A Messy Afghan exit plan

Last week, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that NATO had inked a deal to move its equipment and vehicles out of Afghanistan via the so-called “Northern Distribution Network,” or NDN. NATO thinks this northern evacuation route gives them a way to wind down the war without having to rely on Pakistan. NATO is overselling this new deal. While the NDN certainly lessens the need for Pakistan, it is not a viable replacement for Pakistan’s supply routes.

For starters, this new deal in the north is for “non-lethal goods only.” While the precise definition varies, the term “non-lethal goods” usually applies to equipment and materials that are not weapons: armored Humvees are probably considered non-lethal and therefore can be shipped northward, but a rocket launcher or huge artillery cannon are clearly not permitted to transit Central Asia. It’s unclear what percentage of NATO’s equipment cannot leave because it is categorized as non-lethal.

Then there’s the issue of how it’s moving north. NATO says it will be relying on the same commercial logistics firms that currently use the NDN to move non-lethal supplies into Afghanistan. While this plan sounds good, those firms are often rife with corruption. Even when senior State Department officials are waxing optimistic about using Central Asia as a transit corridor, they express concern about the role corruption plays in these transactions. The U.S. Senate has even expressed concern in its legislation about the way the NDN will increase the risk of corruption in transit states.

Bookending the Central Asian states is Russia’s offer to host a major base for NATO’s withdrawal. While such an offer, again, sounds lovely, it’s fraught with challenges. On a basic level, the U.S. and Russia are in an increasingly heated argument over not just Syria, but ballistic missile defense in Europe and even NATO membership for eastern and some northern European countries. Russia-U.S. relations may be coming to a head over these disputes, and for at least the next two years or so, the U.S. will be dependent on Russia’s good will to evacuate its equipment through the northern route.

Finally, there’s cost and capacity. Gen. William Fraser, who commands the U.S. Transportation Command (which handles logistics for the military), told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February that the northern route simply does not have the capacity to handle the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Moreover, using the northern route costs up to six times as much as the normal southern routes through Pakistan.

Pakistan is, as ever, the key. Gen. Fraser thinks it is the key to withdrawing from Afghanistan. So does CENTCOM commander General James Mattis – and he alsosaid as much to the Senate Armed Services Committee this year. Pakistan closed down NATO’s supply routes after a border skirmish between U.S. and Pakistani forces resulted in 24 dead Pakistani soldiers. The U.S. has refused to apologize for the incident, and Pakistan has refused to admit that Pakistani troops were firing on a U.S. base inside Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the closure of the routes is costing billions.

There was hope that Pakistan’s last-minute invitation to this past May’s NATO Summit in Chicago would have been enough to get the supply lines open. But thatdidn’t happen.

So how will the evacuation from Afghanistan proceed? It will probably be messy. Despite the exorbitant cost and low capacity of the northern routes, the U.S. in particular will rely on them (plus airplanes, which are even more expensive) to remove as much equipment as they can.

The Central Asian states are reviled by human rights groups for their many abuses. Last year, a consortium of 19 rights groups begged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reject a waiver allowing the U.S. to collaborate more closely with Uzbekistan, one of the region’s worst offenders. Other states that will handle the transit, including Kazakhstan have backslid on almost every measure of political and human rights.

Working with the Central Asian states requires the U.S. to compromise its stance on human rights — but from the administration’s perspective that’s an acceptable cost to end the war in Afghanistan.

In a way, the difficulty of withdrawing from Afghanistan reflects the difficulty of fighting in Afghanistan: it is never straightforward, and it’s almost impossible to make progress without making often seemingly intolerable compromises.  Yet for American policymakers, there is a desperate need to end the combat phase of the war on time, by the end of 2014. And so, for now, the many problems inherent to using the NDN to drawdown from Afghanistan will be set aside for later.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project, where he focuses on asymmetric operations and national security strategy, as well as a columnist for The Atlantic.

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