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High cost of disengagement

| Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

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” approaching fast, 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 are 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 next 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 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.”

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.

Landlocked Afghanistan also has 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.

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 reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post.

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