The Army faces a huge challenge in moving its equipment out of Afghanistan when it's time to leave. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Blakeslee / Army)
By the numbers
A look at the how the Army is rolling out of Afghanistan:
52,000: Vehicles in Afghanistan 15 months ago.
20,000: Vehicles there now.
45,000: Shipping and storage containers brought home so far.
95,000: Containers still there.
$50 billion: Value of equipment there 15 months ago.
$30 billion: Value still there.
What’s been taken out:
19,000 pieces of rolling stock.
45,000 20-foot containers of equipment such as tool kits, maintenance parts, communications equipment and tents.
The Army is on track to bring home more than $30 billion in equipment from Afghanistan by its December 2014 deadline, the top logistician in charge of the complex effort told Army Times.
And they’re going to leave $7 billion in gear behind.
“We are very confident we have the proper processes and procedures in place to get our equipment out of Afghanistan and back home,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Stein, commanding general of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command.
In the past 15 months, the 1st TSC has led the effort to sort, pack, move and ship home the thousands of pieces of equipment that have accumulated in Afghanistan over more than a decade of fighting.In that time, the U.S. has brought home about 32,000 vehicles, Stein said.
The retrograde of the military’s equipment comes as the U.S. draws down from Afghanistan. Current plans will cut almost in half the U.S. troop presence by February — from about 60,000 to about 34,000 troops. The U.S. and NATO combat mission in Afghanistan is scheduled to end in December 2014, and there has been no announcement about how many troops may remain in Afghanistan beyond that deadline.
The 1st TSC is responsible for all sustainment in the Central Command area of operations, Stein said.
“Water, fuel, ammunition, sustaining the force, I’m responsible for that,” he said. “Everything that got into Iraq, Afghanistan, has come through the 1st TSC. But there’s little going in now. Most of it’s coming out. As units are off-ramping and not being replaced, that’s the unit equipment we’re bringing home.”
He has the experience — he served as the senior logistician during the Iraq drawdown, as well.
“Many folks don’t really have an understanding of the challenges we have in Afghanistan,” he said. “It was hard in Iraq, but it’s really hard in Afghanistan.”
During the drawdown in Iraq, troops could drive their equipment to Kuwait. There, the equipment was sorted and decisions were made about whether it should be saved, sent home or turned into scrap.
“We don’t have a Kuwait in Afghanistan,” Stein said. “It’s a landlocked country.”
Afghanistan also doesn’t have the roads and infrastructure that Iraq does, and the fighting in Afghanistan is still heated, he said.
“Iraq, at the end, we weren’t in full contact as we are still in Afghanistan,” he said.
One lesson the Army learned from Iraq was providing deploying units with pre-positioned equipment already in theater.
“What we learned early on in Iraq was units can’t be bringing all this stuff in,” he said. “Everybody wants to bring everything, and if they bring everything, we had to control that.”
The U.S. plans to keep or ship home about 76 percent of the equipment. The remaining 24 percent will be divested in theater, officials said.
What gets scrapped
The Army conducts a detailed cost analysis to determine what equipment is worth shipping home, what could be transferred to the Afghan security forces, and what should be scrapped, Stein said.
A new shipping container, or conex, costs $3,500 to $3,800 to buy but about $12,000 to ship back to the U.S., Stein said.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “What we’re doing in that situation is we’re scrapping the containers, and now we sell the scrap metal to the local Afghans. It’s good for them, it’s good for us.”
To do this, the 1st TSC and the Defense Logistics Agency have expanded the military’s ability to turn equipment into scrap, moving scrapping capability from Kandahar Airfield and Bagram Airfield to eight additional locations across the country.
“It’s not smart to put soldiers in harm’s way to move equipment that’s going to get scrapped,” Stein said. “It’s the little things like that that make a difference at the end of the day.”
Other items, such as desks and generators, are transferred to the Afghans, he said.
“Those types of things are not being scrapped unless they’re unserviceable beyond repair,” he said.
Mobile teams of experts embed with deployed units to go through every piece of equipment to determine what should be saved or scrapped, and work with units to transfer items to the Afghans.
This streamlines the process and makes it faster and more efficient, Stein said.
“We’re making decisions forward. We have timely disposition,” he said. “In Iraq, units didn’t have to know where their equipment was going because it could sit in Kuwait. In Afghanistan, I don’t have time, I don’t have space.”
The Army will not leave any “junk” behind, Stein said.
“We’re scrapping it in Afghanistan, and it’s all based on cost analysis — what makes sense to ship and what doesn’t,” he said.
The way out
The military also is making progress — and saving money — on how it’s getting equipment out of Afghanistan, Stein said.
Last summer, about 80 percent of the equipment was being flown out of Afghanistan, either straight back to the U.S. or to neighboring countries for shipment back home.
Now, about 80 percent of the equipment is being moved by ground to ports nearby. Most of the convoys are moving through Pakistan, using the reopened route known as the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication.
The PAKGLOC had been closed to U.S. and NATO supply convoys after a November 2011 friendly fire incident resulted in Pakistani troops being killed by NATO airstrikes.
The ability to move equipment by ground is a “tremendous cost savings to our taxpayers,” Stein said.
Sensitive items are still being flown out of the country, he said.
Now that the initial retrograde push is completed, the Army is dependent on the ongoing drawdown to determine how much equipment it can move and when, Stein said.
“We’re very dependent on units as they come home and aren’t backfilled,” he said. “It’s clearly a combat operation still, and we’re very well connected to [battlefield commanders]. They’re the ones fighting the fight, and I’m sustaining the fight and retrograding the excess materiel.”
There is an “overall, comprehensive” plan to scale down operations in Afghanistan, Stein said.
“As forward operating bases are closing, everything is being descoped,” he said. “[Post exchanges], cleaners, dining facilities. The number of soldiers is going down, so should the number of people supporting soldiers in Afghanistan. The goal is to not move from a little FOB into a bigger one and have Bagram [Airfield] double in size. The goal is to get out of Afghanistan.”