OTTAWA – The war may be over, but the cleanup is still underway.
Nearly 400 shipping containers full of Canadian military supplies remain stuck in Kandahar more than a year after Canada’s withdrawal from the war-torn province was declared complete, federal documents show.
National Defence says the material is considered low priority and that all high-value and sensitive equipment has been returned to Canada.
But the delay, brought on by the extended closure of the Afghan border with Pakistan, has turned into a long, costly logistics nightmare for the military, which was counting on having everything home and in good order to fully re-equip and refurbish the army.
“All of it still has residual value that in cost and time terms means it’s worth hanging on to,” said Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, the commander of the country’s foreign and domestic operations.
Beare said the absence of the material — including tires, spare parts, tents and other gear — does not directly impede the army’s regeneration.
But documents obtained under access to information laws show the Canadian government has faced increased withdrawal costs because the containers still have to be stored and guarded at yards adjacent to Kandahar Airfield, where space in is short supply at NATO’s biggest and busiest base in south Afghanistan.
“The on-going closure of the Pakistan border continues to represent a significant cost to the (Canadian Forces) in the form of shortage and potential increased transit costs” for the remaining containers, said a May 17, 2012 briefing prepared for former chief of defence staff Walt Natynczyk, prior to the reopening of the border.
Pakistan cut off NATO’s supply lines through its country in November 2011 after a U.S. air raid mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, and the border remained shut until July 2012.
Beare said Canada has not received any shipments since the lines reopened last summer, and they are in a queue organized by NATO.
“I won’t speculate on when they”ll move, but at some point if they can’t come out fast enough, then we’ll have to look for alternative solutions,” he said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
How much the stranded shipping containers have increased withdrawal costs was censored out of the briefing note, and remains unavailable. But documents obtained by CP have already shown that the overall price tag for ending the combat mission was expected to top $650 million.
In tearing down the five-year involvement in Kandahar, the military funnelled its gear into two streams.
The first was an air bridge that saw Canadian C-17s and rented transports fly sensitive equipment and vehicles out to a friendly port, where it was loaded on cargo ships bound for Canada. The second route was to drive non-sensitive material over land through Pakistan, where it was loaded on a cargo ship in the Port of Karachi.
When the Pakistan border clapped shut, only 186 of the estimated 632 containers destined for overland transport had made it back to Canada. Of those, a significant number were pilfered.
The documents show an average loss rate among the containers of 27 per cent. Thieves who pried open the metal containers would steal the contents, replace them with sandbags and weights, and then reseal the containers.
Beare said the private contractor guarding the material has been told to step up security, and defence officials say a new method of sealing the containers has been put in place.
“We knew up front (that) the risk of that occurring could be there,” Beare said. “Fortunately, the material that was lost was not of any critical quantity, quality or value.”
Even with the theft, Beare said ground lines were still the most cost-effective way of getting five years worth of military equipment home.
The documents show initially the Canadian military wanted to ship home its material based on sensitivity and value, which would have meant more flights.
But in February 2011, the “criteria were modified to focus primarily on minimizing redeployment costs, resulting in only sensitive equipment being flown and non-sensitive material, irrespective of its value, being redirected for movement via” the road network, said the May 17, 2012 note.