There will be a “final act” in the NATO-led counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan: In 2015 or later, a logistician will place a customs seal on a container or a pallet of equipment, and it will be loaded onto a truck or an aircraft for movement to an Afghan location where it can be aggregated for shipment back to Europe or the U.S.
Signs are already emerging that the costs of this operation could well be far higher than had been expected.
Recent U.K. figures released to Parliament suggest the average cost of moving a classic 20-ft. ISO container from Afghanistan back to Britain would be £5,000-12,000 ($8,000-19,000) for a land-transported container, and £10,000-30,000 by air directly back to the U.K. or flown to a staging point and then moved by rail or sea.
This is far higher than previously released data that estimated £4,000 for a ground/rail-shipped ISO container, and £8,000 for airlift. The U.K. has somewhere around 12,000-15,000 ISO containers worth of equipment in Afghanistan, together with more than 500 vehicles. As all “warlike equipment,” or sensitive items that the allies do not want to “go missing” en route to their native countries will have to be moved by air, the costs already were high.
A rough calculation of the move for the U.K., puts it at £200 million for the container-loads, and an extra £50-75 million for outsized airlift. This compares with an original bill of “around £100 million pounds.” These calculations assume that everything runs smoothly for any drawdown, and there is not an overwhelming reliance on air movements. But that might be a tall order: 80% of all equipment with British forces in Afghanistan today was moved by air, because ground lines of communication were just not there.
Meanwhile, other Helmand-based NATO forces have 4,000-6,000 containers' worth of equipment, and 400-plus vehicles. The total U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has a footprint of some 20,000 containers of equipment, and 30,000-40,000 vehicles of all types.
The planning and execution of the drawdown are complicated by several interlocking factors. First, since all NATO members in Afghanistan are talking about the same time frame, there is a worry among the different logistics commands that there could be “contractual fratricide”—in effect, all NATO forces will be bidding to hire the same local transport contractors, and they will be able to play each customer against the others. This happened during the U.K. withdrawal from Iraq.
Second, key airlift assets are already in short supply, making them even more important—and expensive. Antonov An-124 airlifters have been extensively used to transport outsized loads, mainly mine-resistant, ambush-protected and armored fighting vehicles into theatre—a role they will have to reprise on the way out. While there are around two dozen An-124s readily available for charter, more than a dozen NATO nations will be bidding to rent them. And they will have outside competition—they are also sought by Formula One teams to move between races, and by China-based toy and computer companies to get products to Western markets in time for the holidays.
The pressure on supply chains through the recently reopened Pakistan border crossing in Karachi, as well as the Northern Ground Line of Communications via Uzbekistan and the Trans-Siberian Railway, will only rise. All NATO nations will try to backload equipment as far in advance of the formal combat drawdown as possible, and will face congestion around the withdrawal points. The routes through Pakistan are, not surprisingly, regarded by planners as being fragile.
The building of a new passenger terminal at Camp Bastion/Leatherneck shows that planners are beginning to recognize that air transport might have to be the solution to holdups in the land routes, enemy action, and the requirements of specialized, valued equipment.
Even local disposition will be costly and difficult. Small arms ammunition is being burnt off in specially designed facilities. When this was undertaken in Iraq, the facilities were sometimes not that dissimilar from big ovens. But current facilities being installed in Afghanistan have to meet environmental standards to limit gases being released. As even 5.56-mm ammunition weighs at least 30 kg (66 lb.) per case in fully packaged form, shipping back hundreds of thousands of rounds that are no longer useable or safe represents a massive task. The British estimate that more than 30% of small arms ammunition is past safe use, and because ammunition is cheap it is just not worthwhile to manually check thousands of rounds to establish which could be salvaged.