How many troops can we support in Afghanistan? That is asked by Instapundit, and is a major question on winning in Afghanistan.
That is the question that Glenn Reynolds and others are pondering and boils down to a few salient points: geography, TRANSCOM capacity, and troop type.
USTRANSCOM is the US Transportation Command that is the one in charge of getting things where they need to go. In the 1990's they were one of the most innovative of the Commands as they revamped the entire concept of logistics supply lines to take in the best of the modern transportation giants FedEx and UPS. Integrating in ground, air and sea capacity, TRANSCOM is the go-to for figuring out how to get things where they need to go. Anything going to Afghanistan arrives at CENTCOM and the ability to get delivery uses the ground air and naval resources of CENTCOM plus any other resources from the other Commands (particularly PACOM and EUCOM at this point in time). EUCOM has been going through a quiet draw down period, and is becoming a set of supply and specialty services bases, not really a fighting force command. PACOM has responsibilities for the entire Pacific Rim, including South Korea and Taiwan, but also for the South American coast in places like Colombia where it works things out with SOCOM. Roughly 1/3 of PACOM is 'forward deployed' into bases and ready positions, plus support to places like the Philippines in their COIN work. TRANSCOM must not only work with those Commands but keep them supplied, as well, so the amount of transport available to Afghanistan will start to determine just what can be sustained there.
The prime component for getting material there is by sea via the Military Sea Lift Command in TRANSCOM: sea lift is cheap, efficient and easy to run. All the major heavy lifting for equipment that can't be done by air, will be done by sea, plus the majority of supplies will need to come by sea. The Captain's Journal gives a breakout of how this generally goes, bolding mine:
We also described the strategy of interdiction of NATO supplies into Afghanistan many months before it began to occur. Afghanistan is land-locked, and transportation of supplies and ordnance to U.S. and NATO troops occurs basically in three ways. Ten percent comes into Afghanistan via air supply. The other ninety percent comes in through the port city of Karachi, of which the vast majority goes to the Torkham Crossing (and then to Kabul) via the Khyber pass, with some minor portion going to Kandahar through Chaman.
Karachi, then, is the 9:1 supplier of our troops in Afghanistan, so that out of every 10 tons delivered, 9 comes via sea and then ground transport and 1 comes via air (most likely after sea transport to a friendly base). Essentially there is a thin trickle of direct air supply for Afghanistan and the lion's share (perhaps upwards of 97%) is done by sea. When going to the ship inventory page for the MSC we find this little bit of news:
Military Sealift Command's Sealift Program provides high-quality, efficient and cost-effective ocean transportation for the Department of Defense and other federal agencies during peacetime and war. More than 90 percent of U.S. war fighters' equipment and supplies travels by sea. The program manages a mix of government-owned and long-term-chartered dry cargo ships and tankers, as well as additional short-term or voyage-chartered ships. By DOD policy, MSC must first look to the U.S - flagged market to meet its sealift requirements. Government-owned ships are used only when suitable U.S.-flagged commercial ships are unavailable.
We are depending upon commercial sea lift capacity to supply the troops in a declared war in Afghanistan. Thus even though that is not infinite, it can be considered to be so when taking Karachi into consideration. It is a city of approximately 12 million with a generally warm and moderate climate, and a monsoon season in JUL and AUG. It is also a destination of choice for those fleeing conflicts over the past few decades, so has a heavily diverse population. It has two ports, Karachi and Qasim and their containerized capability for cargo is 650,000 and ~17,000 TEUs (Twenty thousand foot Equivalent Units) in shipping containers, with a lot of bulk cargo going through Qasim for the steel mills and natural gas/petroleum processing (Note that Qasim lists tonnage for TEUs, so the 21,600 kg per TEU must be factored in). Both ports have been undergoing rapid expansion and have for a decade, so US capacity to move supplies through there should not overhaul expansion. And as US work is commercial in nature, it does become part of the commercial processing for shipping equipment. Just so you get an idea of the scale of things, here are the ports seen together, note the scale at the bottom left:
And as most comes though Karachi, lets take a look there:
Those center two slips of land are the port of Karachi. You are looking at the place where at least 80% of the material for the US Armed Forces arrives to be off-loaded. Part of that is the Naval Drydocks of Pakistan (in the northern part of the northern slip) part is the repair yard (the northern part of the southern slip), a timber pond (the inner portion of the southern slip), a submarine construction base (southern part of the northern slip) and a salvage yard (in the far north of the northern slip). That inner area is a mangrove swamp, so best not to think of it as part of a 'port'. Do you see those two islands? Here, lets take a look:
Do you see all those small dots swarming around them? Those are container ships and smaller transport vessels. Are you now getting the picture of why it will be difficult to surge, say, support for 40,000 troops into Afghanistan? And as the Kyber Pass is mentioned lets see what the town of Kotai, on the border just before it, looks like, here with 2x terrain exaggeration so you can get a feel for it:
Do you see that little black curving line going through town? That is highway 5, two lanes. What does this not have? A rail line. Believe me, Chaman isn't any better. We put about 300 to 400 trucks through there per day (via AP at WTOP news so they might get that right). That does not include NATO trucking and is a tenuous supply line, at best, given present circumstances (and an equivalent of, say, 30 trucks through Chaman and the equivalent amount by air per day also goes into Afghanistan). This is one of those deals where 'surging' troops isn't the problem: keeping them supplied *is*. In Iraq we had shipping via Kuwait, KSA and some through Turkey, so we had at least four total ports, counting Iraq, to go through and multiple supply points.
Are there any other ways to keep our troops supplied in Afghanistan? Lets start to the west and look at the countries:
-Iran? Heh. No.
-Pakistan... these are the folks that we are maximizing our shipments through.
-India? No road there, really, except stuff that makes Kotai look like a superhighway. No.
-China? Same problem as India plus likely to be problematical and shut things down on whimsy. No.
-Tajikistan? Landlocked, so you would be looking at Khazakhstan and then Russia. Probably not, plus you would be shipping via some part of the trans-siberian railroad.
-Uzbekistan? Same problem as Tajikistan.
-Turkmenistan? Well it has access to the Caspian Sea and if you want to use that you need to go through Azerbaijan and Georgia to get to the Black Sea and then you have shipping from Europe you can think about. Then you get one additional overland road with supplies coming in through Herat.
This is one of those strange times when you begin to feel that Russia may have had an ulterior motive beyond the obvious in Georgia: if the US could swing a major transport deal to Georgia and Azerbaijan and then shipping across the Caspian to Turkmenistan, that would open another very limited supply corridor into Afghanistan. It would be one of those deals that what you ship from Europe today doesn't arrive in Afghanistan for a month, but that it *would* arrive is something you should be able to depend on *if* you keep good relations with the three intervening Nations. Looking at Karachi and the supply lines north of it, I am very wary about saying the US could double that corridor in Pakistan without it becoming a major terrorist target... or at least a larger one than it is, which is already pretty large.
If you want Michael Yon's 50,000 more troops, you need to either open up a new supply corridor equal in size to what we have now via Karachi or use troops with a low supply chain need. Because adding 300 or so more trucks through the Khyber per day is *not* something I feel particularly good about and we do not have the air lift capacity to equal that without having to pull in the commercial freight haulers on war contingency clauses in contracts. Plus staging that much air traffic, about 10 times what it is now, is expensive as all hell. There are reasons a 'surge' of troops in Iraq could be done with only some minor logistical ramping up - it had multiple supply points.
That leaves us with three good vectors to consider:
1) Ramping up security and forces along the Karachi to Khyber route. That means getting the help of Pakistan in a *huge* way, which we haven't had up till now. That is part of The Captain's Journal article, that such a ramping up would bolster Pakistani confidence and participation. What is missed is the deep inroads of the radical Islamic groups into the ISI and other parts of the Pakistani government. Unless someone is proposing a large private security force to help out, one with local blessing and yet is foreign and foreign controlled, I don't see how the amount of traffic will help to get rid of the roadblocks in the government structure. Now if a deal to close down the ISI or at least start a major sweep through its upper and middle echelons could be arranged, that would be to the good, but a larger supply line through Pakistan isn't necessarily coincident with that. It might be done, yes, but the diplomatic and economic laying of the groundwork needed to start about a year ago, because the terminal traffic will be going up significantly. Plus the cargo terminals now become an even larger target with far more traffic and more people wandering around it. A single point of supply is *not* what we want. So possible but dicey, and a major terror attack at the terminals would slowly through Pakistan into finally deciding who's side they are on. Better than nothing, but sub-optimal.
2) A new supply corridor. Now just how handy is it to have US advisors and a major Naval component in the Black Sea these days? Why if you could just start talking about a nice dredging operation and see if we can swing a supply carrier in the Caspian... and do some palm greasing in Turkmenistan...
Unfortunately I doubt the diplomatic corps of the US is up to this task.
Shame, that. It would be nice to do the impossible once in awhile and this would be considered impossible by every other Nation and group on the planet. It is 'doable' but not only if the US worked hard at it for a year or more. Plus it would give a great impetus to pull Ukraine and Georgia into some sort of Western sphere by just shipping so much through them. Yeah. As if. Dream on.
3) Deploy the right troops and lower the supply chain per person. This is the difficult option, but becoming available as the half of the US 10MD in Iraq will now be available for full deployment in Afghanistan. This is their 'home turf' being Mountain Warfare. I go over this in a full article on Mountain Warfare and what it takes, and this is the great surprise: these are light infantry but extremely effective in the climate and elevation due to training. Here the idea is not to surge a lot, but to surge the *right* troops, and this would be every MW and Alpine Warfare group in NATO (including Poland, Romania, etc.) as these types of troops given an active set of Rules of Engagement, can hit far outside their normal throw weight, often 3-5 : 1 as compared to normal troops. Really the US needs a second Mountain Division, but that would take 18 months to stand up. So taking a generous 2:1, what that means is 25,000 Mountain Warfare soldiers from all our allies, including Iraq (the Kurds). Every, single blessed one of them for 18 months and then backfill with flatland troops (US only) to give those we pull out of Iraq a breather plus time to acclimate to the climate. This would require that Afghanistan turn into a US commanded venture, now, with the right troops in the right place at the right time. This will still increase the pressure on the supply route, but in a doable fashion. Plus these troops know how to live off the land and still harry the enemy. I am not sanguine about 40,000 flatland troops going to Afghanistan as a 'surge'. I am for the best troops for this fight at the 25,000 strength level put under a unitary command and given the go-ahead for 'hot pursuit' of the enemy. Make it a winter campaign, like the Canadians did last year, and that could turn the tables in Afghanistan and Pakistan: a full out, all weather, hot-pursuit winter campaign when even the Pashtuns don't do that and the Pakistani Army is leery of it.
Change the parameters of this fight and fight harder in ways that can't be countered.
More of the same is *not* a winning prescription here.
Doing the unexpected and reaching down to fight in a different way that is known and can't be countered *is* a winner. The Canadians showed the way to do this. Now lets follow their lead in spades.
Because I've seen the logistics route, and if you have to fight the Mountain War, then send in those that damned well know how to fight in the Mountains.