The armored trucks, televisions, ice cream scoops and nearly everything else shipped here for America’s war against the Taliban are now part of the world’s biggest garage sale. Every week, as the U.S. troop drawdown accelerates, the United States is selling 12 million to 14 million pounds of its equipment on the Afghan market.
Returning that gear to the United States from a landlocked country halfway around the world would be prohibitively expensive, according to U.S. officials. Instead, they’re leaving behind $7 billion worth of supplies, a would-be boon to the fragile Afghan economy.
But there’s one catch: The equipment is being destroyed before it’s offered to the Afghan people — to ensure that treadmills, air-conditioning units and other rudimentary appliances aren’t used to make roadside bombs.
“Many non-military items have timing equipment or other components in them that can pose a threat. For example, timers can be attached to explosives. Treadmills, stationary bikes, many household appliances and devices, et cetera, have timers,” said Michelle McCaskill, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency.
That policy has produced more scrap metal than Afghanistan has ever seen. It has also led to frustration among Afghans, who feel as if they are being robbed of items such as flat-panel televisions and armored vehicles that they could use or sell — no small thing in a country where the average annual income hovers at just over $500.
In Afghanistan, nicknamed the “graveyard of empires,” foreign forces are remembered for what they leave behind. In the 1840s, the British left forts that still stand today. In the 1980s, the Russians left tanks, trucks and aircraft strewn about the country. The United States is leaving heaps of mattresses, barbed wire and shipping containers in scrap yards near its shrinking bases.
“This is America’s dustbin,” said Sufi Khan, a trader standing in the middle of an immense scrap yard outside Bagram air base, the U.S. military’s sprawling headquarters for eastern Afghanistan.
The scrap yard looks like a post-industrial landfill in the middle of the Afghan desert, a surreal outcropping of mangled metal and plastic. There’s a tower of treadmills 50 feet high and an acre of American buses, trucks and vans, stripped of seats and engines. An ambulance is perched unsteadily atop a pile of scrap, as if it fell from the sky. A mountain of air-conditioning units sits next to a mountain of truck axles.
Some of the scrap still shows signs of its previous owners — vehicles spray-painted with American names, mattresses sunken from 12 years of use, bumper stickers from Hawaii or Oklahoma.
The Bagram scrap yard is owned by Feda Mohammad Ulfat, who helped build the neighboring base more than a decade ago, transporting gravel and concrete. Now Ulfat is helping to dismantle the base, taking in thousands of pounds of American scrap metal every day.
“I never imagined we’d be getting this much stuff,” he said.
Not all of the equipment reaching the scrap yard was deliberately damaged: Some was already broken after a decade of use. Ulfat decided several years ago that he would invest in it anyway.
Some of his friends thought he was crazy, but Ulfat had an idea: The expensive American gear could be melted and reconstituted as raw material for an Afghan building boom. He’d gotten rich on dozens of other contracts with the U.S. military, and he assumed that this one would be no different.
When he signed the contract, the scrap metal was only trickling in. But over the past six months, the U.S. drawdown has reached a fever pitch in eastern Afghanistan, with dozens of bases being closed. Suddenly, a torrent of scrap metal was being delivered to Ulfat’s farm. He had to buy more land. Scrap was piled atop scrap. He now spends up to a half-million dollars a month on gear that has been shredded or flattened.
When U.S. officials began planning for their exit, the idea was to ship home the majority of their equipment, especially expensive military gear such as mine-resistant vehicles. That calculus has changed.
The Pentagon has budgeted $5 billion to $7 billion to ship gear back to the United States. But that sum isn’t enough to take everything currently in Afghanistan.
Wanting at least a small return on its investment, the U.S. military decided to sell the leftovers for pennies on the pound. That’s where Ulfat came in.
He has now opened his scrap yard for the public to rummage through. Small groups of men wander around, buying broken air conditioners that can be stripped of their copper wiring or sheets of corrugated iron that can be sold to Pakistani traders. Many of the supplies that the U.S. military used to fight its longest war have begun their second lives in South and Central Asia.
This month, Haji Montazer paced the scrap yard with his son. They were looking for generators that might be repairable or really anything that they could sell in Kabul or Pakistan. One of their customers makes bed frames out of the metal beams that once held up American military structures. Another takes metal pieces — parts of military vehicles and barbed wire — to Lahore, where they are melted and sold as corrugated rooftops for cheap Pakistani homes.
Montazer once bought equipment from the Soviet forces, which began their withdrawal in the late 1980s.
“But the Russians didn’t break their things before they sold them to us,” he said.
That bitter sentiment is shared by many who visit Ulfat’s scrap yard. The United States has not publicly explained why its gear is destroyed before being sold. U.S. officials are quick to point out that the Afghan government typically has an opportunity to express interest in American military equipment, which is sometimes handed over intact.
Lately, Ulfat’s dream of getting rich off the U.S. scrap has started to fade. Kabul’s real estate boom is over, he said. All he hears from Afghans are concerns about what will happen to the country after the U.S. withdrawal. His scrap yard tells the story of the drawdown.
“What will we do with all of this? Right now, no one will buy it. And if the future is as bad as people say it will be . . . .” His voice trailed off. “It could be bad.”
Hafizullah, an employee of Ulfat’s who goes by one name, wandered through the scrap yard one day this month, overseeing the latest delivery — a mix of blast walls and carburetors. With Bagram still the most active base in eastern Afghanistan, aircraft flew over his head incessantly.
One helicopter flew particularly close, hovering near the scrap yard. Hafizullah pointed to the Black Hawk and laughed.
“I can’t wait until they start selling those here,” he said.