Report: First batch of US equipment begins filtering out of Afghanistan

Nearly 50 containers loaded with weapons and equipment began their slow journey out of Afghanistan to the United States via Pakistani supply routes only recently opened up to American and NATO commanders within the past year, according to the Associated Press.

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Washington and Islamabad reached an agreement to reopen the critical supply lines last year, ending a stalemate that had hindered previous U.S. and NATO efforts to resupply American and coalition forces still fighting in Afghanistan. 

Those containers and the hundreds more expected to come through Pakistan within the year will head for the Pakistani port city of Karachi, where they will be shipped back to military bases in the U.S.

The initial shipments come a day after Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford took the reins of the U.S. and coalition operation in Afghanistan from Gen. John Allen.

Allen, who is slated to take over as head of European Command, is the longest serving U.S. general in the war's 11-year history with 19 months as the top American officer in Afghanistan.

It remains unclear how fast the U.S. withdrawal will proceed under Dunford, as Washington continues to weigh its postwar options once the last of the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops come home in 2014.  

However, American field commanders in Afghanistan told The Hill last November that they are planning to rapidly shutter a number of U.S. bases in country this spring.

As the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan picks up steam, federal watchdogs at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) are raising a number of red flags about how U.S. forces are carrying out the withdrawal.

In a GAO report released Monday, analysts noted that in spite of the department's attempt to kick the withdrawal effort into overdrive, DOD officials have yet to fully account for how much it will cost to get the mountain of metal in Afghanistan out of the country by 2014.

"There is no specific guidance requiring the military services to assess and document the costs and benefits of returning equipment, and they have not done so," according to GAO auditors.

Shipping military equipment back stateside involves much more than just boxing and cataloging the material, according to GAO officials.

"Returning equipment involves transportation, repair, and storage costs that could be weighed against benefits to determine whether it is actually cost-effective to return it," auditors point out.

"Based on our analysis, the return of these items without full consideration of the costs and benefits is particularly problematic for unneeded items," they added.

DOD costs could range between $8,000 to in excess of $150,000 per container of equipment moving through supply lines in Pakistan, the report states.

That lack of planning, however, has been mitigated by U.S. officials taking advantage of the lessons learned from last December's military withdrawal from Iraq, according to the report.

The Iraq withdrawal "demonstrated the importance of early planning for equipment drawdown, and the military services have applied this lesson by issuing guidance outlining the processes and procedures for drawing down equipment in Afghanistan," the GAO says.

But U.S. military planners have not taken full advantage of those lessons learned in Iraq, failing to account for critical supply chain capabilities that could ease the U.S. transition out of Afghanistan.

Logistics aside, top DOD officials including outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claim the White House's withdrawal strategy is still on pace.

In January, Obama announced a decision to accelerate the handover of security operations to Afghan forces, moving to handover all security operations to Afghan forces by mid-2013.

That transition was scheduled to take place sometime in early 2014, ahead of the American withdrawal from the country. American troops will remain in country after the handover this spring, but will take a backseat to Afghan commanders.

The decision was one of many results from a one-on-one meeting between Obama and Afghan president Hamid Karzai held in Washington in January.