By Donna Miles

After redeploying 33,000 surge forces and their equipment from Afghanistan ahead of the presidentially mandated deadline last fall, US Transportation Command assessed the lessons learned to improve its ongoing drawdown operations.

Air Force Colonel Rob Brisson, chief of TRANSCOM’s Fusion Center, called the successful drawdown “a huge statement” about the collaboration between U.S. Central Command, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and U.S. Transportation Command and its components and partners.

But the success was no accident, he emphasized.

“As soon as those troops went in, we were already thinking in this building about how they were going to get out,” Brisson said. “For us, when somebody is talking about delivery, somebody else is already talking about redeployment or retrograde.”

When the fall deadline arrived, roughly 66,000 troops remained in Afghanistan. The White House announced plans in February to withdraw an additional 34,000 by February 2014, and to continue pulling troops out through the end of the year.

Afghanistan’s challenging geography, weather and security situation, its limited transportation infrastructure and uncertainty about the future U.S. presence presented a Rubik’s Cube of challenges when it came to drawing down.

By comparison, the redeployment from Iraq was easy. Largely relying on Kuwait as a staging point and shipping the vast percentage of the equipment from ports there and in Iraq, TRANSCOM, its service components and commercial partners redeployed more than 60,000 troops and more than 1 million pieces of equipment by the end of 2011.

“Leaving Iraq was a lot simpler,” said Curt Zargan, deputy director for Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s Transportation Engineering Agency. “There were a whole lot fewer issues to deal with and a whole lot less complication.”

All the troops and much of the equipment must leave Afghanistan by air, Zargan said. That applies particularly to weapons systems, combat vehicles or anything that regional neighbors might view as implements of war and won’t allow to cross their borders.

“That takes a well-coordinated flow plan that ensures sufficient airport capacity and prevents a logjam at any one node,” Brisson said.

Photo credit Air Force photo by Staff Sergeant Clay Lancaster

Marines board an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III as they redeploy from Camp Bastion Airfield, Afghanistan.

That plan, coordinated closely with CENTCOM officials, has to factor in demand on four major air bases in Afghanistan, Zargan said. It also recognizes the ripple effect on air bases that receive redeploying flights.

“You can’t push 15,000 people to Manas [Air Base in Kyrgyzstan] the last week of September and expect them to get out and make the president’s mandate,” Brisson said, referencing last fall’s drawdown.

Using computer simulation models, TRANSCOM planners evaluate the transportation and distribution networks to come up with the best methods of exodus. Some involve “multimodal transport,” with an initial movement to one country, usually by air, then a transfer to other conveyance, such as a ship, for the rest of the trip.

“With multimodal, you rely on short air legs, or only as much air as you absolutely need to overcome the obstacle or access challenge,” Zargan said. “Whenever you can find a capable multimodal hub with ease of transfer from one mode to another, it offers a lot of efficiencies and cost savings.”

The U.S. military had made heavy use of ground routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s port in Karachi until November 2011. The Pakistani government closed them after a border incident with U.S. forces left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.

Pakistan announced July 3, 2012, that it would reopen the routes. By March, eight months after the announcement, TRANSCOM was still working through the backlog of cargo waiting to move into Afghanistan, though things were moving in the right direction, according to officials. Some of the equipment caught up in the backlog was destined for units no longer in the country, so procedures to re-export that equipment had to be developed.

TRANSCOM commander Air Force General William M. Fraser III credits the Northern Distribution Network with enabling TRANSCOM to provide uninterrupted service to CENTCOM even after Pakistan closed its supply routes.

He visited several of the countries that make up the network to thank them for their support and to ensure they are ready for the role they will play in the upcoming drawdown.

“We are capitalizing on that network that had been built to take things into Afghanistan to now taking things out, and we have multiple lanes that we can use,” Fraser said. “Some of the routes are more mature than others. … But we have people coming to us, wanting to know how they can help, whether by air or sea, and what they can do to help facilitate this. It’s been very positive.”

Meanwhile, TRANSCOM is testing new additions to the network.

“Anything we have not done before, we check it out to make sure that what we have generated through prudent planning makes sense before we move into execution,” Brisson said. “And once we make those first couple of moves, then we figure out how we can do that on a consistent basis.”

Other factors complicate the drawdown planning effort. Some countries in the network specify what kinds of equipment can and can’t transit through their territory. Most, for example, want clean cargo—a challenge, because forces in Afghanistan don’t have a willing Kuwait across the border that offers up space to clean and stage their vehicles, equipment and gear for shipment. Other counties won’t allow wheeled vehicles, or cargo that’s obviously wartime equipment.

For some nations, the caveats boil down to volume. They require a minimum quantity of business so they can predict workflow.

That can be a challenge, explained Navy Commander Matt Secrest, chief of Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s operations division.

“It’s not just a straight plan with a linear chart going down saying it is going to be 100 vehicles per month for the next year and a half,” he said. “More likely, it is going to be 450 this month and 25 next month. And so you have to work with those variables. …

“One reason we have so many routes is to ensure that we are not reliant on any single host nation affecting our ability to redeploy out of Afghanistan. We need lots of options so no one country’s policies could affect our operations.”

–Donna Miles is a Maryland-based freelance writer and former American Forces Press Service writer.

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