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General Urges Confidence in Ability to Supply Troops in Afghanistan

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thanks to billions of dollars spent in road and air base construction, troops in landlocked Afghanistan will never have to worry about getting enough supplies, the Pentagon's chief of military transportation told senators last week.

Insurgent attacks on major supply roads into Afghanistan have disrupted U.S. delivery schedules, said Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, who directs the U.S. Transport Command. But he told lawmakers that he has personally assured the head of Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus, "We will be there. We'll figure out and make sure you never have to worry about this."

Petraeus is overseeing the influx of 17,000 additional troops into Afghanistan beginning in May, and McNabb is working to maintain "a lot of options . . . lots of ways to get in there" with cargo for those forces.

"You probably couldn't ask for or find a tougher place from a logistics challenge, of getting the stuff in," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The most successful option has been air delivery. Battle gear -- including arms, ammunition, sensitive equipment, bomb-resistant vehicles and armored personnel carriers -- has been brought into Afghanistan by air, thanks to a Pentagon-funded expansion of air bases at Bagram, Kandahar and Bastian.

In recent years, the capacity of the bases has been increased by up to 400 percent, and the growth continues. At Bagram air base, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers is managing about $650 million in construction, according to Col. Thomas O'Donovan, commander of the Afghanistan Engineer District.

The materials for all this construction must be trucked into Afghanistan, since the country has few factories. Cement is brought in from Pakistan, steel from Uzbekistan and other northern neighbors, and manufactured goods such as doors and doorknobs from China or India.

These trucks also carry food, water, clothing and other personal supplies, typically bringing them from Pakistani ports and into Afghanistan at one of five border crossings. About 130 to 140 shipments reach Afghanistan each day along that route, McNabb said, and because only 78 containers a day are currently needed to keep up with demand, "we're getting more in than we need."

But insurgents have been successful enough at interrupting shipments that McNabb's command is using satellite trackers to look for any sign of attack and to reroute trucks accordingly.

Meanwhile, "alternative routes to Afghanistan through the Caucasus and Central Asia have become a high priority," McNabb told the senators. The Pentagon has enlisted Russia, China, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in a northern distribution network, and a few dozen shipments have already reached the Afghan capital, Kabul, by that route.

The hope, he added, is to be "able to bring in about 100 containers from the north a day to supplement" what is imported through Pakistan. "So we have lots of options to get the stuff in."

However, if all ground routes fail, McNabb said, "if we had to do everything by air, you would see a Berlin airlift."

One result of all the construction is that the Corps of Engineers has become the largest employer of Afghans after the national government. Corps contractors, O'Donovan told reporters Friday, will spend about $4 billion in Afghanistan this year and employ between 45 percent and 60 percent of the overall construction industry in that country. The U.S. Agency for International Development spends, he said, $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year in Afghanistan.

The corps has about 720 miles of roads under construction in Afghanistan, with another 250 to 350 planned for next year. O'Donovan said that while plans are not finalized, he expects to devote about $4 billion this year and $4 billion to $6 billion in 2010 to more road contracts.

O'Donovan also said contracts totaling about $411 million are about to be awarded to construct facilities in southern Afghanistan, where they will be used by the additional U.S. forces deploying there. An additional $1 billion worth of construction may be ordered, he said, "depending on final allocations."

The United States has built $2 billion worth of facilities for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police and plans to build another $1.2 billion worth in 2009. Eventually, the corps wants to construct in every Afghan district a police compound that includes a station, housing and dining facilities, water wells and security perimeter walls.

The corps is also hiring and supervising contractors to operate and manage the police facilities, at a cost of $104 million last year and $300 million this year.

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