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In Afghanistan, the Handwriting Is on the Wall

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Thank God the Pakistanis have reopened the Khyber Pass to the trucks that carry United States and NATO supplies from Indian Ocean ports to Afghanistan. The Pakistani border closure, which took place in response to an American air strike in the border area that killed a couple of Pakistani soldiers, was lifted after eleven days, following a series of private but official U.S. apologies. For the short term, General David Petraeus gets his supply flow restored. But this incident was no momentary inconvenience. Rather, it is an ominous warning: evidence, if any were needed, of the very thin base of support among the nations vital to sustain the American effort in Afghanistan. When the true volatility of this situation is revealed, the U.S. and NATO war effort will be plunged into a crisis of unprecedented proportion.

The difficulties of war -- any war -- in Afghanistan are immutable and rooted in physical reality. These problems dogged Soviet armies in the 20th Century and British ones in the 19th. They are more deeply embedded in the fabric of the situation than the headaches of Afghan politics, the divergent goals of the Karzai government, rampant corruption, military ineffectiveness, Taliban determination, or the features of a harsh land. Intractable as those things may be, and any one of them could lead to stalemate or defeat in the Afghan war, geography is an equal or larger problem because it limits every facet of American and allied activity -- not only the geography of Afghanistan, but the simple fact that the country has no access to the sea. Afghans live in a landlocked nation nestled in the remote fastness of South Asia.

Every bullet, every artillery shell, all the combat vehicles and helicopters, every MRE, must be brought into the country. The combat zone is not merely thousands of miles away from the United States, it can be accessed only by crossing other countries: Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan. (China also shares a short length of border with Afghanistan but there are no transportation routes there, and Iran, hostile to the U.S., can be excluded.) More to the point, there are but a few road entries into Afghanistan. Similarly, the number of airports in the country that can handle large, long-haul transport aircraft can be counted on the fingers of one hand -- and those too are accessed only by flying over other nations' airspace.

At the other end of the equation, modern armies and sophisticated equipment consume huge quantities of everything from peanut butter to electric batteries. All that body armor and those computer consoles, not to mention shells and rockets, adds up to great weight and volume. Many posts can be reached only by helicopter. Aviation fuel is at a premium, gasoline an equally daunting necessity -- not just for vehicles but for the electric generators that power American bases. Requirements in fact rule out certain kinds of equipment -- few Abrams tanks are in the theater, for example -- vehicles that measure gas consumption in gallons per mile. Concerned about the price of gas for your car? It costs $400 to put one gallon of gas on the ground in certain places in Afghanistan. In 2009, according to Pentagon estimates, allied forces were consuming over half a million gallons of gasoline per day, a figure that nearly doubled before the new "surge" troops began reaching the country. During the Vietnam war the Pentagon calculated that every soldier in-country represented $7,000 in the war budget. For Afghanistan that figure is $1,000,000.

For years, American logistics experts have been wrestling with this conundrum. They have developed a northern route that accounts for slightly less than a third of deliveries to Afghanistan. There are road connections from Turkmenistan, road and rail through Uzbekistan, and air links that depend on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Of course, goods have to reach the front line countries before they can be transshipped. Those nations have their own economies and needs -- restricting spare capacity -- and the inadequacy of the links into Afghanistan poses another constraint. For example, the sole rail line into the combat zone tops out at 4,000 tons per month of capacity, less than 5 percent of the U.S./NATO requirements before they began to increase in early 2009. At that time, approximately 16,000 tons per month were being delivered by air. Contracts have been let for new rail tracks and more airbases in Afghanistan but the earliest these can be finished is late in 2011. The Pakistani road network accounts for half of logistics throughput. Capacity there cannot be much expanded because the roads enter Afghanistan through difficult mountain passes. Given physical upper limits on transport, tonnage requirements constrain the size of any force that can be sustained in Afghanistan. The troop surge will nearly double NATO tonnage requirements. Thus its net effect will be to put GIs in Afghanistan at the very edge of a red zone of supply failure.

Diplomats naturally had to negotiate deals with the front line countries to permit transit of supplies. Most of those averaged a year in preparation. The arrangements with the "stans" largely restrict transit to non-lethal items. That is also true for air overflight rights, and transport of U.S. supplies across intervening nations like Russia, Georgia, Kazakstan, and Azerbaijan. Pakistan then assumes even greater importance because it has countenanced all manner of deliveries. But the truth is that the United States and its allies are at the mercy of a host of uninvolved nations with their own interests--and a major involved one (Pakistan) that has certain purposes which conflict with the American. Already Kyrgyzstan has terminated an American contract for a key airbase on the supply line, relenting only at the price of new aid offers. Others can play at that game too. And the Pakistani road closure demonstrates just how fragile is this support network.

And then there is the opposition. The Taliban have taken to raising a portion of their war budget by charging "safe passage" fees to the truckers who carry American loads through Pakistan. Or the truckers can hire warlord armies--"private contractors"--(some of whom are Taliban or fellow travelers) to guard their convoys. No pay, no play. Taliban attacks regularly destroy a portion of the trucks on the routes north from Karachi. In a major strike on the logistics net, at the end of 2009 the Taliban wrecked 160 of these trucks--only a few more than were destroyed during the period of road closure just ended. The scope for corruption is virtually unlimited, but imagine the ignominy of the United States paying the Taliban to secure the delivery of supplies, money that fuels the fight against GIs who use those supplies to attack the Taliban.

Decades ago, during the transition to John F. Kennedy's presidency, the United States stood at the brink of military intervention in Laos, a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower took Kennedy aside and told him quite directly that Laos was the biggest conflict on his plate. President Kennedy, who could not see any way to conduct war in Laos, instead encouraged negotiations and became a proponent of agreements reached at Geneva in 1962 that neutralized Laos.

An even more disturbing parallel is that of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842), which bears many similarities to present circumstances. A British army entered Afghanistan from India and installed a friendly ruler in Kabul, only to be sucked into the political and security commitments required to prop up their puppet. When Afghans rose up against the imposed ruler, the British decided to withdraw from the country. At that point, the inability to supply their forces and the harsh land worked against the British-Indian army, which was almost entirely massacred before they could escape.

In the American military, the saw is that captains and majors study tactics, colonels do strategy, and generals plan logistics. But in Afghanistan, American generals have created a logistics nightmare incapable of solution, and then compounded the dilemma by demanding a surge that pushes the deployed force to the very edge of the abyss. Every indication is that the generals are already laying the groundwork to demand that deteriorating security necessitates that the Afghan withdrawal set for 2011 be cancelled or postponed. The Bush administration was happy to start the Afghan war, then sat complacently as the commitment soured. President Obama trapped himself on this dangerous path. To the recklessness of starting the Afghan war, we are in danger of adding the stupidity of not ending it. This conflict has reached the point where the failure modes are many and obvious, and the path to success obscure, under conditions where Americans are at risk. The handwriting is on the wall. To proceed further under these circumstances is to march into folly.

John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, who assists on its Afghanistan Documentation Project. His current book is Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (University Press of Kansas).