Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter addresses Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command employees June 18 at the command's headquarters at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. Moving the mountain of military gear out of Afghanistan after more than a decade of war will cost billions of dollars and prove far more difficult than last year's withdrawal from Iraq, Carter says. (Glenn Fawcett / Defense Department)
Moving the mountain of U.S. military gear out of Afghanistan after more than a decade of war will cost billions of dollars and prove far more difficult than last year’s withdrawal from Iraq, the Pentagon’s No. 2 official said Tuesday.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, the Pentagon’s point man for overseeing the draw down in Afghanistan, talked about the challenges in his first extensive interview on pulling out of Afghanistan.
The pace of withdrawal is picking up: About 20,000 U.S. troops and their gear will be coming home by October. There are about 88,000 American forces there now. All U.S. combat forces are to leave by 2014. Meanwhile, the main overland supply route through neighboring Pakistan reopened last week. It had been closed since November after U.S. forces mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops on the border.
“It’s a very austere logistics environment to transport anything,” Carter said. “Combat is still going on. Terrible terrain. Narrow roads. Long way to a seaport. Afghanistan is orders of magnitude more challenging for ... [withdrawal] than was Iraq.”
In Iraq, the military essentially loaded up trucks, drove south a few hundred miles to Kuwait and shipped them home. This year, the Pentagon asked for $2.9 billion to pay for repairing and replacing equipment removed last year.
Landlocked Afghanistan requires a 1,000-mile drive on rough, dangerous road to the port in Karachi, Pakistan. So far, just a trickle of trucks has moved through the two Pakistani border crossings — five trucks in the north, and nine in the south, Carter said. It will take as long as three months for traffic to flow freely through Pakistan there, he said.
Still, that is the best option. Flying equipment out, or using the long, overland route through nations to the north, has added as much as $100 million a month in transportation costs, he said.
“The challenge of getting in and out of Afghanistan tells us a lot about why Osama bin Laden went there in the first place,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant. “The leaders of al-Qaida knew it would be very hard to sustain a war effort in such a place.”
Some of the challenges in Afghanistan, according to Carter, include:
Dismantling 400 bases. Every item has to be inventoried, cleaned and shipped out — back home, or to stocks of equipment positioned around the globe. Some can be left to Afghans, though not much, he says, because they have limited ability to maintain gear.
Returning 100,000 shipping containers, large metal boxes. The military paid more than $610 million in late fees over the past decade to shipping companies for failing to return containers on time, Pentagon records show.