At Afghan outposts, donkeys step in as US helicopters pull out


PECH VALLEY, Afghanistan

Before US forces arrived here in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the instruments of war were rudimentary things: mud-brick outposts and aging Kalashnikovs.

The American invasion brought with it a shiny arsenal of 21st-century technology, including advanced helicopters to navigate the treacherous landscape.

But as the U.S. military drawdown continues, the sky is emptying of the foreign aircraft that have kept remote outposts stocked with food, water and weaponry. Afghan troops are being handed the outposts, but not the sleek helicopters that have soared overhead, delivering supplies.

Afghans searching for a substitute have found an ancient solution: the plodding, dutiful animals that have navigated these high and frigid mountain passes for centuries.

"Donkeys are the Afghan helicopter," said Col. Abdul Nasseeri, an Afghan battalion commander here in Konar province.

Already, hundreds of donkeys are sustaining the bases that Americans built, fought to defend and, eventually, left. The shift underscores the vast gulf separating U.S. and Afghan forces, and the inevitable technological regression that will occur once American troops leave.

The hopeful take of U.S. officials is that this is the kind of "Afghan sustainable" approach that, though not ideal, will endure even as Western funding tapers off. But Afghan leaders aren't happy. After a decade of joint operations and exposure to cutting-edge technology, they want their military to look like the American one they have seen up close. U.S. officials say that is impractical and financially unrealistic.

The United States has spent more than $50 billion on Afghan security forces over the past decade, carrying one of the world's poorest armies into modernity. The money bought new vehicles and guns for the Afghan army.

But now, as U.S. troops leave the war against insurgents to Afghan soldiers and police, American officials are deciding which bases and resources will be handed over to Afghanistan's security forces, and which will be destroyed or shipped back to the United States. It's a contentious issue that Afghan commanders and their U.S. advisers discuss every day.

Afghans want night-vision goggles, which Americans have refused to buy. They want more heavy weaponry and equipment to detect explosives. American commanders say those requests are too costly and not essential to the mission.

More than anything, Afghan soldiers want helicopters. As of now, they have 31, a far cry from the vast fleet maintained by the U.S. forces. Without any assurance that the Americans will give them more, a frustrated President Hamid Karzai threatened to acquire aircraft from non-NATO countries.

With the U.S. choppers on their way out, the donkey trade has risen steadily. The animals, many of which have been redirected from farm labor to military duty, transport everything that soldiers need, from rice to ammunition.

Last week, when U.S. troops visited a mountain outpost manned by Afghan soldiers, they saw two Afghan teenagers leading four donkeys. Each animal carried 10 gallons of water. The key fighting position, the Americans learned, was sustained exclusively by donkey.

"You are the richest and most powerful country in the world. Of course you can afford helicopters. The best we can do is donkeys," said 16-year-old Qamuddin, one of the donkey handlers. Like many Afghans, he uses only one name. "Without donkeys, there would be no Afghan army."

But even a solution as seemingly simple and sustainable as donkey supply convoys has become subject to corruption and incompetence, an emblem of the logistical problems plaguing the Afghan army. Just as Afghans are preparing to inherit dozens of bases, all of which will require donkeys for daily or weekly rations, the funding to pay donkey contractors has disappeared. The Afghan army's relatively modern bureaucracy has proven incapable of acquiring even ancient tools.

Some contractors, mostly local farmers, haven't been paid for more than a year. In the volatile Pech Valley, where many key strategic outposts have for years been supplied by U.S. aircraft, Qamuddin said he has been waiting nine months for payment. He's thinking about quitting.

"We need more water!" Afghan Col. Ashraf yelled when Qamuddin arrived at the outpost with his donkeys last week.

"Well, then I need a new contract!" Qamuddin replied.

For their part, U.S. advisers have devoted much of their time to solving the problem of the unpaid donkey contractors — an unexpected puzzle for military leaders typically focused on the machinations of modern warfare.

"Who knew that the end of this war would boil down to donkey contracts?" said Lt. Col. Brandon Newton, commander of Task Force Lethal Warrior in Konar. "I wasn't trained for this."

Some American military advisers acknowledge the irony of being deployed to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan only to negotiate donkey contracts. But the "Donkey Problem," as it has become known in some U.S. military circles, has prompted much ire and urgency because a failure to solve it could result in a paralysis of operations at key outposts.

"If you lose the outposts, the Taliban have an open door to walk right in," said Sgt. Travis Washington, part of the U.S. military advisory team in Konar.

On some bases in the province, U.S. commanders have donated prepared meals to their Afghan counterparts so they can be sold and the proceeds used to pay donkey contractors. Others have allowed Afghans to open small stores on bases and use the profits to pay contractors.

But the systemic problem remains largely unaddressed: Somewhere between the Afghan Ministry of Defense and far-flung platoons, funding allocated for resupplying bases has vanished. Donkeys aren't the only part of the operation affected. Fuel, spare parts and weapons often don't make it to the troops.

A report released this month by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction highlighted the scale of the problem.

"The Afghan government will likely be incapable of fully sustaining ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] facilities after the transition in 2014 and the expected decrease in U.S. and coalition support," the report said. It cited "deficient budgeting, procurement, and supply systems."

Across Konar, donkey contractors say they are on the verge of abandoning their ties with the Afghan military.

"I suspect my money has come through, but a commander, soldier or senior officer is using it for his own business," said Ghiasuddin, a donkey owner in the province. Four of his donkeys have been killed on resupply missions — two by insurgent shellings and two after falling down a rock face.

The last American military unit with a permanent team of donkeys was based in Fort Carson, Colo., where Newton's battalion is stationed. But it was retired in 1956, even before the unit's senior officers were born.

"I wish I had the donkeys to give them, but I don't," Newton said. "This is something they're going to have to get right."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own