An already expensive war in Afghanistan will cost American taxpayers between $5 billion and $10 billion just to pull a decade's worth of weapons, vehicles and supplies out of the country, The Washington Examiner has learned.
The Pentagon has shipped more than $57 billion worth of equipment to Afghanistan, including 53,000 vehicles and nearly 100,000 giant cargo containers filled with all the materiel necessary to wage war in a remote country with limited infrastructure. Now, with U.S. involvement in the war slated to end by 2014, the massive job of pulling as much salvageable gear as possible back home has begun.
More than 1,200 vehicles and 1,000 railroad car-size shipping containers will be pulled out every month until 2014, according to Army Brig. Gen. Edward Dorman, who is running the operation to withdraw the gear.
"We want to make sure we are good stewards of the equipment and the taxpayer dollars the American people entrusted to us," Dorman said in a telephone interview from Kabul.
The mission is tricky: Pull weapon systems and vehicles out in an orderly fashion without exposing U.S. troops to unnecessary danger or compromising the ability to fight the Taliban.
"We're backing out the door while we are still trying to convince the enemy we are fighting them," said one U.S. official, who called the mission "mind-boggling" in its complexity.
Departures from war zones are not typically smooth endeavors. Afghanistan was littered with the carcasses of Soviet tanks, trucks and aircraft from that failed war when U.S. forces first arrived in the country. Soviet tanks still litter parts of the Panjshir River, a blot on the serene beauty of the mountainous north. The U.S. pullout from Vietnam was chaotic, leading to casualties and the loss of million of dollars of equipment, symbolized by the dumping of helicopters into the sea from the decks of aircraft carriers.
Retired Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Timothy Haake, who served with U.S. Special Forces and has traveled to Afghanistan, said the difficulties of getting supplies out of the region are "coupled by the very real possibility that things don't always go as planned.
"We still have several years before we have a complete withdrawal," Haake said. "If Afghanistan is anything, it is unpredictable. We need to ensure that we move at a pace that balances both our troops needs, while at the same time getting our equipment out safely and securely. The situation on the ground will certainly fluctuate between now and then."
Attempting a more orderly withdrawal has its own risks, especially that enemy fighters bide their time until a reduction in weaponry and equipment weakens American forces.
Dorman said only nonsensitive supplies will be sent by convoy through the country; sensitive equipment will be flown out. All equipment is tagged with GPS tracking devices for security, he said.
Much of the American equipment in Afghanistan will be given to the Afghan government, including Humvees, mine-detection equipment, trucks and bulldozers. Most of the 560 bases constructed by the U.S. will be turned over to the Afghan military.
Afghanistan security forces are not expected to receive as much U.S. military equipment, mainly because the U.S. has already substantially funded the government and supplied the Afghan military with new equipment, said Dorman.
To make an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan will require the cooperation of Pakistan and a number of Central Asian countries under the influence of China and Russia. Pakistan closed the two major routes out of Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass and along the highway from Kandahar to the Pakistan border after a clash with NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
"We hope to see the Pakistan supply routes open up again. ... Not only is it beneficial to us but to the Pakistanis as well," Dorman said.
Pakistani officials gave a tacit green light this month, stating that they may reopen the two key routes. A senior Pakistani official told The Washington Examiner that the U.S. would be charged millions of dollars to use the routes if they are reopened.
"As of now, there's no decision as to whether to open or not open these routes," said Nadeem Hotiana, a spokesman for Pakistan's Embassy in Washington.
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.