How could NATO get supplies out of Afghanistan in time for the drawdown? A shipping container worth of gear sent every seven minutes, all day, every day.
Writing in Foreign Affairs*, Vanda Felbab-Brown explains that, according to NATO officials, in order to remove International Security Assistance Force military equipment from Afghanistan by the end of 2014: "a container would have to leave the country every seven minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, starting now."
Felbab-Brown's report brings up an interesting point, pairing that oft-asked question of how soon should the U.S. leave with how soon can the U.S. leave. Getting everything they want out of there will not be easy or quick. According to Felbab-Brown, about 100,000 containers and 50,000 wheeled vehicles need to go.
Joshua Kucera, writing in The Diplomat, asked a similar question back in April, when the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was shut down following a November NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Earlier this month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized to Pakistan, partially, as our Adam Martin wrote back then, due to the expenses the U.S. was suffering in light of the closing. Even with the border opening, Felbab-Brown says that NATO will still be using their treacherous alternate route through Central Asia linking to northern Afghanistan called the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) for "at least a third of its cargo." Why?
One might may be tempted to argue for leaving the military equipment behind. But that would be expensive -- and it could intensify a civil war, if it comes. Alternatively, the supplies could be airlifted out. But that would cost about ten times as much as going through Pakistan, and about three times as much as going through the north. Thus, even with the Pakistani border reopened and the southern route again in operation, the northern route will necessarily remain in heavy use for some time; there are simply too many supplies and too few options for transporting them to avoid it.
Felbab-Brown concludes by saying that logistics are not the only part of the drawdown to take into account; leaving a stronger Afghanistan is "more crucial." That said, she admits that the "worst possible outcome" would involve leaving too quickly "and then lacking even the logistical routes to do so."
*Correction: This story originally mistakenly said Felbab-Brown's story was published in Foreign Policy. We apologize for the mistake.