KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Facing a tight withdrawal deadline and tough terrain, the U.S. military has destroyed more than 170 million pounds of vehicles and other equipment as it rushes to wind down its role in the Afghanistan War by the end of 2014.
The massive disposal effort, which military officials call unprecedented, has unfolded largely out of sight amid an ongoing debate inside the Pentagon about what to do with the heaps of equipment that won't be returning home. Included in the destruction are thousands of Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, the hulking beige personnel carriers that cost about $1 million each that the Pentagon raced to build starting in 2007 to counter the threat of roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Overall, military planners have determined that more than $7 billion worth of equipment -- about 20 percent of what the United States military has in Afghanistan -- will not be shipped back, because it is no longer needed or would be too costly to send home.
That has left the Pentagon in a quandary about what to do with the items. Bequeathing a large share to the Afghan government would be challenging because of complicated rules governing war materiel donations to other countries. Also, there is concern that Afghanistan's fledgling forces would be unable to maintain it. Some gear may be sold or donated to other allied nations, but few of them are likely to be able to retrieve it from the war zone.
So instead, much of it will continue to be shredded, cut and crushed to be sold for pennies per pound on the Afghan scrap market -- a process that reflects a presumptive end to an era of protracted ground wars.
The destruction of tons of equipment is all but certain to raise sharp questions in Afghanistan and the United States about whether the Pentagon's approach is fiscally responsible and whether it should find ways to leave a greater share to the Afghans.
The most contentious and closely watched part of the effort involves the disposal of Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, or MRAPs.
The Pentagon has determined that it will no longer have use for about 12,300 of its 25,500 MRAPs scattered at bases worldwide, officials said. In Afghanistan, the military has labeled about 2,000 of its roughly 11,000 MRAPs as "excess."
About 9,000 will be shipped to the United States and U.S. military bases in Kuwait and elsewhere, but most of the excess will probably be shredded, officials said, because they are unlikely to find clients willing to come pick them up.
"MRAPs have served us well in the current war, but we will not need all that we bought for Iraq and Afghanistan in the future," Alan Estevez, the assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, said in a statement. "It is cost-prohibitive to . . . [leave with] and reset MRAPs that we do not need for the future."
Those MRAPs that the Pentagon has deemed unnecessary have been arriving by the dozen at scrap yards at four U.S. military bases in Afghanistan in recent months.
Toiling under the searing sun last week at Kandahar Airfield in the country's south, contract workers from Nepal and other countries in the region wore fireproof suits and masks as they used special blowtorches to dismantle vehicles built to withstand deadly blasts. It takes about 12 hours to tear apart each MRAP.
In another section of the scrap yard, a massive grinder gobbled slabs of steel, turning them into small scraps.
Military officials have drawn little attention to the scrapping operations, mindful that the endeavor might appear wasteful in an era of shrinking military budgets.