WASHINGTON – As the U.S. military starts a drawdown of troops in Iraq, it finds itself in the midst of the largest logistical movement of weapons, vehicles and other equipment since the build-up to World War II, according to the general in charge of the operation.
Millions of pieces of equipment, from large mine resistant troop carriers and Humvees to the smallest of pieces like cots and combat radios, are being thoroughly scrutinized as they come out of Iraq and mostly sent to the war effort thousands of miles away in Afghanistan to help in the troop build up there, according to the commander of the operation, Lt. Gen. William Webster.
Webster spoke Friday from his base in Kuwait to reporters at the Pentagon. He said the main effort is to get the rest of the 30,000 additional troops and their equipment into Afghanistan as ordered by President Obama last year while the U.S. downsizes its presence in Iraq to 50,000 troops this year and none by the end of 2011.
As more troops arrive in Afghanistan, however, overcrowding and equipment shortage has become a problem for commanders and so Webster's team must also continue focusing on getting that equipment out of Iraq and into Afghanistan.
He said about 2.8 million pieces of equipment are being moved out of Iraq as part of the gradual drawdown of U.S. forces there.
As the equipment is moved, the military has to make a decision on what to do with each piece: put it in Afghanistan, ship it back to the U.S. or leave it in Iraq.
"Some of it goes into Afghanistan; some of it goes back to the Army to be reset back in the depots and then returned to our soldiers who are training back in" the United States, Webster said.
"We began last June moving equipment out of Iraq, and we're sorting it out here in Kuwait," he said.
Another part of Webster's job is to fix the vehicles heading to Afghanistan. Most of them must be refurbished and reconfigured to fit the different terrain needs in that country.
While only one country separates Iraq and Afghanistan, the direct route is not an option. With no diplomatic relations with Iran, the U.S. obviously had to come up with another plan to get around what would otherwise be a direct route. The logistical trail to get the equipment to the battlefields in Afghanistan has to skirt the country's borders because of tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
While most of the troops and vehicles are flown to Afghanistan, the other equipment and goods have to be sent by rail, ship or ground.
The main route takes equipment southward out of Kuwait then sent through the Persian Gulf and into Karachi, Pakistan, where it is then brought north through often hostile tribal territory.
As attacks grew on these convoys, even forcing a suspension of this route, the U.S. was forced to open the northern route as a backup.
Some of the equipment is sent on truck and rail northward out of Iraq on an almost 5,000-mile journey through Turkey and Georgia, then turning west, and ultimately going through Uzbekistan and into Afghanistan.
"We're now able to move about 50 percent of the supplies that we need in Afghanistan over those five routes along the northern distribution network," Webster said.
Webster said the operation is only about 35 percent complete and hopes to move more than 5,000 vehicles needed for the Afghanistan buildup into Afghanistan by the end of the summer.
The gargantuan effort does not have an exact price tag because the operation is ongoing, but it ranges in the tens of billions of dollars, according to Webster.
While the cost maybe huge, there is some savings in evaluating, repairing and moving equipment from one war zone to another.
"We saved about $3.8 billion last year by finding those redundancies and efficiencies in our processes and either cost avoidance or cost savings, and we were able to apply that $3.8 billion towards last year's build-up in Afghanistan," Webster said.