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Challenges dog U.S. in Afghan war

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

BAGRAM, Afghanistan

As the Obama administration debates the need for additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, commanders at Bagram Air Base say their facilities already are overwhelmed by existing demand.

Extra U.S. forces will require significant investment to ensure adequate flow of supplies and timely medical response to battlefield injuries.

More than 3,000 wounded U.S. soldiers each month already have forced the trauma hospital at the base -- the only one of its kind in all of Afghanistan -- to expand into a cluster of air-conditioned tents erected beside the main building.

A recent supply drop, launched from Bagram to Marines in southern Afghanistan, illustrated the importance of this logistical and medical hub outside Kabul.

The four-engine C-130 Hercules airlift dove into a valley; the cargo planes' rear ramp opened; and eight pallets of food and water, weighing 5 tons combined, slid out and descended under stiff plastic parachutes. The supplies were picked up by a waiting Marine Corps infantry battalion fighting around the clock to blunt Taliban advances.

Steering his C-130 back toward Bagram, pilot Lt. Col. Bill Tony mused on the demanding task of supporting tens of thousands of front-line combat troops in an escalating war. "It's not an easy thing to do," he said of his airdrop.

With about 20,000 American troops plus thousands of coalition soldiers and civilian contractors, Bagram is the largest military base in Afghanistan.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Bagram's sprawling cargo yard, where Lt. Col. Dan Krall and 120 airmen from the 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron receive 200 pallets of supplies from as many as 50 incoming cargo planes every day. The unit also handles military personnel and contractors arriving from the United States -- up to 1,600 per day.

That number could increase, depending on Washington's response to a request by its commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. The report is said to contain multiple options, with a request for 40,000 additional troops most often cited.

Bagram's round-the-clock operation already has pushed Col. Krall's troops to the limit. Many of them are veterans of the Iraq war logistical effort.

Col. Krall said his troops struggle with a mounting backlog of supplies bound for combat units all over Afghanistan. Pentagon planners tend to "think in terms of mass volume without considering the physical realities on the ground," he said.

Such concerns have reached Washington. Last month, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reportedly ordered the deployment of 3,000 additional support troops to Afghanistan.

At present, aerial port workers cannot distribute pallets, via airplanes and helicopters, as fast they receive them. Deliveries to active combat zones often require the services of an Air Force C-130 like Col. Tony's. Incoming shipments, in contrast, often arrive on contracted civilian aircraft.

Col. Krall said the Air Force is building a new, larger cargo yard to accommodate the growing backlog. However, that won't solve the shortage of C-130s for onward deliveries.

Col. Krall said he wants the military to establish a new organization -- a so-called theater distribution center -- to smooth out the flow of supplies from the U.S.

Bagram's trauma hospital is also pursuing palliative measures. To house an estimated 3,500 patients per month and climbing, the hospital in July added a Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility. The facility, housed in a series of large tents, contains 25 beds for patients awaiting medical evacuation to U.S. and European hospitals aboard Air Force cargo planes.

The staging facility also has served as a temporary overflow ward for the main hospital. Recent battles have seen scores of injured troops and Afghan civilians flood the hospital's emergency room.

The staging facility's tents are deceiving. Inside, they're as comfortable as any permanent facility, thanks to a recent visit by the USO, the volunteer organization that arranges for recreation in war zones.

Within hours of a recent visit by USO officials, the organization began sending the staging facility thousands of dollars' worth of couches, televisions, DVD players and laptop computers for convalescing troops, according to Air Force Maj. Louis Gallo, the facility commander.

For now, the lavish tents apparently are the backup plan for further hospital expansions. Maj. Gallo said additional tents can be added to the existing four.

All over Bagram, construction crews work day and night to expand the base, adding new dormitories, new hangars and tarmacs for aircraft and other facilities. If Washington approves additional reinforcements, Bagram will have to grow even more -- and faster.