The mission in Iraq is over. Some 500 U.S. bases and facilities have been closed and virtually all U.S. troops have been withdrawn. There were almost no incidents of any kind associated with the withdrawal. It seems that getting out was a lot easier than getting in.
Or was it? Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003 and will end on December 31, 2011. For most of that time, at least well into 2009, the military had been pouring material into that country. Almost everything U.S. and coalition forces used, from consumables such as food and fuel to ammunition, building materials, spare parts, electronics, white goods, exercise equipment and, of course combat equipment, had to be shipped in. This included some 20,000 MRAPs, a number of which were actually airlifted into theater because of the priority associated with protecting the warfighters against improvised explosive devices. Even as the size of the coalition force in Iraq began to come down with the end of the surge, the amount and weight of stuff going the other way did not.
When it came to withdrawing from Iraq, the Department of Defense (DoD), particularly the specialized organizations such as Transportation Command, the Defense Logistics Agency and Army Material Command, along with a host of private companies, performed a miracle. Actually, two miracles have been performed because in addition to withdrawing from Iraq, the military was also increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Lots of equipment coming out of Iraq, including 20 and 30 ton MRAPs, had to be inspected, refurbished or upgraded and then shipped to Afghanistan.
The logistics and transportation system has moved mountains of stuff, some 1.5 million pieces of equipment plus tens of thousands of tons of material out of Iraq to other countries in the region, to Afghanistan or all the way back to the United States. According to a press report, in the early part of October, 399 convoys with 13,909 trucks were used for the pull out in a single week. Most of the material that exits Iraq will eventually be loaded on commercial vessels chartered by DoD and shipped back home.
Withdrawing from Iraq is likely to be a walk in the park compared to what will take place in 2014 when U.S. forces leave Afghanistan. Iraq has infrastructure; Afghanistan almost none. The land lines of communications in Iraq are relatively short and pretty safe. Not so for Afghanistan where material going in or out either have to make the trek from the Pakistan port of Karachi north through the wilds of the tribal territories or traverse the Northern Distribution Network which stretches across much of the former Soviet Union. Much excess material in Iraq could be turned over to that country’s military; it is not clear how much equipment the Afghan National Army will be able to use even after 2014.
Third party logistics providers played an absolutely vital role in sustaining U.S. forces in Iraq and are continuing that role in Afghanistan. In fact, almost everything that goes into Afghanistan is handled by private networks created by three commercial carriers; Maersk Line, Hapag-Lloyd and APL. These companies not only ship supplies over the oceans but manage the flow of material through Pakistan or across Eurasia. The exit from Afghanistan also will rely on these companies as well as on the array of private firms such as General Dynamics, BAE Systems, DRS, Mantech and Fluor that currently provide maintenance and sustainment services to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
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