By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; 2:11 PM
As the United States draws down troops in Iraq and reinforces them in Afghanistan, the Army is pushing to complete the largest movement of military materiel since World War II, a massive logistical operation involving nearly 3 million pieces of equipment.
The operation, dubbed Nickel II after the code name for Gen. George S. Patton's celebrated repositioning of an entire Army corps during the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, began last June and is now about 35 percent complete, said Lt. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., commander of the Third Army, Patton's former unit.
In a briefing for Pentagon reporters from his headquarters in Kuwait, where equipment from Iraq is sorted, Webster said some of the gear is being refurbished for use in Afghanistan and some returned to the United States for use in training.
"This is the largest operation, that we've been able to determine, since the buildup for World War II," Webster said. It involves the removal of 2.8 million pieces of equipment from Iraq, including 88,000 containers and 41,000 vehicles of all types.
Webster did not specify the cost of the operation but acknowledged that it would run into the tens of billions of dollars. He said the Third Army spent roughly $20 billion on repairing equipment and supplying troops during the 2007 surge of U.S. forces into Iraq to contain escalating sectarian violence. Those costs for Army operations in Iraq dropped to $16 billion last year and are projected to dip to $9 billion this year, Webster said.
He said some of those savings "will be pushed over to Afghanistan" and used to fund a buildup of forces there to combat an intensifying insurgency by the radical Islamist Taliban movement. The Taliban was driven from power in Kabul by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in November 2001 but has gained ground in recent years.
In a separate briefing Friday, Ashton B. Carter, undersecretary of defense for logistics, said the military as a whole has already moved 2.2 million pieces of equipment out of more than 350 forward operating bases in Iraq. But he said 1.2 million additional items need to be removed by August.
As the military prepares for an offensive against the Taliban in the coming months, the Pentagon is pouring a vast array of gear to Afghanistan, including new unmanned dirigibles equipped with sophisticated aerial surveillance equipment, Carter said. The airships are designed to maintain surveillance longer and at less cost than more expensive unmanned aircraft, he told a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
President Obama last year ordered the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving a residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 to serve mainly in training and advisory roles. Under an agreement signed by the Bush administration with the Iraqi government in 2008, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
While reducing troop strength in Iraq, Obama is deploying an additional 30,000 service members to Afghanistan to augment American and NATO forces already there as part of a plan to secure population centers and reverse the Taliban's momentum.
Among the equipment being moved to Afghanistan, Webster said, is a variation of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle designed to counter the widespread use of "improvised explosive devices," or roadside bombs, in Iraq. Because of Afghanistan's much rougher terrain, the heavy MRAPs used in Iraq were breaking down, so the military developed a lighter, more agile version with independent suspension called the M-ATV, for MRAP All Terrain Vehicle.
"We're now flying those in at a rate of about 400 a month, and we plan to move that up to about 1,000 a month" as the buildup intensifies in Afghanistan this spring, Webster said.
He noted that Obama "wanted us to move in there as quickly as possible, and initial estimates were that it was going to take as much as 18 months." That timetable has been dramatically accelerated, he said, and "we now will be able to move the 5,000-plus vehicles that are needed for the buildup by the end of the summer."
Contributing to the faster flow of equipment into Afghanistan has been the opening of five supply routes from countries north of the landlocked nation, in addition to two routes through Pakistan. One route in the "northern distribution network," as the military calls it, is about 5,000 miles long, Webster said.
The northern routes now account for about half the supplies moving into Afghanistan, he said.
Some of the equipment the U.S. military has accumulated in Iraq, although still serviceable, is not worth moving and will be donated to the Iraqi government, the general said. Those items include SUVs used in the Green Zone in Baghdad and on forward operating bases around the country.
The SUVs may have cost $30,000 each originally but now are worth less than the cost of shipping them to Afghanistan, much less to the United States, where they do not meet environmental standards anyway, Webster said.