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27 May 2009

Second-Chance Logistics

Map showing Afghanistan and Pakistan, courtesy of Phil Brown/flickr
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Pakistan and environs - most dangerous in the world?

As Pakistani options worsen, Washington develops a northern supply route for troops in Afghanistan, John CK Daly writes for ISN Security Watch.

By John CK Daly for ISN

While the Obama administration pledges to increase troops for Afghanistan two-fold by the year’s end, a collateral issue that Washington has been scrambling to address is the security of logistics supplying US and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in the conflict zone, as the situation in neighboring Pakistan, the main supply corridor, continues to worsen.

The last several months have seen intensive discussions between Washington and several former Soviet republics to open a northern distribution network (NDN) supply corridor to supplement the Pakistani overland routes.

The NDN is badly needed. While military goods continue to be primarily air freighted into Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s main logistical pipeline has roughly three-quarters of US troop supplies running either through or over Pakistan. For ground transport, supplies are shipped into Karachi and offloaded onto trucks for the 850-mile (1,360 kilometers) journey to one of five crossing points on the Afghan border - the major points being Torkham at the Khyber Pass and Chaman in Baluchistan, both of which have seen rising militant attacks in the past year.

The Torkham crossing is the shortest route to Kabul and Bagram Air Base, the largest US base in Afghanistan. Pakistani subcontractors engage approximately 4,000 drivers, who daily ferry about 150 truckloads of supplies to Afghanistan.

Late last year, the Taliban and other insurgent groups stepped up attacks on supply depots and convoys, stealing and destroying vital NATO equipment. In one week in December, militants torched and destroyed 300 supply-laden trucks and military vehicles parked in a Torkham depot. The upsurge in violence coincided with the militant Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami announcing that it would not allow NATO to use the Karachi-Khyber Pass route after mid-December, while Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud simultaneously vowed that ISAF military convoys would no longer be allowed to travel unhindered to Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s rising violence spurred Pentagon and NATO planners to seek alternative re-supply routes traversing Russia and Central Asian nations bordering Afghanistan. Adding urgency to the search for alternative routes, on 20 February the Kyrgyz government informed Washington of its decision to abrogate its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which allowed US and NATO forces to use its Manas airbase. Each month, around 15,000 troops and 500 tonnes of cargo move through the base.

Geopolitical setbacks

US forces had been using Manas under the joint Kyrgyz-US SOFA agreement since 4 December 2001, but many issues in the intervening years soured the Kyrgyz government on the arrangement, including disputes over rent, environmental concerns and the killing of a Kyrgyz citizen by US guards at the base.

The loss of Manas is the second setback for US air capabilities in Central Asia. Even earlier the Pentagon established a presence at Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airfield in Qashqadaryo province, 96 kilometers from Afghanistan, more than a month before it entered Manas. Following diplomatic disputes later echoed in US-Kyrgyz relations and Washington's criticism of Tashkent’s policies after the May 2005 Andijan tragedy, Uzbekistan abrogated its SOFA agreement with Washington and US forces left K2 six months later.

Interestingly, during a press conference in Bishkek on 19 January, US CENTCOM commander General David H Petraeus told journalists that Manas had not been discussed during his meetings with the Kyrgyz government. Petraeus commented about Manas: “It's also an important base for refueling aircraft, and I discussed how it fits into the overall logistics structure that is important to supporting the forces in Afghanistan from the north, as part of what we call the northern distribution network, which supplements the main line of communication, of logistical re-supply, that runs through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass.”

The general’s stopover in Kyrgyzstan was part of a larger Central Asian tour, which also saw him visit Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. His efforts and State Department initiatives resulted in transit agreements with the “Stans,” which were put to the test the following month.

On 20 February, the first NDN shipment of 100 20-foot containers destined for ISAF forces departed Riga on its month-long, 5,169-kilometer journey to Termez, Uzbekistan on the Afghan border. Success would mean 20-30 trainloads per week eventually, according to the US Embassy in Riga.

Speaking to a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing on 17 March, US Transportation Command head General Duncan McNabb said that 738 containers shipped through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan had reached Afghanistan, with 90 containers delivered to Kabul, adding that the Pentagon planned to ship about 100 containers per day to Afghanistan via the NDN.

At McNabb’s rate of re-supply the NDN functions at about two-thirds the capacity of shipments through Pakistan. Three factors will impact the route’s future viability and possible expansion: increased troop deployments; the success or failure of the Pakistani military’s Swat Valley offensive; and the number of US Predator UAV attacks against al-Qaida and Taliban targets across the Durand Line into northwestern Pakistan’s restive tribal areas.

If Pakistani insurgents in response shift their attacks to “softer” targets such as civilian contractor re-supply convoys, US and ISAF forces may find it necessary to rapidly increase their NDN shipments – an option that may not be immediately possible.

During a 7 May presentation at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of the NDN: “What would be important is [...] that the capacity of the infrastructure is really ready to swallow more as the needs of ISAF and the coalition grow [...] and [...] involves some infrastructural improvements on the ground.”

Foreign policy lessons

While ISAF member nations will undoubtedly be asked to contribute financially to “some infrastructural improvements on the ground” along the NDN route, Washington in particular could learn some lessons from its Central Asian K2 and Manas foreign policy debacles.

Dr Fred Starr, chairman of the John Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute told ISN Security Watch: “Whatever specifics they may seek, the core concern of both the Kazakh and Uzbek governments is steadiness in their relations with the US. Both countries have had reason to complain on this score in the past.”

While all the Central Asian nations surrounding Afghanistan as well as Russia have no wish to see the Taliban and al-Qaida succeed, they are equally determined not to be dictated to by Washington as junior partners while being subjected to what Starr has labeled “dollar store diplomacy.” 

Accordingly, if Washington truly wishes the NDN to be an integral component of the Afghan campaign then it could do worse than to abandon the Bush-era diplomatic alpha male posturing while being prepared to pay realistic transit rates to its new Eurasian colleagues.

Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. He is also the chief analyst for


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