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Column: The High Cost of Disengagement

The United States has spent nearly $600 billion over the past 10 years putting combat forces into Afghanistan. Now it’s going to cost an additional $5.7 billion over the next year or two just to transfer or return most of the troops and equipment we shipped into that country, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

The size of the withdrawal is mind-boggling. But with the “fiscal cliff” at hand, it’s worth taking a moment to realize that the costly Afghan operation is going on a credit card, along with the $1 trillion or more spent in Iraq.

Iraq and Afghanistan are the first U.S. wars in which the American public was not asked to pay a cent in additional taxes.

What were we thinking?

As I list the new expenses, consider who is going to pay for all this and when. Congress and President Obama have been negotiating over increasing revenue and cutting spending, but the billions in Afghan withdrawal costs cannot be reduced and must be paid. Their payment will be considered later this month when Congress faces an increase to the debt limit.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department estimates that the military services have more than 750,000 major items worth more than $36 billion in Afghanistan, including about 50,000 vehicles and more than 90,000 shipping containers of materiel, according to the GAO report.

In fiscal 2011, the U.S. Transportation Command shipped 268,000 tons of supplies — more than 42,000 containers — into Afghanistan via its northern surface routes, which involve truck and rail routing through European and Central Asian countries. Those supply routes were developed after truck convoys from Pakistan were halted in November 2011 in response to the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The Defense Department has three ways to dispose of its Afghan materiel: transfer equipment to another U.S. federal or state agency or a foreign government, destroy the materiel in Afghanistan, or return it to another Pentagon location. The United States has three Afghan sites and plans for a fourth where materiel is to be destroyed and 10 storage areas where equipment is to be inspected and prepared for transport home.

The Iraq drawdown showed the importance of early planning. Withdrawal plans began in 2008, three years before the December 2011 final departure date of U.S. combat troops. In Afghanistan, the Marine Corps and Navy began withdrawal preparations in 2009, the Army in 2010.

The Marine Corps established an “equipment reset strategy” in which it created a “playbook” that contains what the GAO described as “a single, detailed accounting of each of its 78,168 major end items in Afghanistan” along with “the initially forecast disposition instructions (return, transfer or destroy) for each item.”

For example, the July 2012 playbook showed that the Marines then had 33 “backscatter vans” in Afghanistan, vehicles whose X-ray capabilities are used at checkpoints and entry control points to identify concealed weapons, contraband, ordnance and bulk explosives. They cost $700,000 to $800,000 apiece when new.

The plan is to return all 33 to the United States using air and sea transport, at a cost that could run to more than $150,000 per van, says the GAO. However, the Marine playbook says only 28 of them are needed to meet requirements in the United States. The GAO suggests that since five will be in excess of Marine Corps needs, a cost-benefit analysis may argue for disposing of them in Afghanistan.

A problem in Iraq was accounting for government-owned equipment supplied to contractors. According to a September 2011 GAO report, “There were occasions when contractors left Iraq camps and associated facilities without proper close out, abandoned equipment, failed to repatriate personnel (especially third country nationals), failed to obtain proper Iraq exit visas, and did not return government furnished equipment.”

Inventories in Afghanistan have not included contractor-used government equipment, but the Afghan command told the GAO that it was setting up a “contractor drawdown cell” to handle the problem.

Another unique Afghan issue is supply routes, because of what the GAO described as the “complex geopolitical environment in the region.”

Exiting Afghanistan is much more difficult, and more costly, than leaving Iraq. In Iraq, the United States had road access to the port of Umm Qasr and a major U.S. logistics base in Kuwait, just over the border. From there it was easy to ship materiel by sea from Jordanian and Kuwaiti ports.

The once-major Afghan supply routes through Pakistan, which were reopened in July, are considered to be in a test phase for materiel exiting Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department “faces challenges converting the northern routes to support outbound flow due to customs and diplomatic clearance issues,” says the GAO.

Landlocked Afghanistan also has had high-priority military equipment, including ammunition, shipped in by sea and then by air. It can cost up to $75,000 to return one vehicle by military air and sea transport and up to $153,000 using commercial carriers, according to the GAO. Sending a vehicle by surface routes can cost up to $43,000.

Under early plans, the U.S. Transportation Command projected that “14.2 percent of all returning equipment will be transported via the northern route, 19.9 percent via the Pakistan route and 65.8 percent via the air, sea transport method.”

In advanced planning, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the Defense Logistics Agency set goals for vehicles and containers. The monthly target was 1,200 vehicles and 1,000 containers.

Is all this complicated? Yes.

But it’s worth paying attention to the dollar and human costs of getting into and out of military ventures so that perhaps the country will be better prepared next time.

Walter Pincus covers defense and national security for The Washington Post.