-level Pentagon official told the GAO.
But the indecision is likely to be temporary. The official added that the number of MRAPs and Humvees the military sends back would probably increase in 2015.
In other words, this whole problem could get a lot worse.
“MRAPs won a reputation for saving American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight told War is Boring via email.
“Given the outrageous price and the likelihood they will only become rusting monuments to America’s misadventure in Afghanistan,” Wheeler added, “it is doubly ironic that the Pentagon can neither leave them all there nor bring them all home.”