FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan—Dozens of empty cargo pallets line the dusty and windswept airstrip at this remote FOB in the Hindu Kush mountains of eastern Afghanistan. It's a familiar sight for many such installations across the country as the U.S. prepares to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014.
It also represents a leviathan task for logistics units responsible for moving hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment valued at more than $36 billion at a cost of as much as $6 billion, according to Defense officials. As much as $7 billion of this equipment and gear will likely stay behind.
The full extent of this mission, however, remains unclear as the U.S. still has not determined precisely what will be left behind to assist the fledgling Afghan security forces and to combat any remaining enemy fighters.
The scene at Sharana is sharply contrasted with that at Bagram Airfield roughly 135 miles to the north. This massive base hosts the busiest airport within the entire Department of Defense, and shows no signs of shrinking. To the contrary, construction projects are rife throughout its more than 32 acres, which serves as one of the key entry and exit points for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Multiple officials at Bagram declined to comment on the ongoing construction or how the drawdown will affect the base.
Bagram can accommodate more than 1,000 outbound pallets and containers at once and often cycles through that many twice in one day, says Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Norman, commander of the 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron. This cargo could range from whole, functional vehicles to the kind of litter that accumulates naturally at these operating bases after more than 12 years of war.
"It's almost like cleaning out a basement," says Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Jason Lamoureux, the air terminal manager for the 455th at Bagram. "There's some ugly stuff coming through."
Bagram Air Field is subject to frequent rocket attacks from the surrounding area. Senior Master Sgt. Jason Farris, operations superintendent for the 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron, says these can shut down the airstrip for as much as 30 minutes at a time, but do not usually create long-lasting delays.
And there is an art to loading a pallet, he says.
The squadron sends inspectors out to bases such as Sharana that are packing up gear and sending it to Bagram, the chief staging point for outbound shipments from Regional Command-East. They ensure everything that can't be shipped loose – such as vehicles that can roll on their own wheels – fits into standardized shipping containers or pallets, and that it is devoid of hazardous or forbidden biological materials. These containers can be loaded onto both cargo planes or ground transportation vehicles for the trip home.
Defense officials will not comment on the specific air routes out of Afghanistan, though nearby Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan – and their respective port towns – are historic transfer points for U.S. military supplies.
Roughly 90 percent of shipments coming out of Afghanistan will travel by ground, Norman says, largely due to the gross expense of air fuel. Army Col. Glen Baca, operations chief of Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, says air transportation can cost as much as five times more than ground, accounting for billions of dollars.
"There is a very limited amount of cargo that travels all the way back to the U.S. by air, usually very high value, low weight equipment," he says. For the rest, a quick look at a map of landlocked Afghanistan yields few alternatives.
Disputes with Pakistan, including the U.S. deployment of drones there, has resulted in its periodically barring the U.S. from using its land to the east for access to the Arabian Sea. Hostilities with Iran preclude the U.S. from using that country and its more than 400-mile border with Afghanistan to the west.
This leaves the U.S. with a route to the north that must cross 14 different countries, including Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, before it ultimately ends at Estonia and its Baltic Sea shorefront. This requires a herculean effort of diplomatic and customs negotiations, Baca says.
"You end up with this political-military dynamic that you have to cope with, and then you have to cope with issues that are routinely commercial interests, like customs authorities and cargo that is allowed to go through certain countries," he says.
Food cannot be transmitted by air, and the military also cannot openly transport pork products by ground through many Muslim countries, such as neighboring Pakistan or other countries to the north. Logistics crews often get creative by labeling these sealed shipments as simply "meat" instead.
Weapons, on the other hand, may not be transported by land. Pieces of equipment clearly only intended for military use may have to be covered as it travels through this string of countries.
Even if the U.S. decides to employ the so-called "zero option" and withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, not all of this equipment will accompany them. There is simply too much of it and it would cost too much, Baca says.
Top Marine Gen. James Amos said in June that the corps is "not leaving a single thing" behind in Afghanistan, except for what it donates to a foreign country. That loophole may account for a lot.
As much as $7 billion worth of military hardware, office equipment, computers, electronics or other devices that have outlived their serviceable life or deemed not economically worth moving will be donated to the Afghans or destroyed, Baca says. Some of the rows and rows of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and Humvees that line the depot yards at Bagram may also be destroyed instead of shipped home.
Donating this equipment remains a concern in a country where the tools of previous wars are often used to fight the next one.
"That's a risk," Baca says, "but at some point you have to have some faith and trust our partners that if the equipment is donated to them, they have the ability maintain, sustain and keep it for their use."
The clock is ticking on moving all of this equipment – and deciding how much should be left behind for the enduring force.
Baca plans for 10,000 troops to stay behind as an estimate and placeholder until the U.S. announces the precise post-2014 plan. Conversations with other logistics experts in Afghanistan yield similar estimates before the White House releases a tangible target.
Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters in July that the end of 2014 is a long way away. But for those on the ground, it's a different story.
"If we were told right now that we were going to zero, there is enough capacity that we could complete the task," Baca says, adding that becomes exponentially harder the closer these units approach the end of 2014.