In Afghanistan, supplying US military is big business

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Moving all the things 100,000 troops need to fight and survive in a hostile foreign land is never an easy task. In a landlocked, mountainous country the size of Texas, with few paved roads, it is even harder.

“I don’t think anyone has ever brought in this much equipment to a landlocked country that has only two major airports,” said Col. Gary Sheffer, acting commanding general of the U.S. Military’s Joint Sustainment Command in Afghanistan. “Without the road network, the railroad network, it’s a huge effort.”

And the effort has only grown more intense this summer. Sheffer and the 5,000 troops under his command are responsible for supplying all American forces in Afghanistan with everything from food and water to bullets and beds.

They are now on the front lines of President Barack Obama’s troop surge into southern Afghanistan that began this summer. Almost 100,000 U.S. troops are now in Afghanistan — up from about 40,000 when Obama first came into office. That increase has come in a short period of time, with 30,000 arriving in just the last eight months.

With the surge, Sheffer’s quartermasters and logisticians have seen their jobs grow more frantic. The dusty central receiving and shipping point at Kandahar Airfield, one of several massive supply yards here, is filled with everything the troops might need: mobile kitchens, bulldozers, transport trucks and thousands of shipping containers stacked in twos and threes. They are filled with radios, tires and everything else imaginable.

“We’ve had a 300-percent increase of what used to be pushed through here since we took over,” said Staff Sgt. Jose Garcia, from the 567th Cargo Transport Company, as he directed a forklift bearing yet another shipping container to its spot in the stack.

The 567th transports about 150 to 200 shipping containers or other pieces of equipment per day.

Sheffer said moving supplies in Iraq, with its port, relatively flat topography and extensive highway network, was a breeze compared with Afghanistan’s mountains and mostly dirt or gravel roads.

He said Kandahar Airfield has become the busiest single runway airport in the world with a flight slot every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. The military uses planes and helicopters to move much of its “sensitive equipment,” like ammunition and combat vehicles.

But trucks are the main mode of transport. They pick up supplies from the port in Karachi, Pakistan, where U.S. supplies are shipped from either Kuwait or the United States.

Lt. Col. Ralph Burks, the distribution integration branch chief for the Sustainment Command, said between 6,000 to 8,000 Afghan and Pakistani trucks move 80 percent of the U.S. military’s supplies around Afghanistan each day.

“That many trucks moving back home would be impressive,” he said. “Out here, it’s amazing.”

The amount of supplies moving around the country is equally amazing and the costs staggering.

The Sustainment Command has supplied 47 million meals to U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the last six months at a cost of $900 million. During the same period, the Command processed 15 million pounds of ammunition, 21 million pounds of mail and distributed 237 million gallons of fuel. At the same time, the Sustainment Command’s troops also procured and delivered over 2 million gallons of bottled water. Capt. Jason Mann said they buy water from 10 plants located around the region.

“We’ve got some that comes from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, two located in-country in Kabul, and various plants in the [United Arab Emirates] that we source from,” he said.

All that water has to be shipped to Karachi and then driven by truck to Afghanistan. That means that by the time a single bottle gets to Kandahar it costs the U.S. taxpayer an average of $1.50 to $2 per half liter bottle.

The price can even rise as high as $6 per bottle if unforeseen costs, of which there are many, crop up.

Some of that cost is generated up by the notorious corruption endemic at all levels of Afghan society.

Many of the supplies must be trucked through dangerous and hostile routes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The dangers of that journey are evident at the central shipping yard where one shipping container lays abandoned after being shredded by a rocket propelled grenade attack. Another truck is smashed and battered after what looks like a roll over. Bullets have shattered the glass on many of the vehicles.

Lt. Col. Beau Eidt, commander of the 4th battalion of the 401st Army Field Support regiment, said the drivers have to brave dangerous roads where they might encounter Taliban, bandits or warlords. Many such characters demand bribes for passage.

“There are a lot of entrepreneurial enterprises between here and the port of Karachi that may or may not affect their pocket book on the way up here,” Eidt said. “That’s a nice way of saying that warlords are stripping them. And sometimes warlords wear uniforms.”

Private security companies also play this game. They often charge the U.S.-led NATO force here between $1,500 and $2,000 per truck to provide security to escort convoys.

A recent U.S. congressional report has called for more oversight of U.S. military contracts with private Afghan trucking and security firms. And in August, the Afghan government announced it would disband the country’s private security industry within four months in an effort to regulate the unruly sector.

But because the U.S. and Afghan security forces are so dependent on the private trucking and security companies, many see the order as unrealistic and unenforceable.