U.S. leaves in Iraq equipment that it may need in Afghanistan

An Army soldier in Baghdad packs up equipment bound for Afghanistan. New rules make it much easier to leave items behind.
An Army soldier in Baghdad packs up equipment bound for Afghanistan. New rules make it much easier to leave items behind. (Maya Alleruzzo/associated Press)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 7, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Even as the U.S. military scrambles to support a troop surge in Afghanistan, it is donating passenger vehicles, generators and other equipment worth tens of millions of dollars to the Iraqi government.

Under new authority granted by the Pentagon, U.S. commanders in Iraq may now donate to the Iraqis up to $30 million worth of equipment from each facility they leave, up from the $2 million cap established when the guidelines were first set in 2005. The new cap applies at scores of posts that the U.S. military is expected to leave in coming months as it scales back its presence from about 280 facilities to six large bases and a few small ones by the end of next summer.

Some of the items that commanders may now leave behind, including passenger vehicles and generators, are among what commanders in Afghanistan need most urgently, according to Pentagon memos.

Officials involved say the approach has triggered arguments in the Pentagon over whether the effort to leave Iraqis adequately equipped is hurting the buildup in Afghanistan. Officials in the U.S. Central Command, which oversees both wars, have balked at some proposed handovers, and previously rejected an approach that would have granted base commanders even greater leeway.

U.S. commanders in Iraq say they have been judicious in assessing what equipment to earmark for donation. Alan F. Estevez, a deputy undersecretary of defense, wrote in an e-mail that "an important and vital goal is to leave behind fully functioning bases to the Government of Iraq to enable Iraq's civil capacities."

But a U.S. military official critical of the process said the new regulations allow too much latitude to commanders, provide little oversight and fail to account for the urgent need of American forces in Afghanistan, which need the same kinds of items that the troops in Iraq are leaving behind.

"How can a generator or an SUV or a relocatable building be excess if you are buying the very same thing and sending it to Afghanistan?" said the official, who is involved in the process and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"In Iraq, people drive around in new Yukons, Suburbans, Envoys and new pickups," the official said. "In Kandahar, you find troops from the same U.S. Army driving around in broken-down, 15-year-old, right-hand-drive clunkers with bald tires."

Brig. Gen. Peter C. Bayer Jr., the chief of staff for the ground forces command in Iraq, said that though the Army wanted to make equipment available to units in Afghanistan, it was often more cost-effective to donate vehicles and other goods to the cash-strapped Iraqi government than to pack and ship it.

"In many cases, we'll spend more between labor and transportation than the equipment is worth," Brig. Gen. Bayer said. "We're not talking about green Army trucks or weapons systems or night-vision capabilities." Under the surge that President Obama outlined last week, commanders in Afghanistan -- a theater long eclipsed by Iraq -- soon will need to accommodate 30,000 additional troops. The Pentagon had already begun moving gear and personnel from Iraq to Afghanistan, reflecting a shift that has made Afghanistan the new administration's top foreign policy priority.

Senior military officials have said that getting new equipment into Afghanistan presents a major logistical challenge. "To the extent we can leverage equipment that's being retrograded out of Iraq, we're going to do that to make that a little easier," Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the director of the Pentagon's Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell, said last week in an online discussion with bloggers. "But a significant amount of this equipment will need to be brought in from elsewhere."

Under federal law, government agencies must demonstrate that equipment they wish to donate is not needed by other U.S. agencies. If that criterion is met, equipment can be donated in exchange for "substantial benefits" to the United States.

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