U.S. troops may not find their favorite brand of cookies or shaving cream in base stores in Afghanistan, as exchange service officials adjust their stock assortment after Pakistan closed its border crossings in November.
“Before the border closed, we had a wider assortment,” said Debbie Zarsk, head of planning, allocation and replenishment in the consumables division of Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES).
AAFES also handles supplies for Marine Corps Exchange facilities operated in Afghanistan.
“Availability, shelf life and ease of shipping product has affected the assortment,” Zarsk said.
Pakistan closed its borders in a dispute with the U.S. over an allied airstrike on two border outposts that killed at least 24 Pakistani troops.
Before the border closed, it took 70 to 75 days to get merchandise to Afghanistan; now it takes 95 to 105 days, she said. Officials are trying to use air transportation as much as possible, as well as the “northern distribution network,” a much longer route that runs through Baltic and Caspian seaports, then through Russia to Afghanistan.
To compensate, AAFES has focused on consistently offering a variety of necessary categories of merchandise, while limiting the variety within each category — “more depth than width,” Zarsk said.
How much variety is too much depends on the product, she said. For example, energy drinks are consistently among the top sellers throughout Afghanistan, so 10 different energy drinks is not too much. But 10 different shaving creams “would be too much at this point,” she said.
“The focus is to meet the need, provide some choice and stay stocked on those items,” she said.
The impending drawdown in Afghanistan is further reason to streamline, she said.
AAFES has added some items within categories — for example, more types and sizes of jeans and underwear, such as women’s Levi’s jeans, work boots, running shoes, T-shirts and fleeces.
In deciding what to order, AAFES looks at sales history to peg the top sellers. Employees in Afghanistan also offer feedback.
“We talk weekly and ask for a lot of input,” Zarsk said.
AAFES also has adjusted for seasonal products because of the extra lead time required. Store orders for blankets in the fall are already in, for example.
Mail transit time has not been affected by the limitation on the supply routes, Military Postal Service Agency officials said, because mail is flown in by commercial carrier.
The average transit time from the U.S. to each of the seven air stops in Afghanistan is five to seven days for both letters and parcels, about average for this time last year.
Information was not available from the Defense Logistics Agency by press time on whether the logistics changes have caused adjustments in their ordering patterns for troop staples.
However, Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, said May 23 that the Pakistan border closings had not affected supplies and that food, fuel and ammunition stocks are higher than they were when the border closed.
He did note that moving supplies through the northern distribution network costs about twice as much as using the Pakistan border crossings.