...There is considerable opposition in Pakistan to re-opening the lines of communication at any price. The drone strikes have burrowed deep into domestic politics, and there is a chronic tension between the government in Islamabad helping to supply the war in Afghanistan while publicly condemning its extensions across the border – a difficulty that has only been partly resolved by Pakistan’s behind-the-scenes complicity in providing local intelligence and, for a time, bases for the attacks. Domestic objections to the drone strikes have focused on their violation of Pakistani sovereignty and on civilian casualties, but the Obama administration has tried to sidestep both by treating its operations in FATA as a covert campaign that is, remarkably, both legal and only to be discussed off the record and by insisting, no more plausibly, that the strikes are so surgically precise that they cause no civilian casualties at all. But the presence of the NATO convoys and the violence that attends them is even less secret than the drone strikes, and this has added two other loads of fuel to the opposition bonfire. Some critics object to what Rafia Zakaria has tartly called the ‘weaponizing’ of Pakistan’s territory. In an op-ed in Dawn, one of Pakistan’s most widely read English-language newspapers, she noted that the convoys have been the targets of repeated militant attacks, so that ‘what supplies a war becomes part of a war’..
Since the ‘war to end all wars’, however, war has not exactly stood still. Although the US Defense Logistics Agency rather quaintly describes its mission in terms of a supply chain extending ‘from factory to foxhole’, it is, above all, the mobility of military violence that is central to the conduct of late modern war. But Creveld is adamant that since 1945 the operational freedom of modern ground forces has not markedly increased, not least because their prized mobility is absolutely dependent on supplies of petrol and gasoline. Since the end of the Second World War the use of petroleum-based fuels by the US military has soared, and as its stripped-down forces have been expected to do more with less (through technological change and outsourcing) so the fuel expended per soldier has increased by 175 per cent to an average of 22 gallons (83 litres) per day. [viii] As Obama had US forces ‘surge’ into Afghanistan in 2009 so ISAF’s daily fuel consumption rocketed from two million to over four million litres a day. Given these volumes, it is scarcely surprising that the death-dealing capacities of the US military and its allies should have been tied in knots by ‘umbilical cords’ far more convoluted than Creveld could ever have imagined.
There are three main supply networks to be disentangled in turn. All of them are ground lines of communication. Air transportation is extremely, usually prohibitively expensive, and only four airports in Afghanistan are accessible to non-military aircraft, so that until 2011 only 20 per cent of cargo was flown in. Similarly, onward delivery to combat outposts and forward operating bases has usually only involved airdrops if other options are too dangerous. Still, by the start of 2010 around 30-40 per cent of bases were being supplied by air because the Taliban controlled much of Highway 1, the ring road that loops between Afghanistan’s major cities, and its IED attacks on NATO and Afghan forces were increasingly effective. The high cost of airdropping pallets of fuel, ammunition, water and supplies has imposed all sorts of fuel economies on the military as it attempts to reduce its carbon footprint – ‘troops have learned to sip, not guzzle’ – but it is still the case that, as one US pilot put it, ‘we’re going to burn a lot of gas to drop a lot of gas’. According to some estimates it can cost up to $400 a gallon to deliver fuel by air.