U.S. military alters supply routes to avoid Pakistan


The United States has established several new transit corridors to deliver non-lethal goods to its forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan had previously been the main transit point for all types of supplies, but the increasingly fragile security situation along its border with Afghanistan convinced the US authorities of the need to establish alternative routes. A major component of this strategy is the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a series of rail, water and road links to deliver cargo to Afghanistan through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The network now handles about 30% of all ground supplies.

The NDN comprises a southern route – starting at the Georgian port of Poti, going over land to the port of Baku, Azerbaijan, then by ferry to Aqtau, Kazakhstan, and on through Uzbekistan to Afghanistan – and a more heavily used northern route, traversing Latvia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. A spur of the northern route bypasses Uzbekistan and runs from Kazakhstan via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but is hampered by bad roads in Tajikistan. Moving supplies via the northern rail route costs approximately 10% of the cost of movement by air.

The US military is keen to have a diverse range of supply routes so as to avoid dependency on any particular one. For example, if it were to secure a transit agreement with Turkmenistan, the port of Turkmenbashi could be an additional destination for goods leaving Baku by ferry. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Baku in June 2010 to strengthen ties with Azerbaijan and discussed ways to diversify routes. Washington is also exploring the idea of expanding the NDN eastwards by adding a Chinese branch, originating in China’s Pacific ports and travelling via road and rail to Afghanistan.

Diversifying supplies

The 2,000km-long Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication (PAKGLOC) have so far been the principal supply route for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Goods are transported from the port city of Karachi to Afghanistan by two main supply arteries through Pakistan. One cuts through the Khyber Pass, west of Peshawar; the other crosses the border further south at Chaman, near the city of Quetta.

However, cargo making the ten-day journey was notoriously vulnerable to attack by Taliban militants, particularly on the Khyber Pass, which traverses the restive tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. On 18 November 2008, the Taliban conducted a raid on 23 commercial trucks delivering NATO supplies in the Khyber tribal area and on 7 December 2008, insurgents launched the single biggest assault on US supplies in seven years, destroying 160 trucks at two Pakistani terminals near Peshawar. In December 2008, 12% of Afghanistan-bound freight crossing Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province en route to the Khyber Pass disappeared, most of it in flames, according to Vice Admiral Mark Harnitchek, deputy commander of the US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM).

In 2008, security concerns spurred efforts to find alternative routes. US Central Command (CENTCOM) sanctioned the US Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to send a series of trial shipments from Europe to Afghanistan using prime vendors – suppliers with long-term contracts for goods such as food, spare parts and building supplies – to test the viability of northern routes. On 16 September 2008, one company agreed to move ten shipping containers filled with sheets of plywood from Germany to Afghanistan. Regular deliveries using the NDN began in May 2009 at a rate of seven containers per day. By August 2009, the number had increased to 1,000 containers per month, and by January 2010 the rate was approximately 1,640. Apart from fuel, goods most commonly dispatched included cement, lumber, blast barriers, septic tanks and rubberised matting.

According to General Duncan McNabb, head of TRANSCOM, 80% of supplies bound for Afghanistan previously flowed through the port of Karachi and on through Pakistan, but this has fallen to about 50% since the opening of the NDN. Of the total cargo heading to US forces in Afghanistan, 30% goes via the NDN and 20% by air. Of all non-lethal cargo delivered by surface transport, about 50% transits the NDN and 50% via Pakistan. However, such is the volume of supplies that Peshawar has seen the shipments it handles more than double in 2010. The monthly average through PAKGLOC is still 4,200 containers, compared with 1,457 through the NDN. Meanwhile, the situation along the Pakistani routes remains unstable. This year on 9 June, Taliban gunmen destroyed 50 trucks carrying supplies for ISAF near the capital Islamabad.
The NDN has also become a key component of ISAF’s fuel-supply infrastructure. During 2009, its daily fuel consumption increased from 2 million to 4.1m litres per day, meaning that more fuel had to be imported via Afghanistan’s northern borders. According to the DLA, approximately 40% of the fuel contracted by the US Defense Energy Support Center is produced in Pakistani refineries and transported via truck into Afghanistan, while the fuel that it acquires from Central Asia (in particular Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan) accounts for approximately 60% of the overall contracted volumes and is shipped via the NDN.

NATO has also begun using the NDN. The first trial shipment of NATO cargo, consisting of 27 containers of construction materials and food supplies, departed from Riga, Latvia, in May 2010. Russia had offered transit to NATO at the Alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit, but it was not until 2009 that NATO began negotiating transit rights with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and these talks took almost a year to complete. Plans are under way for further shipments, subject to the demands of ISAF troop-contributing countries. Demand is likely to increase in light of a June 2010 attack on NATO trucks in Pakistan.

Diplomatic contacts

The larger US military footprint in Afghanistan has required greater diplomatic engagement with Central Asian states. In 2009 Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan each reached agreements with Washington on over-land transit of supplies to Afghanistan. Georgia had given permission for over-land supplies in 2005, Azerbaijan in March 2009 and Russia in July 2009 as part of the ‘resetting’ of the US–Russia relationship. US President Barack Obama’s administration has also worked with countries involved in the NDN to secure overflight rights for military equipment and personnel: agreements were reached with Russia and Kazakhstan in July 2009 and April 2010 respectively.

In December 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, then ISAF commander, said: ‘ISAF’s Northern Distribution Network and logistical hubs are dependent upon support from Russian and Central Asian states, giving them the potential to act as either spoilers or positive influences’. McChrystal’s statement pointed not only to the reliance of the US on Central Asian countries in managing the NDN, but also to the risk of over-reliance on them. Recent political upheavals in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan’s decision in 2005 to close down the US air base at Karshi-Khanabad underline the risks involved.

Russia has long been concerned about the US military presence in Central Asia, but the NDN could change the dynamic of US–Russian diplomacy in the region. The political troubles in April 2010 in Kyrgyzstan showed cooperation between Russia and the US, and the NDN presents a further opportunity for cooperative interaction. At an April 2010 summit in Prague, US and Russian officials declared their willingness to pursue cooperation to avert a new round of skirmishes over the US air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, as occurred in 2009 when Russia put pressure on Kyrgyz authorities to terminate the US lease. Moscow and Washington had also agreed on the use of Russian airspace by US forces using Manas.

Supply challenges

There are a number of major challenges affecting the development of the NDN, especially in light of the fact that demand for its use is projected to increase from 25,000 to 40,000 tonnes per month over the next two years. It relies on poor infrastructure, both along its routes and within Afghanistan, which only has two short railway lines across its northern borders with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. David Sedney, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia has drawn attention to Afghanistan’s poor road links, saying that despite recent construction efforts, ‘the lack of effective entry points [is a] huge limiting factor … in our ability to deliver supplies throughout Afghanistan’.

DLA Director Vice Admiral Alan Thompson noted in March 2010: ‘one issue we’re working on is a time delay at the border with Uzbekistan that was more than 30 days … We’re closer to 20 days now, but we still need to reduce it further.’ To address this bottleneck, the Asian Development Bank is financing a $165m project to build a railway line from the Afghan border town of Hairatan to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, 75km away, expected to be completed by November 2010. The existing line, which runs only 10km from the Uzbek border town of Termez to Hairatan, where the freight terminal serves as a gateway to Afghanistan, has reached its handling capacity of 4,000 tonnes of cargo per month. Until upgrades are completed, this border crossing is likely to remain a choke point. Meanwhile, railway experts have questioned whether the existing rail route through Uzbekistan is capable of handling the amount of traffic envisioned by the US military and its allies.

Beyond infrastructural problems, the NDN inevitably poses political challenges. Some US military strategists fear that as the volume of cargo delivered along the NDN increases, so too will the risk of exporting Afghanistan’s problems into Central Asia. They suggest that bringing Central Asia into the theatre of war could lead to an increased threat of attack by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union, groups that have a loyal following in the restive Fergana valley, which stretches through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In September 2009, two tankers from Tajikistan delivering fuel to ISAF were hijacked by Taliban insurgents in Kunduz Province in Afghanistan, which borders Tajikistan. After the hijacked trucks stalled while crossing the Kunduz River, German forces called in a US air strike, resulting in dozens of civilian and insurgent casualties. In recent months, there have been several battles between Taliban insurgents in Kunduz Province and US, NATO and Afghan government forces. In January 2010, there was fighting in a small town in Kunduz Province just a few miles from the Tajik border, amid evidence of growing insurgency in the province.  

Nevertheless, the NDN is seen as providing benefits both for ISAF and the region. It encourages Central Asian states to cooperate with each other and is helping to accelerate the development of an integrated regional infrastructure. The network has given much-needed impetus to NATO–Russia and US–Russia cooperation with regard to Afghanistan. It has increased the strategic role of Central Asian states and given them an opportunity to help promote stability in Afghanistan.

Volume of containers delivered along the Northern Distribution Network

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