A military contact told me this was happening, but now it’s made the papers: As our troops leave Afghanistan, they are leaving behind some $7 billion worth of equipment. It’s reportedly cheaper to just leave it than to haul it back to the states. But to keep the Taliban and other terrorists from getting all that equipment, we are first destroying it, leaving behind towering mountains of scrap metal where our military bases used to be.
The armored trucks, televisions, ice cream scoops and nearly everything else shipped here for America’s war against the Taliban are now part of the world’s biggest garage sale. Every week, as the U.S. troop drawdown accelerates, the United States is selling 12 million to 14 million pounds of its equipment on the Afghan market.
Returning that gear to the United States from a landlocked country halfway around the world would be prohibitively expensive, according to U.S. officials. Instead, they’re leaving behind $7 billion worth of supplies, a would-be boon to the fragile Afghan economy.
But there’s one catch: The equipment is being destroyed before it’s offered to the Afghan people — to ensure that treadmills, air-conditioning units and other rudimentary appliances aren’t used to make roadside bombs.
“Many non-military items have timing equipment or other components in them that can pose a threat. For example, timers can be attached to explosives. Treadmills, stationary bikes, many household appliances and devices, et cetera, have timers,” said Michelle McCaskill, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency.
That policy has produced more scrap metal than Afghanistan has ever seen. It has also led to frustration among Afghans, who feel as if they are being robbed of items such as flat-panel televisions and armored vehicles that they could use or sell — no small thing in a country where the average annual income hovers at just over $500.
In Afghanistan, nicknamed the “graveyard of empires,” foreign forces are remembered for what they leave behind. In the 1840s, the British left forts that still stand today. In the 1980s, the Russians left tanks, trucks and aircraft strewn about the country. The United States is leaving heaps of mattresses, barbed wire and shipping containers in scrap yards near its shrinking bases.
“This is America’s dustbin,” said Sufi Khan, a trader standing in the middle of an immense scrap yard outside Bagram air base, the U.S. military’s sprawling headquarters for eastern Afghanistan.
The scrap yard looks like a post-industrial landfill in the middle of the Afghan desert, a surreal outcropping of mangled metal and plastic. There’s a tower of treadmills 50 feet high and an acre of American buses, trucks and vans, stripped of seats and engines. An ambulance is perched unsteadily atop a pile of scrap, as if it fell from the sky. A mountain of air-conditioning units sits next to a mountain of truck axles.