“Your homeland is like your mother. You can screw people here and there, that’s just business. But you never, ever screw your mother.” Pakistani Transporter Shakir Afridi
One of the biggest challenges of waging war anywhere is supply logistics to deployed troops. The supply challenge becomes even more formidable when the war theater is a landlocked country located thousands of miles away and involves transit through one or more other countries and international border crossings. The United States military has been facing such a challenge since it deployed in Afghanistan in 2001, and it's become only more difficult since the Obama troop surge in 2009 and worsening ties with Pakistan.
There are three different routes being used to supply US troops in Afghanistan: Pakistan Lines of Communication (PLC), Northern Distribution Network (NDN), and Airlift.
Pakistani Lines of Communication:
Pakistan routes are the fastest, shortest and least expensive way to supply US forces in Afghanistan.
The routes begin at the Karachi port in Pakistan. One goes north toward the logistical hub at Bagram Airfield, and the other west toward Kandahar. These have always been the primary option for American forces, being the shortest and cheapest, requiring only one border crossing, and minimal time on the road inside Afghanistan. Nearly 60,000 trucks drive more than 1,200 miles through the length of Pakistan every year carrying supplies and fuel. According to varying figures provided by U.S. and NATO forces, 40 percent to 60 percent of all military supplies used by coalition forces in Afghanistan come through Pakistan.
Figures released by the Pakistan Federal Tax Ombudsman illustrate the surge in traffic at Karachi’s port. U.S. military equipment received at the port rose from nearly 16,000 shipping containers in 2005 to more than 54,000 in 2009. Halfway through 2010 the U.S. military had already shipped nearly 30,000 containers to Karachi.
The spike in US supplies through Pakistan has spawned a huge trucking business controlled mostly by Pashtuns from FATA, also known as Pathans, like Shakir Afridi who is quoted at the beginning of this post. His own fleet has grown from a few vehicles in 2001 to nearly 4,000 flatbeds and more than 3,000 fuel tankers that haul military supplies into Afghanistan. His quote is indicative of the depth of anger shared by most Pakistanis at the slaughter of 24 Pakistani soldiers by the US troops last November.
Northern Distribution Network:
The NDN route is longer, slower, and six times more expensive than the PLC route through Pakistan. It involves multiple modes of transport through several countries in Europe and Central Asia. Many are under strong Russian influence, and some do not allow military gear to be transported through their territory, according to a Businessweek report.
A network through Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia that crosses through at least 16 countries, using a combination of roads, railway, air, and water to move supplies in from the north. The chain can be complex and circuitous. One path through the network, for example, might involve military cargo that arrives by sea in Istanbul. From there it travels the width of Turkey on truck and crosses the northern border into Poti, Georgia. In Georgia the equipment goes by rail to Baku in Azerbaijan, where it’s loaded onto a ship bound for the Kazakh Port of Aktau, across the Caspian Sea. Then it’s put on trucks for the 1,000-mile ride through Kazakhstan, then a train through Kyrgyzstan and, finally, into Afghanistan.
This is the most expensive option and it, too, relies heavily on Pakistan's cooperation. US Air Force carriers are already airlifting supplies to Afghanistan, but their use, at this stage, is “imperceptible” given the $14,000-per-ton cost of moving goods this way, according to a US government source. Most of these flights are routed through Pakistani airspace. If the relations get worse, the Pakistanis could shut the air-link to the US military.
“If you look at the trajectory, it’s clear which way the [US-Pakistan] relationship is going. It will be difficult to overcome yet another serious problem. The policy implication is that we need to diversify [transit routes] as much as we can and as quickly as we can. That’s what the US government has been all about recently,” an unnamed US government official told Deirdre Tynan of Eurasianet.
“But the real question is whether the NDN can fully compensate for what’s happened in Pakistan. We have a good NDN, but we also have Central Asian roads that are not the best,” he added. The NDN’s rail component is expected to pick up most of the extra freight volume.
Regardless of the rhetoric emanating from Washington, the fact is that the US is very likely to remain heavily dependent on Pakistan for the foreseeable future.
At a congressional hearing this year before the border incident of Nov 26, Lieutenant General Mitchell H. Stevenson, the U.S. Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, was asked what the “long term impact” would be if the supply route through Pakistan was “suddenly shut down.” After explaining that the Army kept a 45-day supply of reserve fuel on the ground in Afghanistan, the general said they could only “last several weeks” without any significant impact.
Pakistan has the longest border with Afghanistan and wields more influence there than any other country. It also provides the nearest seaport to Kabul. That is the fundamental reason why the U.S. has provided more than $20 billion to the country over the past decade, much of it to ensure supply logistics to US troops. “If we want to be successful in Afghanistan,” as General James L. Jones Jr., former National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama, said in recent congressional testimony, “the roads to that success have a lot to do with Pakistan.” Given these ground realities, the sooner the US apologizes to Pakistan for the Nov 26 incident to try and restore ties, the better it will be to achieve an end to the longest war in US history.
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