Hundreds of shipping containers filled with expensive and important military equipment used in the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar were stranded in Afghanistan for years and are only now finally finding their way back to military storehouses in Canada.

A February 2013 briefing note prepared for former defence minister Peter MacKay obtained by CBC News under access to information laws shows the military at one point had 441 sea containers of equipment stuck in Kandahar as a result of a decision by the government of Pakistan to shutter its border to convoys of NATO gear.

That's nearly a quarter of the 1,800 containers of equipment left in Kandahar following the conclusion of Canada's combat mission there in July 2011.

The documents show the military was able to get 67 containers of "high priority material" out of the country but debated how best to send the rest home.

At one point, with access to southern oceans through Pakistan blocked, the military was apparently willing to try an overland route through Europe.

That route was part of a NATO "Proof of Principle initiative" that would have seen about 200 Canadian containers shipped to a European port — likely Bremerhaven in Germany, though the location is redacted in the documents — over the course of a year before being shipped by sea to a military depot in Montréal.

Afghanistan

A Canadian armoured vehicle being loaded into a C-17 military transport aircraft at Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan, Sunday, July 17, 2011. (Rafiq Maqbool/The Associated Press)

It's not clear whether any containers made it out that way as another problem reared its head: As the months and years passed, the sea containers began to lose their seaworthiness certification, meaning even if Canada could get the roughly 375 containers to port, no commercial captain would load them.

"Commercial liner services will not accept uncertified sea containers as this would void the carrier's insurance and would contravene international convention," the briefing note says.

In the end, the government decided to deploy a team of 15 troops back to Kandahar airfield for 30 days to unpack the containers, inspect them, and re-certify them.

The documents estimate that mission cost about $750,000.

Col. Chuck Mathé, the director of logistics at Canadian Joint Operations Command, was responsible for dispatching those troops.  

Mathé says while on the ground the team also conducted a "triage" of the gear left behind and was able to winnow down the number of containers to 212 requiring repatriation. The more important equipment including military spare parts, tents and other gear, was repacked into containers, while the less important and less-costly equipment was either sold to allies in Kandahar, or demilitarized and destroyed.

By the time the team was dispatched last summer, the military had decided it could no longer wait for a ground option to open up.

'It was essentially a crapshoot.'- Col. Chuck Mathé

"It was essentially a crapshoot. You know you could throw dice and say, 'Is it going to be next month, or is it going to be eight months.' There was no light at the end of the tunnel," Mathé told CBC News.

"A decision was made that we were going to fly this stuff into another location in the Middle East and then put it on liner service and bring it home."

Mathé says the government contracted through NATO with two civilian contractors who flew the 212 containers of gear to ports in the United Arab Emirates where they were loaded aboard ships bound for Montréal.

The military refused to reveal the details of the costs involved in the more expensive airlift option. But, Mathé says a typical air lifter can carry between six and nine containers at a cost of between $300,000 and $650,000 per flight. Those numbers suggest the defence department paid between roughly $7 million and $22 million dollars to fly the 212 containers to the U.A.E., before having them loaded on ships to Canada.

Some gear still not back

Despite the cost and effort involved, not all of that gear is back in Canada, says Mathé.

One hundred and forty of the containers have made it to the military depot in Montréal, 29 are currently in transit at sea, and another 43 are still in the U.A.E.

Mathé says he expects the last of the gear to be back in Canada by March — almost three years after Canada finally finished its combat mission in Kandahar.

March is also the month Canada is expected to remove the last of its soldiers from Kabul where 1,000 troops had been deployed to help train Afghan security forces.

According to the briefing note, military leaders were aware the government might be concerned about the "inherent political sensitivities" of returning soldiers to Kandahar, but felt there was little other option.

Senior officers recommended the military not announce the return to Kandahar, but rather adopt a "passive communication strategy," with a focus on a cost-savings message: "That the [Canadian Forces] is taking the necessary steps to recover military materiel and equipment necessary for CF reconstitution and future operations in the most cost-effective manner possible."