The end of a war brings its own logistical challenges. Getting the troops home from the theater of war takes plenty of planning, especially in an environment still significantly unsecure, as in Afghanistan (and in Iraq, for that matter), but the question of retrieving heavy equipment is even more complicated. With the drawdown date set by Barack Obama approaching, the Pentagon has decided to scrap billions of dollars in equipment rather than deal with the logistical and economic consequences of retrieval:
Facing a tight withdrawal deadline and tough terrain, the U.S. military has destroyed more than 170 million pounds worth of vehicles and other military equipment as it rushes to wind down its role in the Afghanistan war by the end of 2014.
The massive disposal effort, which U.S. military officials call unprecedented, has unfolded largely out of sight amid an ongoing debate inside the Pentagon about what to do with the heaps of equipment that won’t be returning home. Military planners have determined that they will not ship back more than $7 billion worth of equipment — about 20 percent of what the U.S. military has in Afghanistan — because it is no longer needed or would be too costly to ship back home.
That has left the Pentagon in a quandary about what to do with the items. Bequeathing a large share to the Afghan government would be challenging because of complicated rules governing equipment donations to other countries, and there is concern that Afghanistan’s fledgling forces would be unable to maintain it. Some gear may be sold or donated to allied nations, but few are likely to be able to retrieve it from the war zone.
Therefore, much of it will continue to be shredded, cut and crushed to be sold for pennies per pound on the Afghan scrap market — a process that reflects a presumptive end to an era of protracted ground wars. The destruction of tons of equipment is all but certain to raise sharp questions in Afghanistan and the United States about whether the Pentagon’s approach is fiscally responsible and whether it should find ways to leave a greater share to the Afghans.
This may well be the best policy, at least economically speaking, but it looks bad. The cost of bringing back heavy equipment is obviously going to be enormous, and not just because of the space needed for transport back to the US. In Iraq, we had a fairly direct option in lines of communication to transport such equipment, through the port at Umm Qasr. Afghanistan is not only a landlocked country, which means that everything ships by air, but even those lines of communication are complicated. The cost of getting out on this timetable will be that much more expensive.
However, the optics of the decision could be costly, too. If we were leaving as a successful pacification/occupation force, we would have allowed ourselves plenty of time to retrieve our equipment despite the logistical challenges that presents. The need to have that heavy equipment on the ground in an accelerated withdrawal schedule points to the fact that we have not in fact succeeded in Afghanistan in anything other than achieving a stalemate after twelve years of fighting.
We wouldn’t be the first world power to end up leaving under those circumstances, and we can argue that we did better than the Russians and the colonial British in leaving on our own terms. The haste of our exit, as exemplified by our abandonment of billions in military resources, makes that argument a little tougher to make, and in that region, the image of weakness is not a good impression to make.