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Billions in equipment scrapped as war winds down in Afghanistan

| Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan — Sorting through the remnants of the United States' longest war, Lt. Joe Mannor has seen it all. There are heaps of old, dusty laptops, tangled telephone cables and battery packs; Danielle Steel novels and a copy of a “Curious George” children's book; and inexplicable items, including a tiny hand-held drone of mysterious origin and purpose.

“After 13 years of war, lots of stuff is just lying around,” said Mannor, 31, who is among the legions of troops tasked with determining what will go home and what will be scrapped. “We've had a bit of everything come through here.”

As the Pentagon's effort to dismantle its vast wartime infrastructure kicks into high gear, Defense personnel are jettisoning materiel on an industrial scale. Since last year, Pentagon contractors in Afghanistan have used shredding machines to turn vehicles, generators, housing containers, furniture and other items into scrap.

During that period, they have destroyed more than 643 million pounds of equipment — the equivalent of pulverizing the RMS Titanic seven times. By comparison, the Pentagon scrapped 563 million pounds during the last eight years of the Iraq war.

The Defense Department is selling some unneeded, functional items at auction to Afghan businessmen for pennies on the dollar — partly in response to criticism that there are more sensible alternatives to scrapping.

The U.S.-led international coalition has reduced its footprint in Afghanistan from a peak of about 800 bases in 2011 to about 60 and intends to further shrink that to a handful by the end of the year. The logistical feat in a landlocked country with poor roads and a latent insurgency is far more complex than the wind-down of the Iraq war, where the military was able to move goods into neighboring Kuwait with relative ease.

Despite the political crisis in Afghanistan, where a disputed, fraud-plagued election has cast a pall over the eventual U.S. role there, the Pentagon's drawdown plan remains on schedule and on budget.

“Everything is on track,” said Alan Estevez, the Pentagon's top official who oversees logistics. “We're in very good shape.”

When the military drew up plans for the withdrawal here, officials estimated the price of the drawdown would range from $5 billion to $7 billion. Estevez said the most recent projections indicate that it is likely to cost $6 billion.

That is not to say all aspects of the withdrawal have been easy or predictable. When the military began moving items in bulk out of Afghanistan in 2013, shipping containers by land through the Pakistani border was the preferred alternative, much cheaper than using cargo planes. In recent months, though, the cost of the two has largely equalized as customs tariffs and insecure roads have made ground shipments costlier.

Those challenges have made the shredding of equipment that was acquired for several billion dollars a crucial part of the drawdown. Many Afghans are nervous about the fate of their impoverished country in the post-American era, and it has not always been an easy process to explain.

“They should give this stuff to us,” protested Hajji Nibil, 32, who owns a construction equipment shop in Kabul and is among the scores of Afghan businessmen whose work for the military has dried up as the force has shrunk. “All this is stuff we could use.”

Some Afghan officials have reacted incredulously, arguing that the destruction of equipment is especially galling at a time when the Afghan economy, long buoyed by wartime spending, is deflating almost as rapidly as the international military footprint.

“Sometimes they might shred things because they are of absolutely no use,” said Najibullah Wardak, a senior Finance Ministry official who has worked with the military to negotiate the tax revenue the Afghan government gets to collect on the auction sales. “But we were a bit concerned when they started destroying things. Some of this might be of use in the market and could generate revenue.”

Military officials say they have donated plenty to Afghan security forces and other government departments. But they have balked at turning over sophisticated items such as heavily armored vehicles and gas-guzzling generators because they don't believe the Afghans could afford to maintain them.

The Pentagon has faced some criticism over its destruction of iconic mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, the hulking, heavily armored trucks that were rushed into Iraq and Afghanistan as the threat of powerful roadside bombs escalated.

The Defense Department offered excess MRAPs to allied nations at no cost, provided they could arrange to ship them out of Afghanistan. Only Croatia has taken the department up on the offer, acquiring 162. Officials said that if no more such deals are struck between now and the end of the year, they will have to shred several hundreds of the vehicles.

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