On February 11, I highlighted Afghanistan and its unenviable logistical challenges, noting where the U.S. and coalition forces would be most vulnerable in building a supply chain architecture for success in the country and in competition with their enemies.
Via The Corner and Michael Yon's blog, I found my way to an article from March 22 in the Washington Post on the same topic of logistics in Afghanistan, titled "General Urges Confidence in Ability to Supply Troops in Afghanistan." Before going into the article, I would like to highlight something I wrote on February 11:
"While true that the AOG (armed opposition groups) supply chain sophistication has yet to reach the level of the U.S. military, the U.S. supply chain is far more extended and thus more exposed to instability. This is exacerbated by the fact that the supply chain nodes surrounding Afghanistan exist in countries that are also underdeveloped states (former Soviet states), highly unstable states (Pakistan), or highly insular/hostile states (Iran).
"With the U.S. raising the troop commitment in Afghanistan, it is absolutely necessary that they have the most sophisticated, underlying supply chain architecture in-theater, and that its innovation architecture is geared towards being highly disruptive and destructive when targeting the AOG's own supply chain architectures--physical (bases, training camps, hideouts), financial (cash lines, funding sources), informational (communication and IT), relational (collaborators and partners), innovational (new techniques and training camp programs), and human (recruiting, training and leadership)."
You don't have to be a genius to understand that Afghanistan is a logistician's nightmare. Not only is it tough to provide goods and services across its borders, supply chain architecture is equally difficult to manage within its borders. Taking a look at Google Maps:
As can be seen, Afghanistan is not just landlocked, it is landlocked by a handful of under-developed and/or unstable states. Over-land options are not just limited, they are all less than reliable. The path of least resistance, when air space is cleared by Pakistan, is from the sea by air. Thus, the following quote by Gen. Duncan J. McNabb in Post is the understatement of the year:
"You probably couldn't ask for or find a tougher place from a logistics challenge, of getting the stuff in," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A description of how things are currently managed logistically follows:
"The most successful option has been air delivery. Battle gear -- including arms, ammunition, sensitive equipment, bomb-resistant vehicles and armored personnel carriers -- has been brought into Afghanistan by air, thanks to a Pentagon-funded expansion of air bases at Bagram, Kandahar and Bastian.
"In recent years, the capacity of the bases has been increased by up to 400 percent, and the growth continues. At Bagram air base, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers is managing about $650 million in construction, according to Col. Thomas O'Donovan, commander of the Afghanistan Engineer District.
"The materials for all this construction must be trucked into Afghanistan, since the country has few factories. Cement is brought in from Pakistan, steel from Uzbekistan and other northern neighbors, and manufactured goods such as doors and doorknobs from China or India.
"These trucks also carry food, water, clothing and other personal supplies, typically bringing them from Pakistani ports and into Afghanistan at one of five border crossings. About 130 to 140 shipments reach Afghanistan each day along that route, McNabb said, and because only 78 containers a day are currently needed to keep up with demand, "we're getting more in than we need.""
But tactics by the AOGs have forced U.S. forces to create new options:
"But insurgents have been successful enough at interrupting shipments that McNabb's command is using satellite trackers to look for any sign of attack and to reroute trucks accordingly.
"Meanwhile, "alternative routes to Afghanistan through the Caucasus and Central Asia have become a high priority," McNabb told the senators. The Pentagon has enlisted Russia, China, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in a northern distribution network, and a few dozen shipments have already reached the Afghan capital, Kabul, by that route.
"The hope, he added, is to be "able to bring in about 100 containers from the north a day to supplement" what is imported through Pakistan. "So we have lots of options to get the stuff in."
"However, if all ground routes fail, McNabb said, "if we had to do everything by air, you would see a Berlin airlift.""
As U.S. Forces continue to assist in the build up of Afghanistan's internal infrastructure, it is critical that border security is maintained to the degree that cross-border, ground transport is not only secure but also a feasible option for the supply of goods and services required for Afghanistan to thrive. Success will be a long time coming as long as AOGs are able to:
- maintain freedom of movement across Afghan's border,
- disrupt key, over-land supply routes for U.S. forces, even part of the time,
- and build the architecture necessary to recruit, train, equip and deploy their own forces.
Pondering Afghanistan has led me to believe that its allure to many is exactly its various challenges, the possibility of succeeding in "taming" a country and land where many over history have failed. I personally find it both daunting and exciting, and can understand being susceptible to this allure. I believe we could see many errors ahead if our leaders become too emotionally attached to a particular strategy for definitive success in Afghanistan. In addition, the effort is sure to be doomed if our leaders are only half-committed.