ISLAMABAD: The US military may have another option for disposing of $7 billion worth of armored vehicles and other equipment it’s struggling to get rid of now that war in Afghanistan is ending.
Some of it could be driven across the border and handed over to Pakistan, part of an effort by the Pentagon to unload excess military supplies to US allies at no cost.
The discussions between American and Pakistani officials have been going on for months and center on leftover military hardware that the United States does not want to pay to ship or fly home.
Although no final decisions have been made, Pakistan is particularly interested in the US Army’s mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, which Pentagon officials say will have limited strategic value as US forces withdraw from Afghanistan this year.
But with Pakistan’s military expected to be battling Taleban insurgents for years, the MRAPs could help Pakistani forces slow their high causality rate of more than 20,000 dead or injured troops since 2001.
“We will not take it for the sake of just taking it, and we will not take it because it’s free,” said one senior Pakistani military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations. “We will take it because we need it.”
About 150,000 Pakistani soldiers are along the country’s border with Afghanistan, and US officials are counting on them to help keep the pressure on militant groups after 2014.
But Pakistan’s troops remain vulnerable to roadside bombs and explosive devices, and their armored vehicles can withstand far less force than a US-made MRAP, officials said.
The United States had been a major weapons supplier to Pakistan for decades, but those sales slowed dramatically after the US military raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
Over the past year, the tension has eased, and leaders in both countries have stressed that they need to work together to together to try to ensure regional stability after the US-led coalition withdraws from Afghanistan.
Last fall, Secretary of State John Kerry signed a waiver authorizing US weapons sales to Pakistan through at least this year.
The backbone of the US military’s vehicle fleet in Afghanistan, MRAPs were designed to protect American troops from explosive devices.
But each MRAP weighs as much as 40 tons, and Pentagon leaders have said it would potentially cost more than $100,000 per vehicle to ship them back to United States. They also have qualms about leaving them in Afghanistan, noting that the stock is far larger than what the Afghan Army would be able to maintain.
The Washington Post reported in June that the US military was shredding hundreds of MRAPs for scrap metal, despite their initial cost of $400,000 to $700,000 each.
But Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, said the US military still has about 13,000 MRAPs scattered worldwide that remain in good working condition, including about 1,600 in Afghanistan.
The US government is offering them to allies for free on an “as-is, where-is” basis, Wright said. But the recipients, who would be vetted by the State Department, would be responsible for shipping them out of Afghanistan.
Twenty countries have expressed an interest, he added.
The Defense Department “is reviewing every request and is expediting the review process to support US retrograde timelines,” said Wright, noting that decisions must be made by the end of this year.
But Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford., commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that many countries ultimately decide that it’s neither cost-effective nor practical for them to pay to collect the MRAPs from Afghanistan.
“It’s very expensive for countries to take those vehicles from Afghanistan,” he said.
Pakistan, however, shares a 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan. Coalition forces also use Pakistani highways and ports to ship material into and out of landlocked Afghanistan.
In January, The New York Times reported that Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, also has been inquiring about receiving surplus US military hardware.