WASHINGTON, May 27 (UPI) -- On March 27 the Obama administration unveiled its strategic review of its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy and committed itself to increasing U.S. military forces in Afghanistan from its current level of 34,000 by up to 21,000 new troops over the next few months. In an address on May 21 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen stated his belief that the upcoming increase "is about right" for the administration's new strategy of both attempting to suppress the insurgency while increasing the tempo of training Afghan security forces.
An integral component of the new strategy, which has yet to be definitively addressed, is the issue of logistical support for the increased number of troops, particularly given the deterioration of resupply routes transverse in Pakistan, along with the imminent ejection of the U.S. Air Force from its base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan.
The U.S.-led NATO International Security Assistance Force currently in Afghanistan number roughly 65,000, who consume nearly 800,000 gallons of gasoline every day, every drop of which is imported. These figures do not include the fuel consumed by the nearly 70,000 contractors in country.
Another variable is the Manas Air Base, home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and its fleet of KC-135 re-fuelling aircraft, which serves as ISAF's premier air mobility hub, with a storage facility that processes nearly 160,000 gallons of fuel a day for fuelling ISAF aircraft carrying out aerial operations over Afghanistan.
Unless a last-minute deal can be struck with the Kyrgyz government, then the Pentagon will be forced to evacuate the base in August, as on Feb. 20 the Kyrgyz government formally notified Washington that it was abrogating its Status of Forces Agreement with the United States permitting American use of the facility. Under the SOFA's terms, the United States must evacuate the base within 180 days of receiving official notification.
Loath as the Pentagon is to look at other nations' military experience, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which lasted nine years, may prove of value. The Soviets were in Afghanistan from December 1979 to Feb. 19, 1989, when the last Soviet military units were withdrawn across the 3,280-foot Friendship Bridge across the Amu Darya, which links northern Afghanistan with the town of Termez in southern Uzbekistan, 37 miles north of Afghanistan's Mazar-e-Sharif.
At its height the Soviet occupation forces numbered 104,000 troops, nearly twice the projected American presence. From the outset logistics were a prime concern of the Kremlin. Immediately following the Soviet intervention work began on a $21.4 million combined road, rail and oil pipeline bridge in the winter of 1979-1980. An agreement to construct the Friendship Bridge was signed between the Afghan and Soviet authorities in May 1982, and it opened the following month. The span was sorely needed, as prior to its construction the nearest bridge across the Amu Darya was 74.5 miles to the west, at Kelif on the Turkmen-Afghan border.
The Soviet Union also extended two railway lines to carry troops and military supplies across the Amu Darya. A 9.3-mile line was built from Termez to a transshipment point at Kheyrabad in Afghanistan, near Hayratan on the south bank of the river.
As the bridge strengthened the Soviet Union's strategic transport capabilities, in 1985 Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency drew up plans in conjunction with the CIA for the mujahedeen to destroy it. Later in the year, however, Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq vetoed the proposed assault, fearing reprisal attacks on vital bridges in Pakistan.
The Kheyrabad line was only the first stage of a proposed 155-mile railway to Pul-i-Khumri, 93 miles north of Kabul, whose second stage would extend to Bagram Air Base, 40 miles north of Kabul, eventually reaching the capital. The complete line to Kabul was expected to cost $2 billion. Cost, conflict and the Soviet withdrawal meant that the line was never built.
The second Soviet line into Afghanistan ran for 6 miles from Kushka in Turkmenistan to Towraghondi. Soviet railway lines running parallel to the Amu Darya's northern bank were subjected to cross-border sabotage and military attack during the war. Both the Kheyrabad and Towraghondi lines fell out of use after the Soviet withdrawal.
Once fuel supplies had crossed the Soviet frontier, they were trucked on Afghanistan's primordial road network to their destinations, while the most high-value military cargoes were sent by air. A major component of the Soviet ground transportation network was the 1.9-mile Salang tunnel. Built by the Soviet Union as "fraternal assistance" and opened in 1964, the Salang tunnel links northern and southern Afghanistan, crossing under the Hindu Kush mountain range beneath the Salang Pass.
On Feb. 23, 1980, a fire and explosion in the Salang tunnel killed 16 Soviet soldiers. Worse was to come, as on Nov. 3, 1982, another explosion and fire apparently occurred in the tunnel. According to the Soviet military, the accident occurred not from an explosion and fire, but when two military convoys collided, with 64 Soviet soldiers and 112 Afghans killed not from blast and fire, but carbon monoxide from idling vehicle engines. Given the Soviet military's penchant for secrecy, the truth will probably never be known, but the two incidents starkly illustrate the hazards of road shipments in Afghanistan during wartime. Following the opening of Operation Enduring Freedom, the tunnel was reopened in January 2002.
During the occupation the Soviets also made increasing use of Bagram. Taking a leaf from the Kremlin's playbook, the Pentagon has been expanding the air bases at Bagram, Kandahar and Bastian, with the result that their capacity has increased by up to 400 percent. Bagram is the epicenter of this increase, with the Army Corps of Engineers overseeing $650 million in new construction.
In January Washington also concluded railway transit agreements with Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for the transshipment of non-lethal supplies. The first shipment left Riga on Feb. 20 and arrived a month later after a 3,231-mile journey to Termez, proving the feasibility of the Northern Distribution Network, which the Pentagon hopes eventually to expand to up to 20-30 trainloads per week.
At present, however, about 75 percent of all ISAF supplies still either transit through Pakistan roads from Karachi port or fly through Pakistani airspace. Beginning late last year, insurgents mounted increasing attacks on the truck convoys, which send 150 trucks per day into Afghanistan. On Dec. 7 in Peshawar near the Torkham border crossing through the Khyber Pass militants torched at least 150 trucks loaded with supplies and military vehicles and other hardware destined for NATO forces during attacks on two terminals. Other attacks and disputes have held up convoys through the Chaman crossing in Baluchistan for days.
While the NDN and air base expansion will eventually ease ISAF's logistical problems via Pakistan, America's continuing Predator UAV attacks from Afghan air bases into Pakistan combined with the Pakistani army's assault in Swat may well impel militants to move deeper into the country to mount attacks against "softer" targets. The Karachi-Khyber road link is 850 miles long, a distance equivalent from New York to Chicago, a route still protected solely by the Pakistani military.
While the United States is paralleling the Soviet experience in expanding its air bases' footprints and increasing its railway capabilities in Central Asia, this does not resolve the problem of securing the nearly non-existent Afghan roadways. As Afghanistan has virtually no oil production, every drop of fuel for ISAF jeeps, Humvees, APCs and aircraft must be brought into the country. If militants increasingly attack supply routes both outside and inside the country, then the 21,000 new troops destined for Afghanistan might find their operations constrained by countrywide fuel shortages if the mujahedeen mount a "surge" of their own, as their own logistical train can run on hay as well as petroleum.