DLA employees in Germany load cargo destined for Afghanistan. (photo: DLA Distribution Europe)
The U.S. military has abandoned plans to set up facilities in Almaty, Baku and/or Bishkek to help get rid of excess equipment from its operations in Afghanistan, saying they were unfeasible. The Defense Logistics Agency, the military organization that handles shipments of cargo to and from Afghanistan, announced a series of tenders (for Almaty, Baku, and Bishkek in March 2013 and then cancelled them in April.
The so-called "retrograde" from Afghanistan is big business, estimated to cost the U.S. up to $6 billion. And along the way, the U.S. will be giving away a lot of the equipment it has, both military hardware and all of the other civilian equipment (e.g. office furniture, air conditioners) that the U.S. has brought to Afghanistan. So far the U.S., however, has not given too many details about how all this will work, what goods are on offer and who will get them. And DLA officials who have spoken to The Bug Pit have said that they are only in the early stages of working this all out, although the pullout is scheduled to start next year.
The DLA solicitations all contained similar descriptions of the work to be done, essentially to set up warehouses/logistics hubs for getting rid of equipment from Afghanistan:
DLA Disposition Services (DS) is responsible for the disposition of excess U.S military property by offering the property for reutilization to military activities, mutilating sensitive property and sales for property not reutilized. Disposition Services is projecting a significant quantity of 20 and 40 foot Sea Vans of Contractor managed/Government owned (CMGO) property in Afghanistan. DS will be offering this property for reutilization. If reutilization fails, DS will offer the property for sales. The objective of this PWS is to obtain the services of a Contractor to store and manage containers of property destined for sales.
There were some small differences between the plans for the various sites. In Baku and Bishkek, for example, the U.S. only needed a place to manage 1,000 shipping containers, while in Almaty it was looking to handle 4,000. They anticipated 250 containers arriving every month (though the tender for Almaty said there would be up to 500 containers the first two months and then 250 a month after that). The U.S. government footprint would be small: the solicitations all required enough office space for three government personnel (whether they were to be civilian or military was unspecified).
I asked DLA about the cancellation and this was their response:
The retrograde of personnel and equipment from Afghanistan is a challenging and complex issue involving multiple agencies. At the time the solicitations were posted, DLA was exploring the feasibility of several locations for potential short-term disposition sites. Upon reviewing the requirements for distribution sites outside of Afghanistan, the Department of Defense concluded that additional sites were unnecessary and requested the solicitations be removed.
That leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but DLA declined to provide someone to talk in more detail.
Three well-connected sources (two American and one Azerbaijani) told The Bug Pit there was particular drama in the case of Baku. The Azerbaijan government was apparently lukewarm to the idea, worried about too visible a presence of the U.S. military on its soil and the provocation that may be for Russia and/or Iran. “It's one thing to have private carriers arriving and departing at the airport or port terminal to move goods. It's another thing to set up a commercial auction and depot that may require staffing by U.S. personnel or contractors - civilian or military,” one source said.
But, these sources said, the proposal ultimately was shot down because the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, was worried that establishing a large business presence there “would enrich the oligarchs” of Azerbaijan, according to another American source. The Azerbaijani source confirmed that interpretation, complaining that “it was oligarchs who built the Silk Road,” a reference to the notion that the military transit lines to and from Afghanistan through the ex-USSR can be the foundation for a modern “New Silk Road” of civilian trade and transit.
A spokesperson at the U.S. embassy in Baku, however, said that account was "inaccurate" but said they had nothing to add to the DLA statement. Still, all this is just a small window into the various political complications that the U.S. is facing as it tries to set up the retrograde routes through the Caucasus and Central Asia.