Our Afghan Wasteland

The $7 billion in military gear left behind

by , July 12, 2013

With stories like these, there is nothing better than an image, so picture this: poor Nepalese and other migrant workers toiling under the hot Kandahar sun, taking blow torches to American Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which cost about $1 million each to make. Once dismantled, the huge slabs of steel are then ground down into scraps, which are sold to Afghan contractors for a few cents a pound. The rest of the parts are picked like carrion on an animal carcass and brought to market.

This is the way the Americans want it – about 2,000 of these once indispensible vehicles (remember all of the scandalous delays in getting them out to the field in the first place), along with billions more in unwanted military equipment, destroyed rather than be used again. Like it was never there. Like we were never there.

Quite a metaphor for the U.S war in Afghanistan, is it not?

According to a Washington Post report last month, the "massive disposal effort" of American equipment in Afghanistan ahead of the 2014 withdrawal is "unprecedented." That seems to be an understatement. Apparently, according to military types who spoke to Antiwar.com, not since Vietnam will the U.S be throwing so much away after war. Seven billion dollars worth. To put this into perspective, about 20 percent of what the U.S military still has in Afghanistan will never be coming home (that is not counting, of course, the 2,249 American dead, who did come home, but in flag-draped coffins). And unlike Iraq – where equipment could be stored in nearby Kuwait, shipped home or to another war front, or "bequeathed" to the Iraqi government, much of this stuff will be "shredded, cut and crushed to be sold for pennies per pound."

We are supposed to get the point that logistically, it would be a nightmare to ship some 600,000 pieces of equipment out of landlocked Afghanistan. The MRAPs, for example, may never be used again anyway. As (Ret.) Col. Doug Macgregor, who led a tank squadron in combat during the first Gulf War, tells Antiwar.com, "we wasted billions on these trucks that are single use, in British terms, ‘one offs.’" The Pentagon has determined, according to reports, that it will no longer have use of about 12,300 to 25,500 of its MRAPs at its bases worldwide. About 9,000 in Afghanistan will indeed be shipped back to the U.S and Kuwait and elsewhere, but the rest will be "shredded" for scrap. Apparently, the Afghans have been trained on more "lighter tactical" vehicles than the MRAPs and won’t be able to use them.

And yes, there are plenty of other good reasons for leaving stuff behind. Transporting the $7 billion in unwanted equipment would cost the taxpayer $2-$3 billion, plus upwards of $9 billion to repair. In addition, according to The Post, the military was up until a few months ago flying out the vast majority of materiel headed back home. But that got super expensive. So Pakistan has agreed to let its border crossings open (after a long closure following an incident in which American airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year) in order for the U.S to ship most of it’s equipment to port. But that’s proving to be a tangle, too – it’s expensive, insecure, and you never know when the Pakistanis might shut off access. "Tests" of the Pakistani border crossings, according to a New York Times piece in February, revealed typical delays due to labor strikes, squabbles, and other internal disputes among the Pakistanis. And there was already a backup of 7,000 U.S containers from last year’s closures.

Another access point, according to the Times report, goes north, through the Central Asian republics, but is long, winding, potentially dangerous and there are no U.S troops up there in that region to protect the convoys. Years of experience have proven, too, that the Taliban and other unseemlies often take their share of bribes along the way from contract drivers in exchange for safe passage. "Afghanistan is not Iraq, and it’s harder," exclaimed Lt. Gen. Raymond V. Mason, the Army’s deputy chief of logistics, in February.

Iraq was not only easier in terms of getting gear out, but what was left there is at least being used – some of it even paid for by the Iraqis.

According to reports at the time of the final U.S withdrawal in 2011, Army officials told Bloomberg news that it had shipped all but 50,000 of its estimated 2 million items tagged for home away. Much of it was reclaimed by the Pentagon, but states and municipalities bought a lot of stuff too, like bulldozers, armored vehicles and firefighting equipment. In addition, Iraq planned on buying $10 billion worth of military equipment and training and at the time, contracted with Lockheed Martin for $6.5 billion in f-16 fighter jets (the first of two consecutive orders, it turns out).

Beyond that, it’s been estimated that more than 4 million pieces of "this and that," valued at $580 million, were "bequeathed" to the new Iraqi government in order to save $1 billion in shipping costs. That would include everything from housing units and air conditioners to portable chemical toilets, cars and humvees, generators, trailers and a water treatment facility.

Sure, there must be a lot we are "bequeathing" to Afghanistan, too. But strangely, the focus in Afghanistan – at least according to what we’re reading in scant news reports – is on why we can’t give too much to the Afghans. In fact, as raised in the aforementioned Post article, "bequeathing a large share to the Afghan government would be challenging because of complicated rules governing equipment donations to other countries, and there is a concern that Afghanistan’s fledgling forces would be unable to maintain it." Furthermore, while allied nations may love to buy or just plain take our gear for free, rules dictate that they would have to pick it up and "few are likely to be able to retrieve it from the warzone."

According to Army officials, Iraqis had better access to cheap fuel, more sophisticated mechanics and a "more robust defense budget" to absorb the military equipment, while donating vehicles like the MRAPs to the Afghans would be "more complicated and potentially counterproductive."

None of this is hard to believe, considering the Afghan government is seeking billions in aid from the U.S and coalition countries after the U.S/NATO withdrawal for reconstruction and to maintain its approximately 350,000-strong security force that the U.S helped to build but the Afghans have shaky odds of sustaining without assistance. The World Bank estimates Afghanistan will need $70 billion over the next decade to hold things together.

There has been much controversy over the estimated $93 billion that the U.S has already poured into Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Much has been thwarted by corruption, waste and fraud, which all continues to this day. In fact, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, known as SIGAR, has released two scathing reports just in the last two weeks relating to our poorly handled projects there. One, charges that the Pentagon is going forward with a $771 million contract for planes for the Afghan military, even though they do not have the capacity to fly or maintain them. Another, notes a $34 million U.S military headquarters which was built but never used in Helmand province, that may be demolished now rather than given over to the Afghans because, the Pentagon has reportedly noted, the Afghans "may not have the capacity to sustain" it.

Good grief, the waste just builds and builds. Peter Van Buren, an expert on waste, fraud and abuse in the warzone from his days as a State Department officer in Iraq, says the billions of dollars in equipment we are leaving behind is just one corner of the vast wasteland wrought by the American misadventures in Afghanistan.

"Any war is a waste, and all wars are full of waste," he writes to Antiwar.com.

"I guess with Afghanistan now we’re writing off the 2,249 dead Americans (and who knows how many Afghans and others) and just focusing on the financial waste. We start of course with the seven billion in equipment being destroyed or abandoned, along with the billions more being spent on returning stuff and fixing it up once back in the U.S. But what about the costs of another failed reconstruction? The wasted money on equipment at least takes some weapons of war off the battlefield so they can’t hurt anyone. The reconstruction’s legacy of waste, corruption and failed dreams will however haunt Afghanistan, and America, for decades to come."

Winslow Wheeler, who as a student of the Pentagon budgetary labyrinth is another expert on waste, is not surprised with the how the military is dealing with its excess, "unwanted" equipment in Afghanistan. The military industrial complex is always eager to shed the detritus of the last war (especially lost ones) in anticipation of the "next generation" battlefield. In response to an email from Antiwar.com, he writes:

This information tells us two things: the cost of the war in Afghanistan continues to mount well beyond what we were told by its advocates in the White House and Congress, and today’s military leadership – in this case the Army and Marine Corps – are happy to destroy or simply abandon its own equipment in the expectation that taxpayers will enthusiastically buy them something (eg. JLTV) that is even more expensive and satisfies a blind urge for the next best thing, even when it cannot be afforded.

Two major points should be driven home here. While it may not be avoided, leaving $7 billion of gear behind, most of which will be scrapped, is just another example of the war’s waste and ultimate futility. Second, such total waste makes all this talk about how difficult it is to cut defense budgets back home appear even more ludicrous. It seems doubly perverse that civilian workers are now being furloughed (a 20 percent cut from their weekly paychecks until September) while such flagrant waste and abuse is occurring overseas.

Maybe the scrap yards – i.e Afghan entrepreneurs – will end up benefitting. At least something should flourish out of the junk heap of our occupation.

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