KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Facing a tight withdrawal deadline and tough terrain, the U.S. military has destroyed more than 170 million pounds 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 more than $7 billion worth of equipment — about 20 percent of what the U.S. military has in Afghanistan — will not be shipped back, because it is no longer needed or would be too costly to send 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 of them 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.
“We’re making history doing what we’re doing here,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Stein, head of the 1st Sustainment Command, who is overseeing the drawdown in Afghanistan. “This is the largest retrograde mission in history.”
The most contentious and closely watched part of the effort involves the disposal of Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, the hulking beige personnel carriers that the Pentagon raced to build starting in 2007 to counter the threat of roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The massive trucks, known as MRAPs, came to symbolize the bloody evolution of wars that were meant to be short conflicts but turned into quagmires.
The Pentagon has determined that it will no longer have use for about 12,300 of its 25,500 MRAPs scattered at bases worldwide, officials said. In Afghanistan, the military has labeled about 2,000 of its roughly 11,000 MRAPs “excess.” About 9,000 will be shipped to the United States and U.S. military bases in Kuwait and elsewhere, but the majority of the excess vehicles — which cost about $1 million each — will probably be shredded, officials said, because they are unlikely to find clients willing to come pick them up.
“MRAPs have served us well in the current war, but we will not need all that we bought for Iraq and Afghanistan in the future,” Alan Estevez, the assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, said in a statement. “It is cost prohibitive to retrograde and reset MRAPs that we do not need for the future.”
Those MRAPs that the Pentagon has deemed unnecessary have been arriving by the dozen at scrap yards at four U.S. military bases in Afghanistan in recent months. Toiling under the searing sun last week at Kandahar Airfield in the country’s south, contract workers from Nepal and other countries in the region wore fireproof suits and masks as they used special blowtorches to dismantle vehicles built to withstand deadly blasts. It takes about 12 hours to tear apart each MRAP.
11 million pounds
In another section of the scrap yard, a massive grinder gobbled slabs of steel, turning them into small scraps. The debris is packed into U.S.-owned shipping containers that also have been deemed unfit to return home.
Last month, the Kandahar yard produced 11 million pounds of scrap that was sold to Afghan contractors for a few cents per pound, said Morgan Gunn, a Defense Logistics Agency employee who runs the site. Afghans use the scrap mainly for construction and as makeshift spare parts.
“Gold dust is what they call it,” Gunn said.
Military officials have drawn little attention to the scrapping operations, mindful that the endeavor might appear wasteful in an era of shrinking defense budgets and misguided at a time when Afghan troops are being killed at a record rate.
But officials argue that the effort is part of a withdrawal operation that is being carried out in a fiscally responsible, carefully planned manner.
“One might ask: Why not give it to the Afghans?” Stein said as he toured the Kandahar yard. “It’s such a fast-paced operation, and most of it is trash. We don’t want to leave this in the battlefield.”
Hard to donate
As they have debated how much excess equipment to shred or sell, officials have considered whether the defense industry would suffer if the Pentagon unloaded tons of used equipment on the market at vastly reduced prices.
Additionally, Pentagon policy requires that allied nations seeking to take ownership of excess U.S. equipment travel to Afghanistan to pick it up — an onerous task that few nations are likely to take on.
When the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq, it donated much of its equipment to the Iraqis, who had access to cheap fuel, a robust defense budget and more-sophisticated mechanics. The Pentagon also shipped a significant share to Afghanistan, where a troop surge was underway. But donating MRAPs to the Afghans would be more complicated and potentially counterproductive, military officials said.
“Frankly, in a lot of ways, the Afghan economy and military can’t absorb some of the things the Iraqis did,” said Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason, the Army deputy chief of staff for logistics. “We don’t want to give [the Afghans] a lot of equipment that they can’t handle and could compound their challenges.”
Military officials said they have spent billions of dollars equipping and building up Afghanistan’s security forces over the past decade, outfitting them with lighter tactical vehicles that are a better fit for the country’s rudimentary road networks.
Billions to ship, repair
The U.S. Army owns most of the military equipment in Afghanistan. As of May, Mason said, $25 billion worth of equipment was deployed with Army personnel. After an analysis of needs and costs, the service has decided to ship back no more than 76 percent. Transporting that much will cost $2 billion to $3 billion, the Army estimates. And repairing the gear that comes back will cost $8 billion to $9 billion.
Stein, the general overseeing the Afghanistan drawdown, headed the same process in Iraq, which turned out to be a far easier mission. For starters, the U.S. military had a relatively well-organized system in place to hand over bases and equipment to the Iraqi government 2½ years before American troops pulled out entirely. Security was more permissive. And, crucially, the U.S. military could use its large bases in next-door Kuwait as a staging ground for items driven out of Iraq.
“Kuwait was a lifesaver,” Stein said, noting that there are no neighboring U.S. bases where equipment leaving Afghanistan can be easily stored. “It’s very hard to get our stuff out of Afghanistan. In Iraq, we could drive it out to Kuwait, and it sat there for a year or two until the Army decided its disposition.”
Ramping up effort
As the U.S. military reduces its footprint in Afghanistan from 150 bases to 50 by February, Stein’s teams are ramping up their efforts, finding more-efficient ways of sorting through equipment to be shipped and drawing from lessons learned in Iraq.
Until a few months ago, the military flew out the vast majority of the equipment it was sending back to the United States.
In recent months, after Pakistan, a neighbor of landlocked Afghanistan, agreed to let the U.S. military use its roads to ship materiel out through its ports, most containers that don’t include sensitive materials or weapons are being trucked out by land. Shipping through Pakistan is by no means trouble-free, and officials recognize that the route could get shut down in the event of a new spat between Islamabad and Washington.
“We continue to get delays. There’s still corruption, taxes, tariffs,” Stein said. “But our equipment is getting through.”