The Key to Success in Afghanistan Is Logistics

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Every student of military affairs is familiar with the quotation attributed to various famous generals, including Napoleon, that “amateurs think about tactics, but professionals think about logistics.” Broadly defined, logistics is the field of military thought and practice that deals with the procurement, maintenance and transportation of military material, facilities and personnel. The success of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan has been due in large part to an unparalleled logistics capability that has allowed the Pentagon to transport and sustain U.S, Coalition and local forces halfway around the world.

For nearly two decades, the U.S. and its coalition partners have been struggling to help the government in Kabul to organize, train, equip and sustain the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), consisting of the Afghan National Army, Afghan Air Force, National Police, local police and intelligence service. A competent and sustainable ANDSF is essential to the U.S. strategy of eventually transitioning security responsibilities to the Afghan government. Experience has shown that it is possible to build ANDSF units that are tactically proficient, able to fight and conduct stability and policing missions. The Afghan Air Force, carefully trained and mentored by U.S. military personnel and contractors and newly equipped with the A-29 Super Tucano, has demonstrated the ability to conduct close air support and air intelligence missions. 

Where the ANDSF has experienced serious and persistent problems is in the higher functions, particularly logistics. There have been many reasons for this, including chronic corruption, an uneducated workforce, recruitment of cadre force without appropriate training and the absence of infrastructure. Exacerbating these problems, according to the lessons learned report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, was the U.S failing early on in Afghanistan to help that country develop these capabilities and the decision to equip the ANDSF with advanced Western equipment and management systems which “created long-term dependencies, required increased U.S. fiscal support, and extended sustainability timelines.”

One area that has been particularly problematic is the creation of an effective Afghan logistics and sustainment capability for the more than 26,000 ANDSF vehicles. Beginning in 2010, private companies have provided logistics support and sustainment for Afghan vehicles while simultaneously building the requisite infrastructure, and training the Afghan workforce. These efforts were only partially successful and quite costly. In June 2017, the Pentagon awarded the consolidated National Maintenance Strategy (NMS) contract for all ANDSF vehicles to PAE. In addition to maintenance, supply chain management and parts support for vehicles and ground equipment, PAE will also provide training and mentoring for Afghan maintainers and logisticians.

Hopefully, the NMS contract will be able to overcome both long-standing structural problems in Afghan society and economy, and the effects of past failed efforts to create a viable indigenous vehicle sustainment capability. But it will take time, probably years, before the NMS is fully operational across all of Afghanistan and even longer until an indigenous maintenance and repair capability is available.

But even if the NMS is successful beyond all expectations, it will not solve every challenge of managing the ANDSF vehicle fleets. Vehicles will continue to be lost as a result of accidents and damage sustained in combat. In addition, the effects of operating these vehicles for years in Afghanistan’s unforgiving terrain will use up their service life. A holistic approach to the long-term sustainment of the ANDSF vehicle fleets is needed.

As an example, take the ANDSF’s fleet of High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs or Humvees). There are more than 13,000 Humvees in the ANDSF with the majority operated by the Afghan National Army. Just keeping this number of vehicles operating is a huge logistics challenge. If there is a maintenance backlog, ANDSF units either will need replacement vehicles or they will have to go without, compromising their combat effectiveness.

Moreover, during the fighting season, combat losses can reach 100 or more vehicles per week. Beyond these problems, nearly 60 percent of the ANDSF Humvee fleet, more than 9,000 vehicles, is already beyond its projected service life. These vehicles will either have to be replaced by new Humvees, an Enhanced Capability Vehicle with more power and payload capacity, or existing Humvees will need to go through an involved process of refurbishment, one that cannot be accomplished cost-effectively in Afghanistan, to bring them back to as-new status.

In addition to creating an in-country maintenance and sustainment system, a comprehensive logistics strategy for the ANDSF’s Humvee fleet must include the provision of additional vehicles. Some of these can come from refurbishing American Humvees left in Afghanistan and from excess in the United States. But new vehicles will be required. There are reports that the Pentagon intends to award a five-year sole source contract for some 6,500 Humvees. This will still leave the ANDSF short by about 3,000 Humvees without including combat losses. Once the U.S. military divests itself of its excess inventory of Humvees, the demand for new vehicles will inevitably rise significantly.

Afghan forces have demonstrated that they can perform well when properly led and supported. But without the necessary logistics, even the best units and the bravest soldiers and police are unlikely to be successful.

An effective logistics enterprise is the key to a successful counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan. The NMS contract is an important step in the creation of such a capability. But until the NMS is fully functional, there will be a need to provide the ANDSF with thousands of new and refurbished vehicles of various types. A similar strategy will have to be pursued with respect to other platforms, including aircraft and helicopters.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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