Water, food, and fuel are the top three consumables that the U.S. and NATO supply systems move to and within Afghanistan. That allied forces have to laboriously haul fuel, or, for that matter, ammunition, from outside the country is understandable, but why do they import much of their water and all of their food? Poor as it is, Afghanistan does have an agricultural economy, one that counterinsurgency strategy says we should stimulate with local purchases. Yet, as Carl von Clausewitz wrote, "Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult," and in Afghanistan, that includes such basic needs as food and water.
Surprisingly, the "bottled water we import is cheaper than when we get it here," said Air Commodore Frederik Groen, the Dutch air force officer who coordinates logistics for NATO's International Stability Assistance Force. "But we should look broader than that: Development is one of the main priorities of the commander," namely U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Investing in Afghan infrastructure to produce clean water, Groen said, "might be in the short term maybe a little bit more expensive, but in the long term [it] creates a lot more jobs over here."
Afghanistan, however, is as poor in water as it is in everything else. "Just because you start digging the hole into the ground doesn't mean you're going to find water," said Lt. Gen. Mitchell Stevenson, the U.S. Army's deputy chief of staff for logistics. "In many cases in Afghanistan, you have to [drill] in excess of 150 to 200 feet to even get to an aquifer."
As late as the 1919 border war between the then-Afghan kingdom and the British Empire, who controlled the local well could often decide the battle. Decades of well-meaning irrigation projects since have created sinkholes or depleted aquifers as often as they have helped.
When water does come out of the ground, it needs decontamination. "Our bodies are so used to a very, very high quality of water," said Stevenson, whose entire unit got violently ill in Saudi Arabia in 1990 after eating local food prepared with local water. "When we drink local water -- just stuff that a normal Iraqi wouldn't think twice about or an Afghan wouldn't think twice about drinking, because their [immune] system is used to dealing with all that bacteria and the germs -- our systems aren't used to that."
Andrew Torelli, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who commanded a 100-person Provincial Reconstruction Team in Zabul province, said, "I had a guy that was sick for over a month, losing about 20 pounds. He ate some bad food, or some bad water got in his mouth while he was showering." Because local food is generally grown and prepared using local water, the same sanitation issues affect both. Torelli's troops lived off imported food, mainly from Pakistan, and they reserved Afghan meals for special occasions. Sanitation aside, he explained, "we didn't want to drive prices up in the local economy," a common side effect of foreigners unleashing their full spending power in an impoverished country.
The U.S. military and NATO are working to "buy local," which could reduce their logistical burden while stimulating the Afghan economy. Iraq went from having no bottled water plants to six during the U.S. occupation. Afghanistan, where the U.S. military has been in place longer, has two. The Defense Logistics Agency is exploring more sources locally and in Central Asia. Meanwhile, it continues to import 200,000 meals a day into Afghanistan -- and plenty of bottled water.
This article appears in the February 20, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.