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In Afghanistan, Fighting The Battle Of Logistics

A U.S. Army Chinook helicopter carrying sling-loaded cargo flies to a forward base in Afghanistan.
Chris Hondros
Getty Images
A U.S. Army Chinook helicopter carrying sling-loaded cargo flies to a forward base in Afghanistan.

When he announced earlier this month that he would send more troops to Afghanistan, President Obama declared that they would arrive in the first half of 2010 at the "fastest possible pace."

But now it appears that the harsh realities of logistics will slow the pace into next fall as the Pentagon moves 30,000 additional troops and their supplies into Afghanistan, bringing the total American force to about 100,000.

There's an old saying in the military: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. The logistics are not easy in Afghanistan, a landlocked country.


Terrain Is The Enemy

The challenge starts with what that country doesn't have, says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We don't have for that country a major logistics hub akin to the one we have in Kuwait," Mullen says. "We don't have in Afghanistan, anywhere near the number of runways or rail hubs or road networks that exist in Iraq. And we don't have quite frankly the same ground to cover. As one soldier told me on the first visit to Afghanistan back in 2007, the terrain itself is the enemy."

Afghanistan has a landscape of dirt roads and narrow mountain passes. There are no railroads. The nearest seaport is Karachi, Pakistan, nearly 500 miles from the closest major Afghan city, Kandahar.

"This is going to be a tough operation," says retired Army Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis. "It doesn't mean it can't be done but it's going to take a lot of troops and a lot of innovation."


Pagonis should know. He ran logistics for the 1991 Gulf War, when he was lucky enough to have two large ports in Saudi Arabia and a network of modern highways to move vehicles and equipment to supply depots.

Long, Difficult Overland Routes

"It's just going to be much more difficult than when you can re-supply by ship," says Pagonis.

The logistics challenge now falls to officers like Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek of the Pentagon's Transportation Command, in charge of moving all troops and supplies by land, sea and air.

"We've been doing this awhile now. We're pretty darn good at it," Harnitchek says.

Still, it is moving supplies by air that makes Harnitchek's head pound.

"The biggest headache, I would say if we're squeaking anywhere, is probably on airfields," he admits, pointing to only three major airfields in the country: Bagram Air Base, just north of the capital city of Kabul; Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand; and in the neighboring province, Kandahar Air Field.

So the Transportation Command is busy building runways, taxiways and storage facilities at all of those airfields, and moving in military cargo handlers and equipment, including forklifts and trucks.

Berlin-Like Airlift Operation

Harnitchek's model is the famous 1948 mission in Germany when American cargo planes flew round the clock to break a Soviet blockade.

"The analogy is sort of the Berlin Airlift, when a cargo plane landed every minute and they off loaded the plane every 20 and 30 minutes. To get it up in the air off the concrete into the air, ready for the next airplane," he says.

But just 20 percent of the supplies come in by air. That includes ammunition, sensitive military gear like radios and some armored vehicles. The rest of the supplies — everything from plywood to lettuce — comes over land, including two routes through Pakistan.

In the coming weeks, troops from the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., will load up their gear and move it by rail to an East Coast port. From there, the huge ships, some with up to 400,000 square feet of space, will sail toward Pakistan. From the port in Karachi, the equipment and supplied will be moved into Afghanistan.

In the past year, the U.S. military has opened two new supply routes to supplement the routes in Pakistan. The new routes are each about 2,500 miles long.

The Pentagon uses ports in the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. From there, the supplies move "across Russia into central Asia to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and then of course down into the north," Harnitchek says.

That's the north of Afghanistan, where containers are loaded onto trucks for the long haul to American bases.

"Last month it was right around 5,000 containers," says Harnitchek. "That was from Pakistan and those northern routes. And that's almost twice what it was this time last year."

Roughing It In Afghanistan

Still for all those containers and all those supplies, troops are being told not to expect the kind of comfortable conditions they knew in Iraq, like large dining halls, gyms and laundry facilities.

In Afghanistan, they'll be eating the starchy packaged meals called MREs — meals ready to eat. And they'll be sleeping in tents. The bathroom and shower facilities may also be in tents — or just crude outdoor plywood creations, like some used by Marine units in Helmand province.

That kind of rough living is not a problem for the top officer in the Marine Corps, Gen. James Conway. He recalled seeing a Marine's bed in Afghanistan. It was just a hole dug into the dirt.

"It had a poncho liner over the top of it, and he was completely happy with that," says Conway.

Conway's idea of comfort is a bit more basic than most. Still, he wants to make sure there is heat in the tents.

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