The real US challenge in Afghanistan
On 2 December, United States’ President Obama officially announced the dispatch of an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. In a speech in front of West Point cadets, the president pledged to fulfill a consistent strategy and ensure stabilization, security and development in Afghanistan.
This has so far proved to be a hard task. Afghanistan is among the least-developed countries in the world, with rugged terrain, thin insecure road network and relentless attacks on convoys and civilians. What little existing infrastructure there is already strained and poses challenges to further troop increase.
Feeding and supplying an army of 100,000 soldiers (the total number after the announced reinforcements) is a vital task for its successful performance. However, it is a difficult one too, as the transporting goods and equipment in Afghanistan is very dangerous and complicated.
Security analysts predict that the reinforcements will not be fully deployed before mid-march 2010. Once this happens, the additional personnel will, between them, consume about a million liters of bottled water every day. They will also need barracks, beds to sleep on, three meals per day, water sanitation and medical equipment, just to mention a few. These and many others crucial supplies such as fuel need to be transported in timely fashion to all bases, checkpoints and operation theaters. This is the backbone of the international operation and happens around the clock regardless of terrain, weather conditions and bombs on the road.
The security of delivery is always an issue in Afghanistan, even for those that have to provide it. According to a Logistics Manager based in Afghanistan, ‘You can’t count on success today with yesterday’s security plan…the situation is not static and planning is very challenging. Some days it takes me 10 minutes to get to the airport, next day I need an hour and a half to go through all the different security checkpoints.’
This situation makes it indispensable for all companies operating in Afghanistan to rely heavily on local expertise for their business. When goods need to be transported or people move, securing the road ahead is not taken for granted, even though this is the main task of the Afghan National Army. One has to make sure they play according to the local rules otherwise shipments and human life may be in danger.
International soldiers often escort humanitarian workers or civilians such as policemen and law-enforcement experts. Yet when the soldiers’ food is on its way someone else is paid to do the job. To reach their destinations, private businesses, operating in Afghanistan resort to either foreign private security companies or local militia, with the latter being the better option. “We, like many others, have to use local militia and local people for information about the security situation”, an expat working in Afghanistan explains. “You have to be Afghan to understand the country. It is a must to work with locals- people who provide security, people who drive your trucks too.”
Indeed, being an Afghan lets you through in places where an Uzbek-looking, let alone European-looking agent, will be stopped. And stopping you on the road in Afghanistan may be more dangerous than having to give a bribe.
Traveling through Afghanistan even at short distances can be deadly. The IED (improvised explosive devices) are the top danger, but attacks with rocket launchers and machine guns occur daily. They aim at either stopping unguarded convoys or destroying military deliveries. The insurgents know well that they stand little chance against the well-equipped US and NATO armies. The strategy, therefore, is to cut them off from their vital supplies of water, food and ammo. This is where local security guards can help a lot.
At the same time however hiring local militia has another side. They are useful for avoiding the insurgents, but no one exactly knows their relationship with the militants. The internationals do not care where the information is coming from as long as it is correct. Thus sometimes your security guards may have been shooting at NATO troops a week ago and only temporarily switch sides for profit. In other cases they are directly related to militant groups and divert part of the money they get to the insurgents. In the best case local militia would use part of the money for the service to buy off safe passage from the insurgents.
Additionally, even when the roads are clean from guerrillas, they are still hard to access, especially from November till March. The important Khyber pass (between Peshawar and Jalalabad) from Pakistan is a major route to supply US and NATO troops, but extremely hard to navigate. Similarly, the other major gateway to Afghanistan, the Salang pass through Hindu Kush links Kabul to the peaceful North and to Russia and Central Asia. It allows traffic only in one direction and vehicles sometimes wait for days before they pass.
The US President has taken the tough decision to send 30,000 extra troops, but this is only where the hard work starts. Now logisticians will have to do something akin to moving small towns into mountainous war-torn country half way across the globe in heavy winter conditions. Pacifying Afghanistan, if achievable at all, is definitely not only soldiers’ job.