US trash is a treasure for Afghans

Withdrawing US military is destroying most of the equipment it is leaving behind in Afghanistan after 13 years of war, to sell as scrap.

Afghan scrap dealers try to load giant rubber treads of a US tank received from the departing military as junk in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan.  Anja Niedringhaus / AP
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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan // The withdrawing US military is destroying most of the equipment it is leaving behind in Afghanistan after 13 years of war, selling the scrap for millions of dollars.

The policy stands in stark contrast to the Americans’ withdrawal from Iraq, when they donated or sold still-usable items worth about US$100 million (Dh367 million).

The equipment is being trashed, US officials say, because of fears that anything left behind in Afghanistan could fall into the hands of insurgents and used to make bombs. Leaving it behind also saves the US billions of dollars in transportation costs.

Afghans are angry at the policy, arguing that even furniture and appliances that could improve their lives is being turned into useless junk.

“They use everything while they are here, and then they give it to us after breaking it,” said Mohammed Qasim, a junk dealer in the southern province of Kandahar. He gestured towards the large yellow frame of a gutted generator, saying it would have been more useful in somebody’s home, given the lack of electricity in the area.

The twisted mounds of metal, steel and industrial rubber scattered over a vast field had once been armoured vehicles, lorries and huge blast walls that protected troops from suicide bombers. Giant black treads were pulled from tanks. Even air conditioners, exercise machines and office equipment were crushed and stuffed into multicoloured shipping containers piled on top of each other in the junkyard.

In the last year, the US has turned equipment and vehicles into 176 million kilograms of scrap that it sold to Afghans for $46.5m, according to Mimi Schirmacher, a spokeswoman for the military’s Defence Logistics Agency in Virginia.

The scrapped material was too worn out to repair or not worth the expense of carrying it back to the US, officials said.

Not everything in Afghanistan was destroyed. Coalition forces have handed over $71m in equipment intact to the Afghans, said Colonel Jane Crichton, a public affairs officer for US forces in Afghanistan. She said $64m of that came from the US.

“We work closely with the Afghan National Security Forces to determine what equipment they need, if it is in good condition, and ensure they are capable of maintaining it,” Col Crichton said.

Spokesmen for President Hamid Karzai said the government has “repeatedly” asked US officials to not destroy or remove its military equipment from Afghanistan when its combat troops leave.

“We oppose the destruction of any of the equipment and hardware that can be of use by the Afghan security forces,” the deputy presidential spokesman Fayeq Wahedi said.

Between September 2012 and the end of next year, when most US troops will have left, the Americans will move an estimated 50,000 vehicles – tens of thousands of them hardened to make them resistant to mines.

They will also ship an estimated 100,000 metal containers – each about 20-feet long. Placed end-to-end, the containers would stretch nearly 600 kilometres.

The military faced a similar logistics dilemma when it pulled out of Iraq in 2011, but it left most of the equipment with the government, including water tanks, generators, furniture and armoured vehicles. Nearly $100m in equipment was donated or sold to the Iraqis as of 2010.

Col Crichton said the Iraqis were better prepared to receive and maintain the equipment.

“Iraq had a higher number of military and police personnel, and they had a more developed infrastructure at the end of operations to support the equipment.”

The lessons learnt from Iraq included how to save money by dismantling, relocating and disposing of equipment it did not want to ship home, she said, as well as earning money by selling it as scrap. The US deployed an estimated $33 billion in equipment to Afghanistan.

In southern Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban where a stubborn insurgency still flourishes, the policy is having unintended consequences.

At a junkyard less than a kilometre from the sprawling Kandahar Air Base where tens of thousands of Nato and US soldiers were stationed at the war’s peak, ethnic Pashtuns grumble at getting scrap instead of working equipment.

Ms Schirmacher, the Defence Logistics Agency spokeswoman, said a big reason for trashing the equipment before selling it to the Afghans is to remove its potential to be used for bombs.

Even the most innocuous piece of equipment, like a treadmill, a stationary bike or household appliances, have timers or copper wiring that can be used to make roadside bombs, she said.

“Removing those timers or other potentially dangerous internal components renders the property inoperable, and so it is scrapped,” she said, adding that her agency sells the scrap to three Afghan firms. The US military decides what gets turned into scrap, Ms Schirmacher said.

Inside the junkyard office, a half-dozen men sipping green tea scoffed at the concern, saying insurgents can get cheap timers and other bomb-making material in any village marketplace.

“These timers can be bought over there,” the dealer Mir Ahmed said, pointing out a grimy window to a row of electrical shops.

“They can buy them cheap. They can buy a bunch of cheap watches with timers for nothing, but even if they have lots of money and are using this equipment to make bombs, what about the washing machines? What can they do with those?” he said.

* Associated Press