As the pace of the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan picks up in 2012, military planners are trying to figure out how to ship huge quantities of alliance vehicles, weapons and other equipment out of the mountainous, landlocked country.
The operation requires the removal of $30 billion worth of state-of-the-art military gear by the end of 2014, when U.S. and other coalition troops are to end their combat role, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.
Most of the American equipment will be shipped to military depots in the United States for refurbishment and then redistributed to bases around the country. Some assets will go to bases in Europe, primarily Germany, or in Asian nations like South Korea.
"The stuff we have here is the very best the U.S. has ever produced," the official said. "It's better than anything available (to military units) in the United States."
He spoke on condition of anonymity because the planning for the equipment pullout is still in its initial stages.
Aside from the armored vehicles and trucks, other gear that will be shipped out includes large quantities of armor, communications and optical equipment, as well as large crew-served artillery systems.
In 2011, the U.S.-led coalition began the withdrawal of nearly 140,000 foreign troops serving in Afghanistan, and 10,000 U.S. service members have already pulled out. By the end of this year, another 23,000 Americans are due to depart, along with thousands more allied soldiers, reducing the coalition force in Afghanistan to about 90,000.
The quantity of military equipment that was accumulated here by the United States and its allies in 10 years of war is formidable. Although small amounts have already been removed, the planning is complex due to inherent complications of moving so much heavy gear out of a landlocked nation with problematic relations with some of its neighbors, said the official.
Only a relatively small number of the tens of thousands of vehicles can be flown out by air, because of the high weight of some of them, such as the as the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, and its all-terrain variety, the M-ATV, tipping the scales at many tons each.
Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan shut down the alliance's main transit routes from the port of Karachi in November in response to a NATO air attack on a Pakistani border post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
The alliance has been able to ship equipment and supplies in from the north through Russia and the Central Asian nations. Additional agreements are needed to allow the two-way traffic to transport the equipment back to Europe via the northern route.
During the recent pullout from Iraq, the U.S. military was able to simply drive its vehicles in large convoys to neighboring Kuwait, where a deep sea port was available. In contrast, the main routes out of Afghanistan require vehicles and containers to be loaded on trucks or trains for the onward journey.
"The challenges of geography are enormous," the official said. "I wish Afghanistan was a coastal country with a great port, but it's not."
Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich