How soon is now? Afghanistan and drawdown logistics

Lately there is growing water cooler speculation in Washington over just how long the United States will stick out the Afghanistan war – and how long it would take to leave a country the U.S. has deployed its military to for 12 years.

In last week’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., sparred over which candidate, President Obama or Mitt Romney, has the intestinal fortitude to keep troops in Afghanistan as long as necessary.

Biden, in step with the current NATO plan, said, “We are leaving Afghanistan in 2014. Period.”

For many national security-niks in Washington, the candidates are already behind the curve. The bar stool debate is not whether the U.S. fights into 2015 or sticks around in 2014. The bets being laid now are whether the U.S. even makes it to 2014.

The murmur grew a bit louder on Sunday when the New York Times published a strongly worded editorial representing a new stance: Get out sooner rather than later.

“…It is time for United States forces to leave Afghanistan on a schedule dictated only by the security of the troops. It should not take more than a year. The United States will not achieve even President Obama’s narrowing goals, and prolonging the war will only do more harm,” wrote the Times.

A timeline of not more than a year means combat ends and U.S. troops are gone by October 15, 2013. The editorial was required reading in some Pentagon offices come Monday.

Part of what the Times argues is how much time a U.S. withdrawal should take, and challenges the Pentagon’s deference to what is called a “secure logistical withdrawal.”

“Some experts say a secure withdrawal would take at least six months, and possibly a year. But one year is a huge improvement over two,” the paper wrote.

So how long would it take to get out? Ask Gus Pagonis, the retired three-star who presided over the departure of troops after the first Gulf War. Sure, that was a long time ago, and Iraq and Kuwait are totally different from Afghanistan. But to Pagonis, logistics is logistics.

“The principles of retrograde are always the same: identify the troops that have to get out first, what logisticians do you need, then you do triage,” Pagonis says. “They already have the plans, they just have to dust them off.”

Of course there are some real differences, as he acknowledges, and the bottom line is, getting out of Afghanistan is going to be tough.

After the first Gulf War, logisticians were able to use Kuwait as a staging area to wash everything down and load it up on barges to ship home. Afghanistan is of course landlocked, so of course there are no handy ports. Most stuff will have to be flown out, which will be expensive.

But most important, Pagonis says, is that after the first Gulf War, there was no enemy to contest the Americans’ withdrawal. That will not be the case in Afghanistan no matter when the U.S. leaves.

There wasn’t much press scrutiny, either, he remembers, as he moved out 370,000 short tons of ammo, 150,000 wheeled-vehicles, nearly 1,000 tanks and 50,000 containers.

“I didn’t have an enemy,” Pagonis says. “Nobody cared how we were coming out. CNN went home. I was all alone.”

The only enemy, he said, was the weather.

Although the Pentagon had learned its lesson from the first Gulf War, in which “iron mountains” of equipment needed to be shipped home, even logisticians in the more recent Iraq war marveled at the amount of stuff that had been built up in there since 2003.

Afghanistan is slightly different. The military tried not to build up large city-bases, and thus, there’s less to bring home. It’ll still be a challenge, Pagonis says. The military, however, will get it done no matter what timeframe it is given, he says.

“But you want a professional withdrawal, you don’t want to have stuff hanging out the back of the truck as you leave,” Pagonis says.

Indeed, the only thing certain about Afghanistan's logistical drawdown is that it will be longer, costlier, and more dangerous than Iraq's. At the end of Iraq, there were 50,000 troops in theater and the short rollout into Kuwait, aka "the catcher's mitt," made pulling back a relative snap. Also, troops had about a year and a half of shrink wrapping, bagging and tagging of stuff to get it ready to go.

In Afghanistan, there are still 67,000 troops — for now, at least — and the land routes exiting through Pakistan or the Northern Distribution Network are far longer, slower, and harder. And those routes only accept non-lethal items, so no tanks will be rolling across Afghan borders. Instead, all of the U.S. firepower amassed in Afghanistan in the past decade must be airlifted out, at enormous cost. How expensive? Nobody knows, it depends how much the U.S. leaves behind and how quickly it has to be shipped out. Over land in the north, to make things more complicated, there is no single-mode route, meaning items must move be moved between rail, truck, and ship all along the way Westward.  Some items already have been packed up, but the grand total, according a recent Associated Press report, includes 50,000 vehicles and 100,000 shipping containers.

And there is another factor. The budget crunch at home means the services may want to bring back as much of their equipment as possible.

When the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq, many senior leaders initially thought to leave a significant amount of materiel there. But as funding started to get tighter, many began to think about the cost of  “re-set” -- replacing aged or broken equipment -- and the prevailing view was to  bring as much of the equipment home as possible, regardless of its condition.  Some now believe the departure from Afghanistan could be much the same.

A retired colonel and logistician who worked on airlift requirements in Iraq, the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan for U.S. Transportation Command, the military’s logistics combatant command, said the Pentagon may be more circumspect about what it decides to sell or leave behind.

“No one knows who is going to be elected, what the final outcome of sequester is going to be, so I think the services will be very conservative trying to get equipment back, not knowing what funding levels will be for the Department of Defense,” the colonel said.

In short, hey baby, there ain't no easy way out.

A Majeed/AFP/GettyImages