The Vexing Problem of Demand

by Joshua Foust on 3/22/2009 · 6 comments

BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — General Duncan McNabb, who runs U.S. Transportation Command, recently told Congress that we have “nothing to worry about” when it comes to transporting supplies into Afghanistan.

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. …

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.

I’ll be kind and say he’s full of crap. While I was at FOB Salerno, they kept running out of ketchup thanks to supply issues. Obviously, I survived, but saying there are lots of options is just not true.

Hell, I had to wait NINE DAYS for a flight to Salerno because of the unit transfer — one single brigade moving in to replace another. The flights were booked full for weeks, and all civilians got bumped to give priority for troops, and not all of them could fit into the available flights. This includes both helicopters, contracted Blackwater mail flights, and the C-130s. In the southeast, in other words, the air transportation system was completely paralyzed for weeks because of a single, 4,000 person brigade or so.

And McNabb wants us to think that the way things are going now, an extra 17,000 troops will be handled without serious headaches. Calling me skeptical is being euphemistic. It is downright misleading.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 6 comments }

michaelhancock March 22, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Josh, I see your point, but is ketchup really the best example you could give? I can imagine some reading that and thinking, “We’re doomed – our boys can’t fight without their Heinz!”

Still, if it isn’t as good as he McNabb suggests, is it as bad as others suggest [that we can’t hack it without a base in the Stans, etc.]?

Dan March 22, 2009 at 5:15 pm

I definitely think a mission essential example is needed to make this argument valid. Certain things will always get bumped up the list to take advantage of available assets.

Edmond March 23, 2009 at 12:35 am

I admonish those who read the missives of Mr. Foust and Mr. Foust himself to maintain perspective; Afghanistan is still considered an active war zone. The movement of troops into and out of certain FOBs has priority. The movement of 4,000 combat troops, with all allied equipment, is not a simple matter. Considering the breadth and depth of the logistics train supporting the ongoing efforts in both theatres of the GWOT, I am disheartened to read that a shortage of ketchup is cause for concern. When offering criticism, it’s best to offer practical solutions, rather than simply rant. Perhaps an indication of why your mission has a higher priority than the combat troops flying to Salerno? On maintaining perspective….it’s important to note that the US military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were built from scratch – and that the closing of the base in Manas has not, and for that matter will not seriously impact ongoing military operations. Being delayed nine days to accomodate the movement of a Brigade Combat Team, while frustrating, is not something to complain about. On top of that, the entire air transportation system was not completely paralyzed for weeks – that would imply that there were no fixed or rotary wing aircraft circulating the battlefield at all – which is in fact not true. They were merely occupied with the transfer of an incoming (and remember outgoing) BCT.

Joshua Foust March 23, 2009 at 2:58 am

Michael and Dan,

You’re right that ketchup is a petty thing to note. It’s what immediately came to mind, specifically because the trucks containing more ketchup were among those destroyed that week in the Khyber. In places like Khost, little touches like that add up over time. It’s true that the essentials get “bumped up,” but those usually arrive by air anyway. The point here is to note that there are no problems with supply, as McNabb says, is a ridiculous claim, especially considering the extreme cost of transporting via air.

Edmond, I have to assume you don’t know how the air transportation system works. A single brigade ripping in froze out all over assets — and if you think a brigade can operate without civilian contractors, then I don’t think you’ve spent much time at the FOBs. All food, construction, and maintenance services, or very nearly all, are provided by contractors. At the terminals I met people who had literally been waiting weeks to get on a flight, but couldn’t because of the rip.

While that causes a temporary (albeit heinously expensive) delay and waste of chargeable man-hours, when you multiply that by four — which would happen should the 17000 new troops arrive — I am honestly curious how they intend to handle the influx. A single brigade essentially froze — in the sense, and be honest, that lesser people were not permitted to use it as they would under normal circumstances — all other movement for 2-3 weeks (with the obvious exception of command group personnel). Four more brigades is a terrifying thought to contemplate.

David M March 23, 2009 at 9:57 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/23/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Dan March 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm

I know I’ve been out of the service for awhile, but I was a logistician. I know a thing or two about the military supply chain. There’s always more to be moved than assets or time to move it. My quibbles aside, I think Josh has a pretty good grasp on the situation; also, I’m glad he brought up the role of contractors in all this as that has increased over time and represents an interesting shift in logistical capabilities. My question for Josh: Are you holding assets constant? Or, will more movement assets be tasked to handle the increase in personnel? Or, is it a throughput problem (e.g. refining capacity and movement of oil in the U.S.)?

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