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Are ISAF’s Tenuous Supply Lines Sustainable?

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The human, fiscal and political costs of ISAF logistical supply missions are rising – in part because of the US military’s insatiable fuel demands. An adroit mix of counterinsurgency and diplomacy would be required to address the problem, a formula that presently remains out of the Pentagon’s grasp.

By John CK Daly

The US, NATO and International Security Assistance (ISAF) forces operating in Afghanistan since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in November 2001 have had to cope with some of the longest and most arduous logistics supply lines in history. Nearly a decade after the onset of the campaign, the force’s ravenous supply demands are met by a convoluted network of resupply routes stretching from Pakistan in the south through Latvia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the north, the latter being the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) railway link established in February 2009. Despite the rosy pronouncements of ISAF Commander General David Petraeus, all routes are vulnerable either to militant attacks or political stressors with little resolution in sight, introducing increasing uncertainty into the Afghan military campaign. The US military’s insatiable fuel demands underpin all concerns about safety and logistics.

Gas-guzzling DoD

The US Department of Defense (DoD) is not only America’s – but the world’s – single largest consumer of fuel, spending more than $20 billion a year to purchase and transport 4.6 billion gallons. Ninety-one percent of all fuel purchased by the federal government goes to DoD. As of 2009, the US military uses about 340,000 barrels per day (bpd) of petroleum-based fuels. In the fiscal year 2008, DoD spent about $16 billion to procure this amount of fuel – about triple what it would have spent in 2003 prices.

Much of this fuel heads to Afghanistan – the Marines alone consume 800,000 gallons per day (gpd) in Afghanistan. In October 2010 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said that fossil fuels are the number one import to Afghanistan, with US soldiers using up to 300,000 bpd of oil. A November 2009 Deloitte study, Energy Security – America’s Best Defense , calculated that the US military consumes 22 gpd per soldier, based on five previous US military conflicts. With US President Barack Obama’s surge now complete, that means supplying more than 100,000 US troops. Besides the fuel requirements of US ground forces, the US Air Force’s fuel demands are rising at Kandahar Airfield, which boasts one of the busiest runways in the world, and at the Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, now housing more than 20,000 US troops – these in addition to thousands of coalition forces and civilian contractors. At Bagram, while most of the fuel is used for aviation, the absolute amount used for base support is still very large: 11 million gallons per year (30,564 gpd).

As Afghanistan has no indigenous hydrocarbon supplies, every drop must be brought in with transit greatly increasing the cost, especially supplies brought from the US. The cost of fuel delivered to US forces in Afghanistan escalates dramatically from the roughly $3 per gallon that DoD pays stateside for a gallon of JP-8, the fuel most widely used by the US military. In October 2009 Pentagon officials testified before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee that the “Fully Burdened Cost of Fuel” (FBCF) translates to about $400 per gallon by the time it arrives at a remote Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Afghanistan. Last year, the FBCF reached $800 in some FOBs following supply route bombings in Pakistan, while others have claimed the FBCF may be as high as $1,000 per gallon in some remote locations.

Currently most fuel and supplies for US troops in Afghanistan are shipped through Karachi, where each day about 300 commercial trucks transport the fuel through Pakistan to Afghanistan, sometimes changing carriers. The fuel is then transferred to storage locations in Afghanistan for movement within the country, where US military transport is used to distribute it to FOBs. For many remote locations, fuel supplies can only be provided by air – one of the most expensive ways being in helicopter fuel bladders.

Dangerous, blocked supply lines

The Afghan resupply lines that run through Pakistan are long and dangerous. The US must supply military forces with ammunition, food and other supplies but the majority of the tonnage transported into Afghanistan is fuel – 70 percentaccording to Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Alan Haggerty. The Marines’ calculate that 39 percent of their tonnage is fuel, and 90 percent is either fuel or water. Marine Corps Commandant General James T Conway said, “We had a couple of tenuous supply lines across Pakistan that are costing us a heck of a lot, and they’re very dangerous.” The US Embassy in Islamabad stated that in 2007 up to 80 percent of non-lethal supplies traveled through Pakistan, but by 2010 that number fell to 40 percent as the NDN began to pick up the slack. Forty percent now travel the NDN through Central Asia with the remaining 20 percent flown in.

The Pakistani transit routes have become more dangerous as militant attacks on truck convoys have increased in response to stepped-up US drone strikes in tribal areas along the Afghan border. The Home Secretary of Baluchistan (Pakistan’s largest province), Akbar Hussain Durani, said that in 2010, 136 NATO tankers were destroyed in 56 attacks in the province, with 34 people killed and 23 wounded in the attacks. 2011 has already witnessed several attacks on fuel convoys with resulting casualties.

While the attacks are unlikely to completely disrupt resupply efforts, they are causing rising casualty rates that are increasingly unacceptable in Washington. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus noted, “The recent NATO fuel convoys being attacked only serve to remind us of these vulnerabilities. It’s dangerous. A lot of these convoys are hit with improvised explosive devices or with ambushes, sometimes before they even get to Afghanistan. For every 24 convoys, we lose an American, killed or wounded. That is too high of a price to pay for energy.”

These escalating threats to Afghan supply routes prompted the US to look for an alternative route in 2008. The answer came in the form of the NDN, a series of routes that enter Afghanistan from the North, bypassing Pakistan. However, squabbles between Central Asian countries, particularly Uzbek-Tajik battles over water, have resulted in Uzbekistan stopping rail carriages bound for Tajikistan, sometimes for weeks.

This bottleneck has led to Pentagon efforts to lessen the volume of material flowing along the NDN, including attempts to buy local products along the route, including water, various pasta products, fruit and juice from companies in Uzbekistan; water from firms in Kazakhstan; and water, ice and soda from Afghan businesses. Richard Faso, of the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency said, “There is a great need to purchase products (locally) so we can better use the NDN and get our products flowing in Afghanistan quickly and on time.”

In conclusion, the human, fiscal and political costs of the Afghan logistical resupply missions are rising. As Operation Enduring Freedom enters its second decade, unless the American military finds a way to curb its oil addiction, politicians in Washington may start asking why, in an age of fiscal austerity, the US taxpayer should continue to underwrite up to $800 dollar per gallon FBCF tabs in Afghanistan.

Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident Fellow at Johns Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC. He received his PhD in Russian and Middle Eastern studies from the University of London. This article was published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

ISN Security Watch

ISN Security Watch

The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

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