Equipment Bottlenecks Could Slow 2014 Afghanistan Withdrawal
Toolan, who recently returned from a year-long deployment as commander of the 2nd Marine Division, told defense reporters April 24 that it could take longer than two years to clear the massive stores of vehicles and other equipment built up over a year of combat.
Lifting equipment by air is faster but “extremely expensive," he said. The other option is ground transportation through the northern distribution network into Pakistan, portions of which have been closed since a NATO airstrike in November in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed.
“If they want us out of there by 2014, Pakistan is going to have to open up their lines or we won’t be able to get our stuff out of there,” Toolan said.
Half of the equipment the Marine Corps owns, including thousands of heavy mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs, is in Afghanistan, Toolan said.
“For 10 years we’ve just been bringing stuff in,” he said.
MRAPs are a special problem because they are too big and heavy to be loaded on ships. Army and Marine Corps commanders have been scouting locations to store them, Toolan said. He couldn’t say exactly how many tactical vehicles the Marines currently have in theater, but said there are “ a lot, a whole lot.”
Toolan said he hopes the removal of equipment from Afghanistan goes more smoothly than it did in Iraq, a process he characterized as “messy.”
“This time we’ll do it a heck of a lot better,” he said.
But not every piece of hardware has to be brought back. An agreement signed April 23 between the United States and the Afghan government has some troops staying until 2017 in support of the Afghan National Army and local police forces.
Those remaining U.S. troops will be primarily special operations forces who will be tasked with training Afghan infantry and operators of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.
Aircraft present a particular challenge, as U.S. forces have provided nearly all the air mobility throughout the country. “We need to keep our operational mobility up to provide theater-wide support” to the Afghans, he said.
To compensate for reduced numbers of cargo aircraft, the Marine Corps recently deployed two unmanned helicopters that Toolan said would likely remain past 2014, possibly under Afghan control. Capable of moving 10,000 pounds of cargo up to 100 miles by remote control, Marines have now fielded two K-MAX unmanned helicopters built by Kaman in partnership with Lockheed Martin.
“They ought to keep those things out there,” Toolan said. “When I left we were flying them every day. They’re great. Now we’re teaching the Afghans to fly them.”
Toolan declined to comment on the diplomatic process that is under way to reopen the northern border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but said policymakers were hard at work trying to get supplies flowing again.
Ironically, while that border is closed to U.S. military supplies, steady supply of drugs and weapons continue to flow through, he said. Meanwhile, Pakistani army units stationed on the other side refuse to stanch the flood of contraband.
“Lethal aid [to Taliban insurgents] is coming in and drugs are going out,” Toolan said. “We interdict a lot, but I’m told by the [U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency] that it’s only 12 percent of the total amount of opium crossing the border. The 12th Corps of the Pakistani army is right there and they’re not doing anything.”
Diplomatic pressure on Pakistan is necessary both to achieve a stable Afghanistan in the short term and to affect a timely withdrawal of U.S. forces in the long run, he said. For now, the border remains an impediment to both goals.
“It’s like I can’t shut the water off, I can only keep mopping the floor,” Toolan said of the porous border and continuous flow of guns and drugs.
Topics: Combat Vehicles