But even a solution as seemingly simple and sustainable as donkey supply convoys has become subject to corruption and incompetence, an emblem of the logistical problems plaguing the Afghan army. Just as Afghans are preparing to inherit dozens of bases, all of which will require donkeys for daily or weekly rations, the funding to pay donkey contractors has disappeared. The Afghan army’s relatively modern bureaucracy has proven incapable of acquiring even ancient tools.
Some contractors, mostly local farmers, haven’t been paid for more than a year. In the volatile Pech Valley, where many key strategic outposts have for years been supplied by U.S. aircraft, Qamuddin said he has been waiting nine months for payment. He’s thinking about quitting.
“We need more water!” Afghan Col. Ashraf yelled when Qamuddin arrived at the outpost with his donkeys last week.
“Well, then I need a new contract!” Qamuddin replied.
For their part, U.S. advisers have devoted much of their time to solving the problem of the unpaid donkey contractors — an unexpected puzzle for military leaders typically focused on the machinations of modern warfare.
“Who knew that the end of this war would boil down to donkey contracts?” said Lt. Col. Brandon Newton, commander of Task Force Lethal Warrior in Konar. “I wasn’t trained for this.”
Some American military advisers acknowledge the irony of being deployed to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan only to negotiate donkey contracts. But the “Donkey Problem,” as it has become known in some U.S. military circles, has prompted much ire and urgency because a failure to solve it could result in a paralysis of operations at key outposts.
“If you lose the outposts, the Taliban have an open door to walk right in,” said Sgt. Travis Washington, part of the U.S. military advisory team in Konar.
On some bases in the province, U.S. commanders have donated prepared meals to their Afghan counterparts so they can be sold and the proceeds used to pay donkey contractors. Others have allowed Afghans to open small stores on bases and use the profits to pay contractors.
But the systemic problem remains largely unaddressed: Somewhere between the Afghan Ministry of Defense and far-flung platoons, funding allocated for resupplying bases has vanished. Donkeys aren’t the only part of the operation affected. Fuel, spare parts and weapons often don’t make it to the troops.
A report released this month by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction highlighted the scale of the problem.
“The Afghan government will likely be incapable of fully sustaining ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] facilities after the transition in 2014 and the expected decrease in U.S. and coalition support,” the report said. It cited “deficient budgeting, procurement, and supply systems.”
Across Konar, donkey contractors say they are on the verge of abandoning their ties with the Afghan military.
“I suspect my money has come through, but a commander, soldier or senior officer is using it for his own business,” said Ghiasuddin, a donkey owner in the province. Four of his donkeys have been killed on resupply missions — two by insurgent shellings and two after falling down a rock face.
Ironically, the last American military unit with a permanent team of donkeys was based in Fort Carson, Colo., where Newton’s battalion is stationed. But it was retired in 1956, even before the unit’s senior officers were born.
“I wish I had the donkeys to give them, but I don’t,” Newton said. “This is something they’re going to have to get right.”