A snapshot of supply efforts at one remote coalition outpost in eastern Afghanistan illustrates the war's daunting logistical challenges and the potential shortfalls once foreign troops withdraw in 2014.
The U.S. Army's 172nd Infantry Brigade, working in conjunction with the Afghan National Army and National Police, established a new patrol base in Marzak, in mountainous northern Paktika Province, in early January. The goal: to stand up a new local police outfit capable of defending against Taliban militants moving between Pakistan and Afghanistan's heartland.
Marzak is accessible mostly by air. Just one narrow road – navigable only by lightweight vehicles – connects the village to the country's main Highway 1. Winter snows limit even these methods of transportation. Keeping the coalition troops fed, fueled and armed requires a "Herculean" effort, according to Capt. Jim Perkins, commanding U.S. troops in the village.
The International Security Assistance Force has the resources to meet this logistical challenge. But on its own, the Afghan government probably can't keep the Marzak outpost supplied.
Over a week in mid-January, Perkins' troops received several supply deliveries. On no fewer than five occasions, contractor-flown Mi-8 helicopters carried in so-called "sling-loads" of food and other goods, contained in nets dangling from the choppers' undersides. Heavier supplies – barrels of fuel, for instance – arrived by more dramatic means. Caribou cargo planes, famed for resupplying U.S. outposts during the Vietnam War, flew overhead at just a couple hundred feet, dumping pallets attached to fast-opening parachutes.
"You got some real cajones," one soldier radioed to the civilian Caribou crew after one successful drop.
Perkins says the Afghan police will have only minimal supply requirements once Western troops depart Marzak. But local police squad leader Noor Salam says he's counting on ISAF to keep his men supplied.
"The struggling ANA and ANP logistics system alone virtually ensures that even high-performing units can't be fully independent," wrote Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with Center for Strategic and International Studies.