A rough terrain container handler passes by the entrance of the Forward Operating Base Sharana Materiel Redistribution Yard. (U.S. Army Photo by 1st Lt. Henry Chan)
WASHINGTON – About 40,000 containers and 30,000 vehicles have been shipped back from Afghanistan over the past year, but a strategic transportation planner said the system “has not yet been taxed” to its fullest potential.
Lt. Col. Richard Clifton, of Army Central Command G-4, said Army Central Command, known as ARCENT, is moving equipment out of Afghanistan at a good pace and the recent government shutdown did not really affect the retrograde operation on that end. Soldiers and contractors kept things moving, he explained Oct. 21, at the 2013 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition.
It’s feasible to bring back the 80,000 containers and 20,000 vehicles still in Afghanistan by December 2014, said Clifton, who is chief of the Joint Operational Planning and Execution System branch at ARCENT.
“We’re not going to pick up and abandon anything,” Clifton said. “Our intent is to get everything (home).”
Right now, equipment is moving out of Afghanistan through the Pakistan “ground line of communication,” also known as the PAKGLOC. That route had been closed for about seven months, due to political reasons. But several months ago it resumed operations, and Clifton said it is working well.
Shipments of equipment are also moving through the “Northern Distribution Route,” a network of roads, railroads, rivers and ports, Clifton said. The Northern Distribution Route includes about half a dozen different routes. Cargo flows through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and even Russia. Sensitive equipment though is not being shipped across those routes, Clifton said, because of the risk of pilferage.
Retrograde is also being sent by air. It is the fastest way to get equipment home – but it is also expensive, Clifton said.
Challenges to retrograde out of Afghanistan include weather. If equipment is located south of the Khyber Pass, for instance, it can’t go out over a northern route during the winter. Heavy snows begin in late October or November, Clifton explained, and the tunnel on that route is often blocked.
“A large portion of the country is rugged. It’s mountainous, it’s got bad weather, there are no roads,” Clifton said, adding that the roads which exist have tunnels that get blocked by snow.
There’s no economical way to get equipment in or out of Afghanistan, he said. There’s no navigable river and the nation is landlocked.
Cultural differences between border nations also have the potential to slow the retrograde operation, Clifton said. Ramadan and other religious holidays can sometimes bring the flow of cargo to almost a standstill.
Even with all the obstacles, though, Clifton said the retrograde operation is on track.
“It’s a metered flow as we shut down and off-ramp,” he said.
As forward operating bases shut down, equipment goes into cargo yards and is examined by Redistribution Property Assistance Teams, or RPATs. There are RPAT yards located across Afghanistan, Clifford said.
Anything not needed by units currently in theater is being considered for retrograde, Clifton said.
Not all equipment needs to be retrograded back to the United States, though. Some of the equipment in RPAT yards might be needed by the Afghan National Army, Clifton said. Other equipment might be selected for sale to nearby friendly nations under the foreign military sales program. Some may be scrapped. Most of it, though, is being planned for retrograde across the existing routes out of the country.
“We’re in a hurry,” Clifton said, explaining that the intent of the president is to get the bulk of equipment home by December 2014.
“It’s doable, very doable,” he said.