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Bundles of fuel float to a U.S. forward operating base in Afghanistan / U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)

How isolated are some U.S. posts deeps in the nooks and crannies of Afghanistan? So isolated that they’ve been supplied totally by air — for years. Over two recent days, three huge C-17 aircraft parachuted in 120 bundles of fuel to keep Forward Operating Base Waza K’wah in the Paktika province of Afghanistan up and running. It was the largest fuel airdrop into Afghanistan ever.

Without a steady air-delivered flow of fuel to the post, motorized security patrols come to a stop. When bad weather — common in the Afghan winter — strikes, commanders have to ration fuel carefully. Security patrols are curbed, or halted. Communications, heat and hot chow — a vital morale-booster — are reduced or eliminated. “If our fuel tanks go empty, we have to completely shut down,” the lieutenant colonel in charge reports. “Our guys would be blind and they’d become sitting ducks for the enemy.”

This is not a leading indicator of good news.

Napoleon liked to say “an army marches on its stomach.” But in the wilds of Afghanistan, even a well-fed army can’t do much without fuel.

Reports the Air Force:

Due to poor to non-existent roadway infrastructure, and the high risk of enemy activity, Wasa K’wah has not had a convoy ground resupply in nearly three years.

“It would take a week to clear the route and then we would have to close it because we don’t have enough security to keep it open on the return trip,” said Col. Sean Jenkins, the 4th Brigade commander, Task Force Currahee. “With air drops, it’s an immediate turnaround — something our soldiers need out here.”

Air drops have become so essential that when weather or other complications keep the planes at bay, the FOB leaders have to prioritize what capabilities they can sustain. It literally becomes a question over whether or not the people here get heat, hot chow or working communications.

“Without this resupply, we can’t run our vehicles, we have no (security force) patrols, we can’t communicate,” Colonel Preston said. “Fuel is critical to our survival, and these air drops make it possible to sustain the mission.”

Guys on the ground love the Air Force when it is their sole link to the outside world. “Send more aircraft,” Lt. Col. Davis Preston said. “There’s no limit to what our guys need out here.”

But there may be a limit to how much we can afford to ship in. Pentagon bookkeepers don’t buy fuel like you and me by driving to our local gas station. The forward operating bases don’t travel to the service station — the fuel has to come to them. This leads to what they call the FBCF, for the Fully Burdened Cost of Fuel. According to the Pentagon, that’s “the cost of the fuel itself (typically the Defense Energy Support Center (DESC) standard price), plus the apportioned cost of all of the fuel delivery logistics and related force protection required beyond the DESC point of sale to ensure refueling of this system.” It works out, in extreme cases like this, to as much as $400 a gallon.