Logistics will be the key to introducing 30,000 soldiers and Marines into Afghanistan in the next six to seven months and to confronting the Taliban over the next 18 months. This reflects an old saying in the military – amateurs study strategy and professionals study logistics.
Nevertheless, no one on the Senate and House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees this week asked either Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen about the significant logistics problems they will face in Afghanistan. The logistics nightmare will be one of the reasons Afghanistan will turn out to be President Barack Obama’s briar patch.
In most wartime situations, the equipment and supplies, which the military refers to as “beans, bullets and black oil,” (in layman’s terms, food, ammo and fuel) arrive by sea to the war zone. Because Afghanistan is landlocked, US aid will have to be sent to Karachi, then trucked through Pakistan across the Khyber Pass into the war zone. This is a serious and dangerous trek, exacerbated by insurgent attacks along the way.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been bribing insurgent groups, including the Taliban, to desist from attacking these convoys. Nevertheless, US military supplies have been lost to both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. The Soviet military had similar problems in the 1980s, when mujahideen forces frequently closed the Salang Tunnel, which bypassed the Hindu Kush and linked northern and southern Afghanistan.
Supplying forces in Afghanistan will be far more difficult than supplying forces in Iraq, where large volumes of military assistance arrived in Kuwait and, within a week, were positioned as rolling stock for travel to Baghdad and beyond. In addition to military equipment for US soldiers and Marines, the United States will have to supply the Afghan military forces and the police. The newly reconstituted Afghan forces, for example, will go through hundreds of thousands of rounds of small-arms ammunition even in the training phase. Training Afghan forces will take far longer than the projections offered by Gates and Mullen, even exceeding the time period for the putative beginning of our drawdown in the summer of 2011.
Unlike Iraq, which had Kuwait as a staging area, Afghanistan has no staging area. There is no road system comparable to Iraq’s, and no large air bases for US aircraft. Iraq had numerous large air bases, but Afghan air bases are small by the standards of the US Air Force, and not even Bagram is up to US standards. The assistance and supplies that arrive at these fields must be quickly offloaded and trucked away, both for security and to allow the aircraft to be refueled and returned to the United States or Europe.
What little infrastructure existed in Afghanistan was destroyed by the Soviet military in 1988-1989 on their way out. Most roads are in fact donkey trails that are well known to the Taliban and useful to primitive Taliban forces, but of little use to mechanized US forces. There are few bridges, and most bridges are made of mud. There is no fuel or even fuel storage. There is little water or water storage.
Afghanistan’s high altitude creates even more logistic problems, particularly for helicopters that are so important to US forces. Just as helicopters had serious problems in Vietnam due to humidity and corrosion, there are serious issues of lift capability in the high altitude of Afghanistan. A helicopter could lift a tank at sea level, but it is unable to lift a jeep in the high altitudes (6,000 feet and above) of Afghanistan.
Nor did the members of the Senate and House committees challenge Secretary Gates’ statements about relations between the Taliban and al Qaeda, which were both counterintuitive and counterfactual. According to Gates, a heavy military footprint is needed in Afghanistan because the Taliban and al Qaeda are “inextricably linked,” with each benefiting from the “success and mythology of the other.” We know little about this linkage. Gates also believes that Afghanistan is unique as the “wellspring of inspiration for extremist jihadism everywhere.”
Since Gates’ assumptions, according to White House sources, were influential in President Obama’s decision to escalate the fighting in Afghanistan, it is important to examine Gates’ thinking. But Gates was not asked to explain how a haven in Afghanistan for al Qaeda would increase the security threat to the United States or his inexplicable reference to Afghanistan as a wellspring of inspiration for extremist jihadism.
In addition to exaggerating the operational links between the Taliban and al Qaeda, Gates misstated al Qaeda’s need for a safe haven in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda already has a safe haven in Pakistan, and no amount of US pressure on Pakistan is going to lead the Pakistani military to take on the task of conquering al Qaeda’s sanctuary.
There are other areas, such as Somalia and Yemen, where al Qaeda could establish a sanctuary if necessary. Furthermore, it is wrong to think of Afghanistan as the site of al Qaeda’s preparation for the 9/11 attacks. The recruiting and planning for 9/11 took place primarily, according to the former deputy chief of the counterterrorist center at the CIA, “in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States” – not in primitive training camps in Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda currently does not threaten the United States from Afghanistan, and, as long as the United States is willing to resort to military pressure from sea-based facilities and air bases abroad, it will not be possible for al Qaeda to reconstitute itself in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and his minions could have been stopped in their tracks in Afghanistan in 2001, but President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were not willing to send additional US military forces there in December 2001.
Just as the Bush administration blundered badly in abandoning the struggle in Afghanistan in order to conduct an unnecessary invasion of Iraq, the Obama administration has committed its own blunder in building up forces in Afghanistan when the terrorist threat to the United States is currently located in Pakistan.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 became an important recruitment tool for insurgents everywhere, and Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan will lead to an increase in terrorist activity to counter the US occupation of Afghanistan. In many ways, the Obama blunder is even more tragic than Bush’s because the Afghan challenge is far more daunting than the one in Iraq and there are important domestic programs that will be held hostage to Obama’s war.