Afghanistan ‘Zero Option’ Creates Challenges for Military Logisticians
If U.S. troops must completely withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, the scramble to move people and cargo will test the military’s vaunted logistics capabilities.
In the absence of an agreement between the U.S. and Afghan governments over the status of American forces past Dec. 31, all 34,000 troops will have to leave the country and 80 operating bases will have to be closed down by year's end. So far, there is no agreement in sight, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week ordered U.S. commanders to prepare for the so-called “zero option.”
Military logisticians — whose job of transporting troops and cargo already is made difficult by Afghanistan’s land-locked location and tough terrain — are drawing up plans to expedite operations if so ordered.
“We have developed a number of options in order to meet whatever the final decision is,” said Air Force Gen. William M. Fraser III, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Feb. 27, Fraser said a complete withdrawal is doable despite the short timeframe. “We have sufficient capability through both organic and commercial capabilities to meet whatever decision is made,” he said. “We can travel via ground through the northern distribution network.”
U.S. Transportation Command created the northern distribution network in 2009 after Pakistan denied NATO supply routes. The network combines trucking, rail and sealift. It gives U.S. forces access routes into Afghanistan from Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
U.S. officials have secured transit agreements and overflight rights from countries in the region, which will be immensely helpful as troops and equipment leave Afghanistan, Fraser said. “Getting those agreements is giving us options, whereby we can go and fly things out of the theater, fly to another location, and then onward move it back to the United States via sea.”
Fraser said the most cost-effective route is through Pakistan. Despite recent difficulties in moving cargo through that country, Pakistan’s southern port is “working very well, and we continue to move goods both out of and into Afghanistan,” he said.
Army Col. Glenn Baca, director of operations at the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, told National Defense that nearly half of the cargo leaving Afghanistan in recent weeks has been airlifted because ground routes through Pakistan were disrupted by protesters. The protests, stirred by recent U.S. drone strikes, were led by activists from the political party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. They blocked a major NATO supply route, Baca said. “In the last few weeks, the redeployment has been mostly by air because we've had impediments moving through Pakistan.”
Baca estimated that about 30,000 pieces need to be sent back, and more than two-thirds are shipping containers. The other 30 percent are rolling stock, including armored vehicles. The Army alone has $10 billion worth of equipment in Afghanistan that will be coming back.
In addition to security concerns, U.S. transportation officials have had to contend with a burdensome Afghan bureaucracy that keeps imposing new fees and restrictions on shipments, Baca said. “As the Afghan government has gotten more capable, they have gotten more bureaucratic,” he said. “When we were first moving into Afghanistan we had relative freedom of movement” without having to clear customs or coordinate movements with the local authorities.
Now the Afghan government is looking for ways to generate revenue, and has created customs processes that have become a “pretty significant impediment to our movement,” Baca said.
The Afghan Public Protection Force, or APPF, is the only authorized security force for private and commercial movement through Afghanistan. “APPF is a means to create revenue,” he said. “You have to coordinate for convoy escorts and security through APPF and that process is somewhat cumbersome and has slowed us to some extent.”
Baca said he is still hopeful for a bilateral security agreement that would give U.S. forces more time to withdraw and logisticians more breathing room.
He recalled the chaotic departure from Iraq in December 2011 after nine years of war. It was organized chaos, he said. “When the Iraq agreement couldn’t be signed and the ‘zero option’ was decided, the last 90 days was a hectic retrograde movement.”
But Baca, like Fraser, insisted that their troops are prepared for whatever comes next. “We have options, we have capacity and we have capability, and we developed all of this in order to respond to whatever the decision is.”
Greater use of airlift, Baca noted, will increase costs, compared to surface and sea transportation. The mission can be accomplished “effectively,” Baca said, but not necessarily “economically.”