The U.S. invaded Afghanistan more than 12 years ago with a contingent of special forces and Central Intelligence Agency officers, some of them on horseback, armed with laser pointers to direct air strikes against al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts.
Getting Americans out again will be more complicated.
While the fighting continues, the U.S. is mounting what may become a $7 billion effort to withdraw most of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year. It will require sending Humvees, helicopters, drones and 12 1/2-ton mine-resistant vehicles home by rail and truck networks stretching from Karachi to ports in the Baltic Sea.
Unlike Iraq, where “the fighting had for a good extent stopped” before the U.S. began to withdraw, in Afghanistan “there’s still certainly an active insurgency and an active fight and essentially we’re in contact with the enemy as we do this,” Alan Estevez, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for logistics, said. “All of those things make it difficult and increase the risk of our departure as we pull out.”
Among the biggest contractors involved in the move are A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S, the Copenhagen-based owner of the world’s largest container line, the American President Lines unit of Singapore-based Neptune Orient Lines Ltd., and Hamburg, Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd AG, according to Estevez.
The shipping companies contract in turn with local trucking companies such as those in Pakistan to carry the cargo to ports, he said.
The U.S. has begun withdrawing troops and war materiel from Afghanistan after the longest war in American history. So far, the conflict has cost about $600 billion, led to the deaths of 2,205 American troops and injured 18,462. About 16,725 Afghan civilians also have been killed.
Of the 66,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, about 32,000 will return by February, and most of the rest will depart by December 2014, leaving a smaller force to train and advise Afghans as well as conduct counterterrorism operations.
Withdrawing from hostile territory is among the most difficult operations any military faces, and there’s no guarantee that U.S.-trained Afghan forces can keep the peace as American forces leave. As the number of troops dwindles, those who remain and their supply lines can be more vulnerable to ambushes. Sending reinforcements becomes more difficult and time-consuming.
Intelligence may dry up as forces and civilian personnel abandon forward positions, losing contact with Afghan allies and enemies alike in areas where the Taliban remain strong. Collecting intelligence may be compromised as the U.S. shrinks its presence in Afghanistan, James Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official told Congress last month.
“Obviously it’s not going to be as robust as it is today simply because we won’t have the presence in as many locales,” Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the House intelligence committee April 11. “As the other components of our presence there, the military and the diplomatic” are reduced, “that in turn affects the footprint that we will have.”
Politics and geography make the withdrawal from Afghanistan more complicated than the departure from Iraq that was completed in 2011. The U.S. was able to stockpile war materiel from Iraq in neighboring Kuwait before loading it on ships. The U.S. moved out 2 million items from 92 bases in Iraq in about 20,000 truckloads.
In the absence of a safe and friendly zone such as Kuwait, the Pentagon plans to send about 60 percent of its inventory in Afghanistan -- mostly non-lethal items -- through Pakistan by truck to the port of Karachi, Estevez said in an interview in his Pentagon office.
In the past, Pakistan has closed the two main border crossings from Afghanistan to protest U.S. actions. The supply route was shut from November 2011 to July 2012 after a U.S. military strike mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops.
Although the route is now open, the relationship between the two countries remains fragile, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has accused Pakistan of sheltering militants and letting them stage attacks on his country.
The other 40 percent of the American cargo will go north past the Hindu Kush mountains, crisscrossing several former Soviet republics in the Caucasus by truck and rail before reaching ports on the Baltic Sea in Latvia or Lithuania, Estevez said. The tab for the withdrawal may be $5 billion to $7 billion, he said.
By the end of 2014, the Pentagon will have moved about 22,000 containers of materiel out of Afghanistan, Estevez said.
The U.S. Army, which has the largest presence in the country, estimates that it has about $27 billion of military hardware in Afghanistan, and most of it will come home, Estevez said. The other military services have smaller inventories, he said.
About 80 percent of the war gear, including Blackhawk helicopters, radios, trucks and remotely piloted aircraft, will return to the U.S., Estevez said. Most of the equipment that supports U.S. bases, such as air-conditioners, construction material and furniture, will be left behind or destroyed, he said.
Few military items will be left for the Afghans to use, U.S. Army Brigadier General Steve Shapiro, deputy commander for theater sustainment, told reporters in Kabul in March. The military gear Afghanistan needs will be provided through the Pentagon’s foreign military sales program, Shapiro said.
The U.S. is coordinating its withdrawal with similar plans by 50 coalition partners, Major General Kenneth Dahl, deputy commanding general for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul in March. “Because of the geography and physics of Afghanistan, we have to coordinate so we don’t all try to take the same roads,” he said.
The Pentagon and the military services also are drawing up a list of excess defense articles the U.S. doesn’t need so they can be given away to allies, Dahl said. Non-military items including equipment used to support bases may be given away to several Afghan agencies, Dahl said.
Moving materiel through Pakistan remains the most cost-effective route, Estevez said.
Customs checkpoints that had atrophied when the Pakistan route was closed in 2012 are being revived as the U.S. is starting to send out materiel, Estevez said. Equipment to build up Afghanistan’s military capability also is flowing in through the same Pakistani route, Estevez said.
Cargo going north has to go by road, traversing the narrow Salang Tunnel, a single-lane passage through the Hindu Kush that carried Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in 1989 and a “choke point” that suffers from heavy snowfall and extreme heat, Estevez said. Once the equipment gets beyond the mountains, it will be loaded on trains heading west, he said.
“Afghanistan is a logistician’s nightmare and also a dream,” Estevez said because of the challenge of getting materiel in and out of the country.