MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Earlier this month, when President Obama laid out his plans for the Afghan war, he talked about getting there fast.
BARACK OBAMA: The 30,000 additional troops that I'm announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 - the fastest possible pace.
BLOCK: NPR's Tom Bowman explains why.
TOM BOWMAN: There's an old saying in the military: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. So, it fell to an old pro, Admiral Mike Mullen, the nation's top military officer to explain why that schedule the president talked about for Afghanistan is expected to the slip a bit. Listen closely and you'll hear three words over and over: We don't have.
MIKE MULLEN: Afghanistan is not Iraq. We don't have for that country a major logistics hub akin to the one we have in Kuwait. We don't have an Afghanistan anywhere near the number of runways or rail hubs or road networks that exist in Iraq. And we don't have, quite frankly, the same ground to cover. As one soldier told me on the first visit to Afghanistan back in 2007, the terrain itself is an enemy.
BOWMAN: A terrain of mostly dirt roads and narrow mountain passes. Afghanistan has no railroads. And the nearest port - next door in Pakistan. That port in Karachi is nearly 500 miles from the closest major Afghan city of Kandahar.
GUS PAGONIS: This is going to be a tough operation.
BOWMAN: That's retired Army Lieutenant General Gus Pagonis.
PAGONIS: It doesn't mean it can't be done, but it's going to take a lot of troops and a lot of innovation.
BOWMAN: Pagonis should know. He ran logistics for the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when he was lucky enough to have two large ports in Saudi Arabia.
PAGONIS: It's just going to be much more difficult than when you can resupply by ship.
BOWMAN: Now the logistics job is someone else's problem.
MARK HARNITCHEK: Mark Harnitchek. I'm a vice admiral in the Navy.
BOWMAN: What was the reaction? Was it: oh no?
HARNITCHEK: No, not really. We've been doing this a while now. We're pretty darn good at it.
BOWMAN: But it's that air portion of his job, Harnitchek admits, that makes his head pound.
HARNITCHEK: The biggest headache, I would say, if we're squeaking anywhere, it's probably on airfields.
BOWMAN: So the Transportation Command is busy building runways, taxiways and storage facilities at the three main airfields it has in Afghanistan. They're moving in military cargo handlers and equipment, like forklifts and trucks. His model is the famous 1948 mission in Germany when U.S. cargo planes flew round the clock to break a Soviet blockade.
HARNITCHEK: The analogy is sort of the Berlin Airlift, you know, when a cargo plane landed every minute and they were offloading that airplane in 20 to 30 minutes to get it up in the air off the concrete and ready for the next airplane.
BOWMAN: But just 20 percent of the supplies come in by air. That includes ammunition, sensitive military gear like radios, some armored vehicles. The rest of the supplies - everything from plywood to lettuce - comes over land through Pakistan and two new northern routes that each run about 2,500 miles. Listen to Harnitchek describe one of those northern routes, largely a railroad line. It's a regular geography lesson.
HARNITCHEK: There's one that starts in the Baltic States in Estonia and Latvia. And, of course, that runs from the port cities there across Russia into central Asia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and then, of course, down into the north.
BOWMAN: Into the north of Afghanistan, where containers are loaded onto trucks for the long haul to American bases.
HARNITCHEK: Last month it was right around 5,000 containers. That was from both Pakistan and those northern routes.
BOWMAN: In one month.
HARNITCHEK: Yep. And that's almost twice what it was this time last year.
BOWMAN: Still, for all those containers, all those supplies, troops are being told not to expect the kind of comfortable conditions they knew in Iraq: large dining halls, gyms, laundry facilities. Instead in Afghanistan, they'll be eating the starchy packaged meals called MREs, for Meals Ready to Eat. And they'll be sleeping in tents. That kind of rough living is not a problem for the top officer in the Marine Corps, General James Conway. He recalled seeing a Marine's bed in Afghanistan. It was just a hole dug into the dirt.
JAMES CONWAY: It had a poncho liner over the top of it, and he was completely happy with that.
BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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