Oral History Of Iraq & AfghanistanIn His Own Words: Lt. Col. Kirk WhitsonThe son of a World War II veteran, Kirk Whitson grew up in the shadows of a major Army base. [More]
• Oral History Project
From the policy heights of Washington, President Obama's decision to "surge" 30,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan looks like a done deal. On the ground, things look a little different.
"I'm happy to talk to you, but I'll have to do so from underneath a desk," Lt. Col. Marc Haywood of the British army said apologetically, as the sound of sirens screamed over the telephone line. "We're having a rocket attack."
Now on his second tour in southern Afghanistan, Haywood is chief of logistics for the British-led Regional Command South, headquartered in Kandahar -- the birthplace of the Taliban, which very much wants the city back. The U.S. military had long neglected Afghanistan's southern deserts and focused on the mountainous east, but since 2008, American reinforcements have been moving into both sectors at an accelerating pace. It's up to Haywood and other logisticians to move the additional troops in and provide them with ammunition and fuel, as well as water, food, and shelter, even if the latter is only a tent insulated with spray-on foam to counter the Afghan winter. "People perhaps don't realize how austere an expeditionary operation needs to be if it is to be sufficiently agile and responsive and effective when one is talking about a very tortuous supply chain," Haywood said, calling a reporter back after being persuaded to take shelter. "We are here a long way away from home and the resources we would normally enjoy."
The scale of this surge is staggering. After remaining below 30,000 troops for seven years, U.S. forces in Afghanistan doubled to 60,000 in 2009 and will more than triple, to 100,000, by the fall. (Allied forces under NATO's command have risen more modestly, from 31,150 to 38,710.) The flow of supplies must increase accordingly. Deliveries of fuel, the biggest single item that has to be shipped into the country, more than doubled from an average of 475,000 gallons per day in 2008 to supply all U.S. and NATO forces to 1.1 million daily in 2009. This year's target is 1.4 million gallons per day. U.S. military or contracted aircraft alone delivered 104,036 tons of cargo to Afghanistan during 2008; that figure jumped 80 percent, to 187,394 tons, last year. The number of 20-foot-long shipping containers transported through the former Soviet Union and the countries of Central Asia, on land routes set up as alternatives to Pakistani routes threatened by insurgents, increased from zero in 2008 to 5,900 in 2009.
"Up until about a year and a half or so ago, this was a fairly small operation," said Lt. Gen. Mitchell Stevenson, the Army's deputy chief of staff for logistics at the Pentagon. The doubling to date has already stressed the system. Looking forward, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, had proposed completing the surge by 2011, but President Obama wanted to move troops in faster so he could start withdrawing them earlier. "We've been given instructions that... we're going to get it all in this year," Stevenson said. "This is not mission impossible. But there's no question it's going to be a challenge for us, particularly given the accelerated timeline." He added, "This is a tough theater in which to do logistics -- in many respects tougher, just in terms of the terrain and the environment, than Iraq is."
So, despite the immense effort to push out supplies, front-line fighters sometimes don't have even the minimum they need. "We had guys out there at the outposts in my area of operations starving because we couldn't get resupply in to them," said Maj. Erik Berdy, who served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade during its 15-month tour in eastern Afghanistan in 2007 and '08. "The first 90 days we had three outposts that were routinely, almost, in threat of being overrun. They were legitimately under siege. They routinely would go black [nearly run out] on .50-caliber [machine-gun ammunition], Mark 19 grenades, and mortar ammunition."
One of those outposts was Wanat, infamous as the site where in July 2008 an insurgent force of some 200 fighters killed nine soldiers and nearly overran the U.S. base. The new Obama strategy is intended to prevent such reverses, and much of it has to do with logistics.
Much Harder Than Iraq
Politically, Obama's surge strategy in Afghanistan looks like a replay of George W. Bush's surge in Iraq. Logistically, it is much harder.
" 'Don't even use Iraq as a comparison' is what we tell anybody in the logistics field going over there," said Lt. Col. Kirk Whitson, who has served a year in each country and also in the U.S. Central Command headquarters overseeing both wars. "In Iraq, logistics was on cruise control. In Afghanistan, it's graduate-level logistics to make it happen."
Iraq is on one of the world's most trafficked waterways, the Persian Gulf, and is between two sets of U.S. allies -- Turkey to the north, Kuwait and Qatar to the south -- where the American military has been building up its infrastructure since before the 1991 Gulf War. Oil exports both required and financed ports, pipelines, and highways, complete with U.S.-style "mixing bowl" interchanges outside Baghdad. Decades of war and sanctions under Saddam Hussein frayed that infrastructure somewhat, but the late dictator also left Iraq pockmarked with palaces and army bases for U.S. military units to expropriate. Except in the Kurdish north, the terrain is flat and the population is concentrated along the major roads and rivers.
Afghanistan, by contrast, is a landlocked country whose neighbors range from uneasy U.S. allies, such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan, to outright adversaries, such as Iran. Thirty years of war have devastated what little infrastructure the country had. In the south, scattered population centers are separated by deserts; in the east, they're divided by mountains. Winter brings storms and snow; spring brings floods.
"Today the road was good; you go there tomorrow and it's flooded out and the bridge is gone," Whitson said. "That doesn't happen in Iraq, where the only thing you had to worry about weatherwise, sometimes, was sandstorms. Other than that, things just went as scheduled."
Even when Afghanistan's weather cooperates, there may be no road to take. "In Iraq, you can get on a hardball [asphalt] road and drive to any location that you need to go to deliver supplies," Whitson said. "In Afghanistan, I had 15 locations that I couldn't drive to; I had no choice but to get the supplies in by air."
All these difficulties send the cost of operations soaring. The annual cost per U.S. service member deployed in Afghanistan, on average, is $1.125 million, twice the $556,000 for Iraq, according to a study by Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Nor does the difference seem to reflect economies of scale for the larger force in Iraq, Harrison told National Journal, because the figures for Afghanistan have not dropped as the troop levels have risen: It is just that much more expensive a place to operate.
Using a plane or helicopter to move supplies within Afghanistan costs far more per mile in fuel and maintenance than using a truck. Transporting supplies to Afghanistan overland via Pakistan or through the former Soviet Union and Central Asia costs more, and takes longer, than delivering them to Iraq by ship. To a larger degree even than in Iraq, much of the Afghan logistics budget goes to contractors, mostly non-U.S. Their conveyances range from Russian Il-76 transport planes to Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters -- often piloted by veterans of the then-Soviet Union's own Afghan war of the 1980s -- to ramshackle Afghan "jingle trucks" and even donkeys. Within Afghanistan, some 85 percent of supplies move by local trucks. Internationally, although U.S. military aircraft do make direct deliveries to larger bases such as Kandahar and Bagram Air Base near Kabul, the surrounding countries do not permit U.S. or NATO military convoys to cross their territory: 100 percent of the supplies transported overland through Pakistan or Central Asia are carried by contractors. That eases the burden on the overstretched U.S. military, but it further complicates the challenge of supplying the troops.
Getting To Afghanistan
A straight-line route from the massive U.S. military bases around the Persian Gulf to the war zone in Afghanistan does exist. Unfortunately, it goes through Iran. That leaves the United States and its allies with three approaches to the country, each with its own obstacles and chokepoints.
The shortest and most heavily used routes run overland from the south, through Pakistan into eastern Afghanistan, but they cross the most-dangerous, insurgent-ridden areas of both countries. The safer, longer way is from the north, also by land, through the countries of Central Asia. Then there is the fast way, by air, which is the costliest. The Army-run Surface Deployment and Distribution Command estimates that it costs more than twice as much per ton to use the northern route than to go through Pakistan; but air cargo is eight times as expensive -- and it has obstacles of its own.
"Back when we only had about a 30,000-soldier force there, you could do a lot of things by air... and you really weren't so reliant on the ground line of communication" through Pakistan, said Stevenson, the Army's deputy logistics chief. "That changed in 2009, when we doubled the size of the force." With the U.S. presence set to grow to 100,000 by the fall, even if the Pentagon could afford to fly everything in, there wouldn't be room for all of it to land at Afghanistan's limited airfields. Already, Stevenson said, "there was something like 5,500 landings and takeoffs a month recently recorded in Kandahar, which is more than the number of takeoffs and landings at London's Gatwick Airport. But the difference, of course, in Kandahar is that you've basically got a single runway."
All told, the publicly available CIA World Factbook counts 16 airports with paved runways in Afghanistan, compared with 75 in Iraq. Of those 16, civilian contractor aircraft -- including Russian-operated Il-76 cargo jets -- can fly directly into just four: Kabul International Airport (recently opened to commercial flights); Bagram Air Base outside Kabul; Kandahar Air Base in the south; and Mazar-i-Sharif airport in the north. The other airfields are either too rough, too vulnerable, or both, and are restricted to military aircraft.
As a result, air transport is reserved for passengers and high-priority or sensitive cargo, such as ammunition. The first few hundred Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected All-Terrain Vehicles (M-ATVs) were rushed in by air, for example. Units on regularly scheduled deployments must pack up their vehicles and other heavy equipment months in advance to send by ship and truck. Bulk items -- the vast amounts of food, water, and above all fuel -- likewise move by surface.
According to the Army, just 20 percent of supplies for U.S. forces in Afghanistan move by air and 50 percent are brought in by land from the south through Pakistan. The remaining 30 percent come overland from the north; that's up from zero a year ago.
Long dependent on Pakistan, the U.S. and NATO took until March 2009 to open alternative overland routes through the former Soviet Union and Central Asia. There are geopolitical reasons for the delay. This "northern distribution network" must cross multiple national borders, requiring painstaking diplomatic and bureaucratic legwork The refusal of one key country, Turkmenistan, to participate means that shipments must funnel through a single border crossing in Uzbekistan. (See map.) Finally, the distances are simply greater. It takes 84 days on average for shipments from Europe or the U.S. East Coast to cross Latvia, Russia, and Central Asia into Afghanistan (95 days for the route bypassing Russia by way of Georgia) compared with 73 days via Pakistan. The difference in cost is even greater, with expenses per ton going through Central Asia two or three times higher than expenses on the Pakistan route. So, although the northern route is now used to transport nearly a third of all supplies, it remains a backup, not a replacement, for the critical land route through Pakistan.
The Pakistan Problem
On any given day, by the U.S. Army's count, workers are unloading and processing 3,500 to 4,000 pieces of cargo at the Pakistani port city of Karachi, from standard 20-foot-long shipping containers of bulk supplies to individual oversized items, such as trucks and armored vehicles. Meanwhile, 1,500 to 2,000 items are winding their way from Karachi toward Afghanistan by road. As the troop surge unfolds, U.S. diplomats are pressing the Pakistani and Afghan governments to keep the border crossings open around the clock.
Karachi has been the site of terrorist attacks, including the 2002 abduction of reporter Daniel Pearl, who was later murdered, and a 2006 bombing that killed U.S. diplomat David Foy and maimed scores of Pakistanis. But the military supplies moving through the large port city have been safe; where attacks in Pakistan have come is in the final miles before the Afghan border. Convoys rely on two routes, each of which must pass through the Pashtun tribal lands, where insurgents unfriendly to both Kabul and Islamabad have strong support. The course that runs from Karachi to Kandahar in southeast Afghanistan snakes through Pakistan's Baluchistan province and the city of Quetta, which is the base of the largest rebel group, the Quetta Shura Taliban of former Afghan leader Mullah Omar. The other route goes from Karachi to Kabul, passing through Peshawar in northwest Pakistan and the historically lawless tribal areas before reaching the Khyber Pass.
In the worst month, December 2008, seven attacks cost nearly 10 percent of supplies. Since March 2009, however, attacks have averaged just one or two a month, and losses have dropped dramatically.
Today, the U.S. suffers a pilferage rate along the Pakistan routes of less than 1.5 percent. "That's not bad," said Col. Stanley Wolosz, chief of staff for the Surface Deployment and Distribution Command. "Obviously, we'd like it to be zero, but I don't think you have zero percent pilferage rates moving commerce through the United States. And that's largely due to our commercial contractors and local authorities, whether it's the Frontier Corps in Pakistan or the Afghan National Police."
But all of these partners are problematic. For rampant corruption, Transparency International ranks Pakistan 139th out of 180 countries in the world; Afghanistan comes in at 179. U.S. officials emphasize that they contract with reputable worldwide shippers such as Maersk and APL, but these big-name companies must subcontract with Pakistanis to get trucks, drivers, and security guards. Those natives are often underpaid, at about $65 a month; aren't trained to elude attacks; and are lightly armed, according to the private research firm Stratfor. The local Afghan police are notoriously inefficient and corrupt. (See NJ, 10/24/09, p. 22.)
Most problematic, Pakistani security forces have a long history of cooperation with Islamic militants in general and the Taliban in particular. The ambition and skill of recent Taliban attacks against high-profile targets in Pakistan, including the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, indicate that insurgents still have sympathizers inside the military, said Kamran Bokhari, Stratfor's Pakistani-born chief analyst for the Middle East and South Asia. "There are people within the system that are enabling this," he said. "Those same people are capable of assisting the militants in attacks on the U.S. supply chain."
At worst, it is conceivable that senior Pakistani officials deliberately slacken security at times to send a political message to the Americans. "There is some evidence that the Pakistani security establishment uses the threat to the supply chain as a lever to negotiate with the United States," Bokhari said. "They telegraph that by allowing certain attacks to take place." This link is "speculation," he admits, but some other experts consider it credible. Said Stephen Cohen, a South Asia scholar at the Brookings Institution, "The Pakistanis will swear on a stack of Korans that they would never touch our supply line, but everybody understands that they can, and might have, manipulated it."
No Place Like Home
Whether they arrive from the north or south, supplies for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan flow into five major hubs around the country. The biggest are Kabul, including Bagram Air Base outside the city, and Kandahar; the second tier consists of Herat in the west, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, and British-run Camp Bastion in the south. From these hubs, supplies cascade down to smaller sites. Regular military flights connect the bigger bases to one another, while the most remote are provisioned by helicopter or parachute drop. All told, the U.S. and NATO have more than 180 installations in Afghanistan, from megabases where thousands of troops have access to laundries, coffee shops, and -- off-limits to U.S. personnel -- bars serving alcohol, down to austere outposts where a few dozen troops must defecate into garbage bags and then incinerate their waste in pits for want of a latrine.
The overhead for these sites is immense and growing. "No, there isn't the base infrastructure to handle the additional 30,000 soldiers -- yet -- but there will be," said Stevenson. "In the initial stages of this surge, we're going to have soldiers and marines living in some pretty bare-bones living conditions that will get better over time.... All of us soldiers in uniform know how to live in tents and to take care of ourselves in the field and to eat MREs; we can do that, and we can do that for weeks at a time," he went on. "When you're there for a year, commanders like to have their soldiers get a little break."
No place in Afghanistan is exactly relaxing. Rockets, mortars, and suicide bombers threaten even the megabases -- witness Lt. Col. Haywood's interrupted phone call from Kandahar -- although most attacks miss and cause no casualties. But once troops emerge from their hardened shelters, on the larger bases they can work out on elliptical trainers at a gym, eat in a dining hall, or talk with their families at home over a webcam. Garrisons at the smallest outposts are rotated back to less austere sites every few weeks, and personnel at midsized bases seize opportunities to visit better-appointed ones.
"We did have a good supply of food and a makeshift kind of kitchen," said Lt. Bryan Ewers, who joined the Army in December 2007 and soon shipped out to a Forward Operating Base in Nangarhar province housing hundreds of soldiers. In between mortar and rocket attacks, he said, "we could take a shower every day, most days, and we had a gym, a small gym, so you could get a workout in." But whenever Ewers led his soldiers on a supply run to a bigger base, he said, "it was a morale booster, too, for them to go get a haircut or get a coffee or go to the shoppette to get a snack or something."
Such simple amenities go a long way for troops far from home, and logisticians take great pride in providing them. "There are definitely locations -- I'm in one of them, in Kandahar -- which do have some limited morale and welfare facilities," Haywood said. "For example, the Canadians have a coffee place here, which I have to say I do get to visit once in a while.... What I do see, though, is quite a number of soldiers, many of whom have been out in the field, coming back to places like Bastion or Kandahar, where those limited welfare facilities make a big impression upon their capability to recover, rest, and then get back into the field and carry on."
Those amenities, however, place a big burden on the supply lines. Although locals perform many on-base services and Afghan contractors can provide basic building materials, everything else has to be shipped in from abroad and then hauled by truck or aircraft across Afghanistan: security barriers, air conditioners, even food and water. The military is shipping in thousands of prefab buildings for the surge troops, for example, but many soldiers live in tents, and that number will only increase.
"I assure you, General McChrystal understands it very well that every truck that comes up the road... is competing for the same space," Stevenson said. "There's a limit to how much nice-to-have things you can put in that theater." That limit comes less from the raw carrying capacity of U.S., allied, and contractor logistics than the sheer difficulty of Afghanistan.
Long before there were any civilizations to clash, Afghanistan was a geological collision zone. Its territory covers the western edge of the Himalayas, where the Indian subcontinent and Eurasia grind together to push the mountains a half-inch higher every year. Afghanistan's highest peak is 24,000 feet above sea level, not far short of the world's second-tallest mountain, the 28,000-foot K-2, just across the border in Pakistan. The terrain splits Afghanistan politically and physically: The Uzbek- and Tajik-inhabited north historically looked toward Central Asia, while Pashtun-populated Kandahar and the south were oriented toward India. In the east, the geography fractures the country into scores of isolated valleys.
Overlaid on this landscape is precious little infrastructure to aid travelers, thanks to 30 years of war and centuries of poverty before that. Afghanistan's jealously guarded independence meant that neither Russia nor Britain ever linked it into their railroad networks. In fact, Afghanistan has no railroads, and 77 percent of its roads are unpaved.
"In Iraq, the normal convoy was only going down a hardball [asphalt] road for about 10 miles. Well, you can do that in 30 minutes," Lt. Col. Whitson said. "I never had a mission that was done on the same day in Afghanistan.... To go just 23 kilometers [14 miles], average, would take me four and a half hours, but that same four-and-a-half-hour trip could take 12 to 14 hours depending on how many [improvised explosive devices] there were."
Afghanistan's dirt roads are easier to dig up than asphalt, which helps insurgents to plant and conceal mines. Those dirt roads also limit the weight of armor that a vehicle can carry before it starts to bog down. When the mine-resistant ambush-protected trucks developed for Iraq proved too heavy for most Afghan roads, the Pentagon had to devise the M-ATV, which is lighter and has a stronger suspension.
To avoid easily mined chokepoints, it is possible to go off-road in the southern Afghanistan deserts -- sometimes. In the spring, when snow melts on the mountains to the north and east, flooding turns the desert into mud. In the hot, dry summer, high winds stir up blinding clouds of dust.
In much of the mountainous east, going cross-country is never an option. "The roads are so narrow. A lot of them, you'll look out the window and it just drops off, and you're scraping the other side of your truck with the mountain," Lt. Ewers said. One vehicle broken down, blown up, or just plain stuck can block the only road into a valley for days, because removing it can require hacking the wreck apart and airlifting the pieces.
So, across much of eastern Afghanistan, the only way to go off-road is to fly. Even in the relatively flat south, distance, bad roads, and mines can render ground convoys to some outposts impractical, again putting the burden on aircraft. Deliveries by parachute, mostly food and water, doubled from 4,000 tons in 2008 to 8,000 in 2009. However, that level still represents less than 3 percent of supplies delivered in Afghanistan, according to Army estimates. Far more material moves by helicopter.
The Helicopter War
More than any other U.S. conflict since Vietnam, Afghanistan is a helicopter war. But being able to fly does not mean that you can go where you want to go over the rugged Afghan landscape.
"The terrain was definitely our No. 1 most feared threat out there, because you just had to respect it, or it would reach up and bite you," said Maj. Boyce Buckner, who has flown UH-60 Black Hawks in Afghanistan and Iraq. "And then the weather was the second-most-dangerous thing." Buckner rated American errors as the third-biggest hazard and put enemy fire in fourth place -- although, that said, "we'd go out and fly a different route every time" to make it harder for the Taliban to lay ambushes.
In eastern Afghanistan, the Himalayas are high enough that they channel not only helicopter traffic but also the weather, with storms spilling from one valley to the next in unpredictable ways. "When we woke up in the morning, the weatherman said, 'Hey, it's clear,' " recalled Army Maj. Joseph Bruhl, an AH-64 Apache gunship pilot, in describing one November 2008 mission. But after landing troops just short of the Pakistan border, Bruhl noticed the sky turning "a little bit gray."
"I popped up in altitude, and I looked over the peak that was to our east," he recounted. "All of a sudden, I saw this huge weather system coming that no one had seen on their radar, and it popped over this hill and spilled into the valley that we were in. And all of a sudden, it just started dumping snow and sleet and rain." Bruhl's unit spent hours flying in near-zero visibility to retrieve the ground troops.
Some hazards are invisible. As high winds rush down the valleys and ricochet off mountainsides, said Maj. Connie Mark Lane, an Army CH-47 Chinook pilot, "sometimes you lose control of the aircraft due to the turbulence," with the stress gauge going "straight into the red for anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds.... I've seen where people get into it, and then they refuse to fly for the next couple of days."
Closer to the ground, the winds produce not turbulence but blinding dust, as do a helicopter's rotor blades on landing and takeoff -- a particular problem in the desert south. The grit erodes rotors and chokes engines, forcing frequent maintenance or special modifications. Because most of Afghanistan is at least 1,000 feet above sea level, the air quickly grows thin, especially in the intense summer heat, straining engines and reducing the lift that helicopters need and, consequently, the amount of weight they can carry. Before Army Maj. Joel Magsig's battalion imposed formal restrictions on loads, he recalled, a well-meaning Black Hawk pilot at a high mountain base picked up one passenger too many; blinded by dust and overweight, "they got in some brownout and weren't climbing as fast as they thought they were, and they ended up hitting the [base] wall.... It kind of catapulted them sideways, and they flipped over and landed in a ditch. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the aircraft was close to totaled."
Between the distances, maintenance downtime, and the limits on what helicopters can carry, there is simply not enough air transportation to go around, even after turning to Russian contractors for low-danger daylight missions. "We were in a continuous fight within our own aviation brigade as to who got what," Magsig said. "We went over there with 114 helicopters. They can be moved around, but you don't [get] any more."
Driven by the war in Afghanistan, the Army's 2011 budget request includes $2.4 billion more for its helicopter fleet, and the service has begun organizing an additional, 12th combat aviation brigade out of existing assets. Time at home between deployments is significantly shorter for helicopter units than for most other Army units. "There's no question that if there's a portion of our force that's stressed right now, it's Army aviation," Lt. Gen. Stevenson said. The stress on those helicopter crews, and the other troops involved in the laborious business of moving supplies across Afghanistan, is only going to increase in the coming year.
"We don't have the assets to cover the area as much as we would like," said Maj. Bruhl, "and that's not a political statement. That's just a fact. Afghanistan is so huge and complex."
This article appears in the February 20, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.