Rarely, if ever, in the annals of military logistics have operations in Afghanistan cost so much and achieved so little. Underlying much of this tragic waste was the arrogant belief that concerns about the logistics problems of supplying a land-locked country, ideally suited to guerrilla warfare, with highly vulnerable supply lines stretching thousands of miles, could be tossed aside, given the overwhelming fire power and manpower of the invading allies.
Figures just released by Britain's Ministry of Defence (MOD) on the cost of the Afghan war for their financial year 2013-2014 show that supporting the 5,200 military personnel cost £232,225 per head, or £1.212 billion overall. That, however, was a year when operations in the 13-year war were beginning to be wound down. In the year 2012-2013 the comparable cost of supporting 9,000 military personnel at £297,025 per head was £2.673 billion. To these figures must be added the additional cost of new equipment, described as urgent operational requirements, which were £57.5 million in 2013-2014 and £333.3 million in 2012-2013.
Those figures are far from the end of the tally. Supporting the British military personnel in Afghanistan were 8,529 and 11,476 civilians for the years 2013-2014 and 2012-2013 respectively. And finally, one must not forget the high, tragic cost of supporting the permanently maimed personnel and the wives and children of the 450-plus killed in action, a figure that will inevitably grow given the expected suicides to come over years which, if previous recent military entanglements are any guide, will exceed the numbers killed in battle. At one stage the total costs of all the allied involvement was estimated to be US$2 billion a week, with the Taliban support costs calculated to be less than one tenth of the coalition forces.
Leaving aside the ignored historical lessons from previous super power invasions of Afghanistan over the last 200 years or so, any logistician worth his salt could see just how nightmarish and difficult the costs would be in supplying the allies in Afghanistan, surrounded by potentially hostile or ambivalent countries like Iran and Pakistan who lent succour willingly or otherwise to the Taliban. This meant that most of the supplies had to be airlifted from western Europe at a cost of US$14,000 a tonne compared with only $500 a tonne if Russia had allowed rail-borne supplies through its territory. The alternative to airborne supplies was the dangerous land supply line up from Karachi and through the mountainous passes. In just one attack in these passes, however, 40 oil tankers were destroyed by the Taliban.
So now that the last battle flags are being furled as the coalition forces depart, leaving only a small advisory contingent, could it be said that the allies' costs were worth it and what are the lessons for military logistics?
As far as the British financial cost goes, estimates will vary, the only certainty being a rising cost over years to come to support the wounded and their families. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's former ambassador to Afghanistan, who believed that there could never be a military victory, estimated the British cost running at £6 billion a year, while the MOD claimed that between 2001-2010 the cost was only £11.6 billion, but it subsequently admitted that the Afghan war was absorbing about 30% of the £35 billion UK annual defence budget. The true total British costs may never be known, especially as much depends on how the costs are calculated. But based on the MOD's last two accounting years, a total cost to date of the 13-year war of over £30 billion looks decidedly conservative.
The mooted positive effects of the Afghan war are broadly political and economic. On the political side, one of the reasons for the Afghan invasion was to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for Al-Qaeda to prosecute its mischief abroad. In that regard, at the best this goal has been only partly successful. Al-Qaeda still has a presence in the country and the Taliban, estimated at 20,000 strong, are a long way from being defeated. Many question how the much bigger Afghan army would fare against the Taliban insurgents without the help of a departed NATO force.
On the socio-economic front, there seem to be more positives. Various polls show many Afghans in a positive mood about their future. Education for both sexes is now available and women are allowed to play a much fuller role in all branches of the economy. But even on this front nothing is certain, because the cause of their oppression remains in the wings. Meanwhile, the wealthy Afghans are taking no chances. They are quietly moving their wealth abroad.
In the wider scheme of things the economic ramifications of debt-fuelled war are like the sins of the fathers being visited on future generations. Soaring government debt means soaring interest costs, and that means two things: money diverted from pressing social needs and possible cuts in Government social security budgets. Back in the 6th century BC, the Chinese sage, Sun Tzu, summed up the economic problem of war succinctly: "Where the army is prices are high. When prices rise the wealth of the people is exhausted." Trying to put a price on such repercussions is incalculable but the outcome unarguably very pernicious.
Military logistics is not just about controlling the supply chain effectively to deliver all that is required to the war theatre at the right time. It is also about how the chosen battlefield can be used to degrade an enemy's military ambitions. In this respect, the Taliban had the country's geographical and climatic conditions working in their favour. That, perhaps, more than any other factor ensured the allies could not win a military victory. It is to be hoped that in future before nations consider going to war in distant lands they will think of all the costs against the perceived benefits and leave arrogance at the door.