An Analysis of Logistic Support to the US and NATO in Afghanistan: Is Pakistan still relevant?

by Umar Hayat

“It’s OK for strategy to be conducted by amateurs, but logistics requires professionals.”

With the deployment of their forces in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, the US and NATO have been transporting large quantities of logistics goods to Afghanistan for sustenance of their troops and conduct of operations. Since Pakistan afforded an easy access to Afghanistan, therefore, it was an obvious and convenient choice for the US and NATO Forces to transit its military equipment, reconstruction material and logistic cargo to Afghanistan via Pakistan. The number of coalition troops in Afghanistan kept growing consistently since deployment in 2001and rose to around 1,00,000 (98,765 troops) in December 2009. On 1 December 2009, President Obama announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 US troops during 2010 and urged other partners to increase their troops by 10,000. Accordingly afresh inductions made total strength of troops over 130, 000 by end of 2011 with 50-70000 vehicles. For sustaining such a large force in the land locked Afghanistan, the US and NATO needed to import a wide range of materiel into Afghanistan; the bulk of which routed through the port of Karachi, Pakistan.

Pak-US relations experienced many ups and downs during the past decade resulting into destruction of cargoes and interruption of supplies many times.  Such hiccups while highlighted the vulnerability of the US and NATO Forces, also exhibited Pakistan’s leverage in smooth sustenance of the forces and their success in Afghanistan. The US planners, visualizing that total dependence on Pakistan may limit their strategic options and realizing that enhanced leverage of Pakistan for maintenance of their forces in Afghanistan could be employed unfavourably, started exploring alternate supply routes to Afghanistan as early as 2005. However, the efforts to formalize the alternate supply route gained momentum in 2008 as the trust deficit between the US and Pakistan grew manifold at that time. Resultantly US decided to open the northern supply routes captioned as Northern Distribution Network (NDN); a commercially based logistical corridor connecting Baltic and Black Sea ports with Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia. The US finalized accords with various Central Asian States during 2009 but she could convince the Russians in July 2010 for use of the supply route constructed by Soviets during 1980s for logistic support of their forces in Afghanistan.

With a plan in hand and alternative supply routes available, the US military had been reducing its reliance on PakGLOCs (Pakistan Ground Lines of Communications). In general terms, of all cargo destined for Afghanistan during 2009, about half used to pass through Pakistan, approximately 30 % through the NDN and 20 % by air. Since then the reliance on the NDN has been increasing and the volume of cargo kept growing through the north. Presently, roughly 85% of the fuel consumed by the US military in Afghanistan and 75% supplies are routed through Central Asia. The most obvious reason for such increased volumes on the NDN could be the closure of PakGLOCs for last seven months after Salala episode. While the arrangements made by the US and NATO for transportation of logistics show element of flexibility and avoids undue reliance on any one route or country, yet given the geography of the region, all of the supply routes into landlocked Afghanistan are difficult. A hostile Iran borders the west. The NDN passes through an underdeveloped infrastructure and politically unstable region which is strongly influenced by Russia and Pak GLOCs suffer from variety of problems too. In this contextual frame work, it is essential to analyze the efficacy of the NDN vis-a-vis PakGLOCs to determine the degree of Pakistan’s relevance for sustenance of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, execution of scheduled withdrawal by 2014 and for materialization of stakes of the major players in the region. This paper will only focus on the aspects which contribute towards either increasing or decreasing the relevance of Pakistan for sustaining the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Having taking cognizance of routes related aspects, analysis in relation to Pakistan’s leverage will be offered.

PakGLOCs (Pakistan Ground Lines of Communications)
In Pakistan there are mainly two corridors / routes which are used for transportation of all the categories of cargo moving to Afghanistan. Approximately, 60% of this volume goes to Kabul via the Peshawar / Torkham route and remaining 40% travels through Quetta / Chaman to Kandahar. An estimated 200 trucks crossed the border daily before blockade imposed by Pakistan after Salala episode on 26 November 2011. These shipments are handled entirely by commercial carriers and require no US / NATO military presence in Pakistan. Karachi-Torkham route is about 1948 kilometers long with the capacity of 100-125 containers per day. Cargos moving on this route take 6-9 days in Pakistan and 16 days till Kabul, Afghanistan. The Karachi-Chaman route is around 1110 kilometers with the capacity of 75-100 containers per day. It takes 5-7 days in Pakistan and 12 days till Kandahar on this route.

In the present logistic system, cargo moving to Afghanistan through Pakistan falls into three distinct categories of cargo being handled by various carrying agencies. First category is Afghan Transit Trade Goods (Commercial Cargo which is commonly called as ATT Goods). It is being handled exclusively by Pakistan Railways and NLC. The second category is Afghan Cargo (Non Commercial which pertains to humanitarian aid). It comprises of Reconstruction Cargo, Rehabilitation Cargo and Non-Governmental Organization’s Cargo i.e. NGO Goods. It constitutes 17% of the total cargo that moves to Afghanistan. It is also being handled by NLC through its registered Transport Contractors (Hired Mechanical Transport) Contractors. The third category is Coalition Forces (NATO / ISAF and Embassies Cargo). It constitutes 83% of the total cargo which is moving to Afghanistan through Pakistan. It is being moved by the Coalition Forces under their own arrangements through their civilian hired contractors who are mainly American and Western citizens. Responsibility for safe delivery inside Afghanistan also lies with these private contractors and they use their own dedicated ship liners. Transport and shipment of the cargo till arrival at Karachi Port is totally handled by these individuals. On arrival at Karachi, it is handled by Pakistani Contractors to whom it has been sublet.

Hazards for Pakistan in Provision of GLOCs to the US and NATO
While the necessity of using PakGLOCs make Pakistan one of the most important country in accomplishment of GWOT related designs of the US and NATO, there are gray areas as well causing complications and raising serious concerns to policy makers and populace both. The lack of monitoring system is one of the chief anxieties. About 40% cargo of NATO and token cargo of the US entering Pakistan through Port Qasim is being scanned by NLC; the cargo coming through Karachi Port (KPT) is not being scanned owing to any scanning facility. With the start of scanning at Port Qasim, arrival of High Cube Container (9.5 feet high) got increased. The scanning of same is not possible as it cannot pass through the installed scanners. Beside that no scanning and monitoring of cargo en-route is being done. Anti-state elements and foreign hands are exploiting this weakness to their advantage. Cargo transporters do not adhere to the designate routes and resort to deviations suiting their own convenience. This too jeopardizes the security arrangements and denies effective monitoring.  The problem is further compounded due to no defined mechanism for carrying out security check en-route. Strangely, despite laps of over 11 years, no single agency is made responsible to handle such an important issue. Also Pakistani agencies have no access of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) allowing visibility of about 90% cargo to US authorities only. No documentation of return cargo is another grey area allowing anti-state elements to execute their nefarious activities. The theft / pilferage en-route is one of the most serious hazards through which unauthorized cargo including weapons and ammunition can be spread on the Pakistani soil for any purpose. Even capability building for variety of nefarious activities is possible in the garb of looting / destruction. Possibility of developing monitoring or guiding capability against Pakistan’s strategic assets in this garb cannot be ruled out. Evaluation of the pattern, frequency and areas of looting and destruction will help to ascertain such postulations and designs.

The Northern Distribution Network (NDN)
In this section of paper the aspects related to the NDN will be examined for drawing comparison to PakGLOCs. Any military logistician since Alexander the Great could tell that landlocked Afghanistan is not an easily accessible destination. Given the growing insecurity of Pakistani supply routes, increasing demand for nonmilitary supplies and the exorbitant costs associated with a “Berlin airlift” to Afghanistan, the Unites States sought to create new logistical corridor. In 2008, Pentagon strategists, seeing an uptick in violence against their cargo and fuel trucks in Pakistan, began looking for an alternative route. What they came up with was the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). This change reflected a decision to demilitarize the character of the project and rely exclusively on commercial carriers transporting nonmetal goods.

The Northern Distribution Network or NDN traverses over 3,100 mile of seas, roads and rails of various countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Estonia and Russia. Via this network, supplies start their journey either in a Black Sea port in Georgia or the Baltic Sea port of Riga, Latvia or Estonia. The NDN faces realities like dictators regimes, fear of act of extremism, political sensitivity about the NATO missile shield, poor infrastructure, the constant loading and offloading of goods between ships, rail and trucks, etc. The NDN got operating with the first shipments made in March 2009. The NDN provided 35% of US supplies in April 2010, 50% in April 2011, and 55%-65% in July-September 2011. Currently, around 75% of all the goods transported by land including 85% of the fuel was being transported via the NDN.

The NDN involves three spurs. These are known as NDN North, South and KKT.

The NDN North
The Northern Spur brings supplies by ship to the Latvian port of Riga. From there, it uses existing Soviet-era rail line to traverse Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan and cargo enters Afghanistan from Uzbekistan at Termez. While this route avoids Pakistan, it is more expensive. In addition, it goes through Russia, which has its own national interests. This makes the US vulnerable to Russian policy demands.

The NDN South
The Southern Spur brings supplies by ship or rail to Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea, then by rail through Georgia and Azerbaijan, by ferry across the Caspian Sea and by rail again through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The port of Turkmenistan could be an additional destination for goods leaving Baku by ferry. This route avoids both Pakistan and Russia. But it is complex, transiting several countries and requires offloading to several different transportation modes along the way. Consequently, it is the most expensive route and has limited capacity.

The KKT (Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan)
The KKT route includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. KKT provides a backup to the Uzbek border crossing Termez. According to the US TRANSCOM (Transport Command), this route has some bad stretches of road in Tajikistan that limit throughput.

Challenges to the US and NATO for Operating the NDN  
The NDN remains subject to a range of geopolitical dangers and logistical inefficiencies. Following aspects make the prospective doomed:

Long Traveling Timings
On the NDN, the supplies travel through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, ultimately terminating at the US supply bases in Afghanistan. Multiple mode changes are necessary. Rail-gauge incompatibilities eliminated potential routes through the NATO partner nations of Poland and the Czech Republic causing further delays. On average, from the time an order is placed to the time of delivery, it takes on average about 75 days transit time from Germany to Afghanistan.

Increased use of the NDN could draw the attention of militants leading to the same type of attacks on fuel tankers that have been seen in Pakistan.  Cargo and oil tanks remain stuck up on the Uzbek side of the border for weeks before passing into Afghanistan. Taliban strikes in the region against such targets could not be deemed “beyond the realm of possibility”. Some US military strategists fear 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 Fergana valley which stretches through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Chocking Effect due to bottleneck of Salang Tunnel
The way in and out from Afghan is through treacherous Salang Tunnel which was built by the Soviets. It travels 11,000 feet up the Hindu Kush Mountains. Years of war, neglect and geology have turned it into a dangerous bottleneck. Pavements have been deteriorated into extremely rough, bumpy, dirt and in some places, mud road. The tunnel is barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic and the uneven road surface means trucks often tilt over at precarious angles. Even though the tunnel is only 1.6 miles long, a drive through it takes unusual time because it’s jammed with massive trucks inching along the cratered road. At times dust gets so thick that one could barely see five feet in front. Lines of trucks waiting to pass through the tunnel often stretch up to 10 miles on either side which would further pile up during the withdrawal phase. In such a scenario, one can realize the fragile security environment at the time of withdrawal with the level of support to the US and NATO almost diminished.

Capacity and Cost
The chief disadvantage to relying solely on the NDN is that there is a limit to how much it can carry and how quickly. The number of TEU / containers could be expanded to 500 per week, if needed and 24,000 TEUs per year could be transported while operating at the maximum capacity of the NDN, but it would be at a cost of 250% more per TEU than supplies moving along PakGLOCs. Each container coming through the NDN to Afghanistan costs $14,000. AS per some estimates, it is $17,500. As the deadline of 2014 looms, cost will go through the roof. Already deals for bases in the CARs are being renegotiated way up, upwards. About 40 to 45% of the NDN comprises sea routes, while the rest is covered through rail and road networks. The Pakistani route, on the contrary, costs $7,000, since 80 to 85% of the distance is via sea while the rest is through road. Even after paying $5,000 per container to Pakistan, the cost of shipping supplies through Pakistani territory will be less than that incurred using the NDN and will take less time. Purely from logistical standpoint, the NDN appears to be a resounding achievement having provided an alternative; making the US and NATO free of one single route and country, yet it cannot diminish the necessity of PakGLOCs altogether for a prolonged period.

Poor Infrastructure
It relies on poor infrastructure, both along its routes and within Afghanistan, which only has two short railway lines across its northern border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Despite recent construction efforts, the lack of effective entry points and Afghanistan’s poor road links are huge limiting factors to deliver supplies throughout Afghanistan via the NDN.

Time Delay at Borders
Transportation of cargo through the NDN involve border crossing of 9 countries which results into undesired delays owing to variety of law and inadequate custom clearance system. For instance DLA Director Vice Admiral Alam 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”. 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.

The Russia Factor
For Russians it is a dilemma no less complicated than for the Americans. Besides the diplomatic issues, Russia which is the main player in the Central Asian region sees NATO at its front door in the Baltic countries; it’s backdoor in Afghanistan and in its basement in the other “stans” in Central Asia. On the other hand, Russia would never like all NATO equipment falling into the hands of the Taliban or other extremist groups. She would prefer that NATO wipe out the Taliban before getting out, otherwise, the Russians see themselves worrying about Afghanistan again. Moreover, the US determination to extend its military presence in the region after 2014, which Moscow categorically opposes, will be of key importance.

Geopolitical Schisms
Although logistically viable routes through China and Iran exist for diversifying supply lines into Afghanistan, they have not been explored for geopolitical reasons illustrating that such political rifts are one of the biggest obstacles to the easy flow of logistics from routes other than PakGLOCs and the NDN. Moreover, marred relations among countries housing the NDN in the region would remain a challenge of regular nature.

Multinational Regulations
Working with various jurisdictions involved for making sure the shipments comply with each country’s rules and requirements for timely delivery; else undesired delays would be a frequent feature.

Competing Stakes of Major Players in the Central Asia
Since 2001, the OEF and ISAF missions together with the cooperation between the countries in Central Asia and the coalition have radically changed the region and strengthened the individual states. The logistical role for the mission in Afghanistan has resulted in a notable influx of funds to CARs which has significantly strengthened the region’s countries vis-à-vis Russia. They have gained importance and political independence and broken Russia’s monopoly on shaping the regional security situation. During the next two years greater efforts will be made to make maximum use of available political and economic opportunities. While the withdrawal of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan is expected to increase the level of instability in the region and change the relationship between Russia, China and the USA, it is also likely to cause thorough revision of the geopolitical balance of power in the region. It is expected that the US and countries in the region themselves will remain interested in maintaining or strengthening a US military presence in the region. Russia and China which are emphasizing for coordination of their policies towards Afghanistan beyond 2014, will strongly oppose the US military presence in the region. Such processes will also significantly affect the functioning of the NDN and encourage its exploitation for use in political manoeuvring.

 Analysis: Pakistan’s relevance will not diminish  
While all are preparing for the new cold war which the US along with her allies intends to initiate against China and Russia, Pakistan would become a special arena for competing and conflicting stakes of major players in the new geo-political scenario emerging rapidly in the world, focusing on Afghanistan. Disagreements exist between the US and China over Taiwan and Pacific issues. Russia opposes the US intentions to deploy national missile defence system (NMD) in Europe and expansion of NATO towards Eastern Europe. Both Russia and China exhibited consonance in their policy against the US on many issues: they vetoed the UN Security Council resolution calling the Syrian president to quit, opposed the US-led NATO attack on Libya and urged the US to resolve the Iran’s nuclear issue peacefully. Pakistan, after reassessing her engagement with the US in the aftermath of incidents like      2 May and 26 November 2011, besides China, has also established relationship with the Russia. In this backdrop, some of the aspects which will keep Pakistan relevant to the US and NATO for sustenance of their forces in Afghanistan, during the withdrawal phase and for stable Afghanistan beyond 2014 are explored in the ensuing paragraphs.

Historical context
While Soviets could not rely on timely supply support from home depots in 1980s due to geographical and terrain related difficulties only with no multinational political issues to be managed, how can the US and NATO totally rely on the NDN especially when seen vis-à-vis additional hiccups of political diversity and other factors highlighted above.

The cargo losses in Pakistan are negligible
The main projected reason for diversification cargo routes to Afghanistan was to reduce reliance on PakGLOCs owing to security reason, while disruptive, the material lost from insurgent attacks and pilferage was a fraction of what the United States successfully transported from Pakistan to Afghanistan. General J. McNabb, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command once stated that the attrition along the Pakistani supply line was not severe enough to hamper the overall war effort. The PakGLOCs will remain viable despite occasional losses by militants. Containers passed through Pakistan since 2002 got damaged at the rate of approximately 10% which is negligible and affordable. Resumption of supplies from Pakistan after seven months, despite ability to transport 75% via the NDN, substantiates this view point.

High cost and limited capacity of the NDN
The significant advantage of alternate route, end of the US complete logistical reliance on Pakistan, availability of new opportunities for the US engagement in the Central Asian region notwithstanding, high cost and limited capacity of the NDN necessitates keeping Pakistan on board.

PakGLOCs will remain vital even if the NDN is available
The US alone has some 100,000 shipping containers filled with stuff and 50,000 wheeled vehicles to send through the pipeline back to the US before the end of 2014. Although the NDN are available having accruing benefits, the US will still have to use the Pakistani ground supply routes as well to get everything out of Afghanistan as per laid down timelines.

Linkage of Gwadar and Kandahar
The city of Kandahar, the largest Pashtun and the second largest city of the Afghanistan, when connected with the Gwadar will establish linkage with Afghanistan and beyond (all Central Asia, Europe and much of the Middle East). If this link is established and opened, it would cut the transport time from Europe to Pakistan and Southeast Asia substantially. Although Iran with help from Russia and India is developing competing port of Chabahar but it is not as well situated as Gwadar for the emerging continental trade. On Gwadar, the interests of the U S, Afghanistan and Pakistan are aligned. It is past time to seize this opportunity and open Kandahar to long-distance traffic. It will give Central Asian States a southern alternative instead of shipping everything to market through distant Russia. Pakistan, thus, stands a chance to benefit enormously exploiting this importance and enhance her soft image and seek relevance. Pakistan, therefore, should lure in the interested stake holders to build a highway connecting Gwadar and Kandahar.

Withdrawal could be a nightmare
It is estimated that 1,30,000 soldiers, 50-70,000 vehicles and 1,20,000 containers must be moved out by 2014. The US and NATO are quite aware of Afghanistan’s history with invaders. Military withdrawals from Afghanistan have ended in disaster several times in the past. When the British left Kabul in 1842, only a few fortunate members of an expedition force of 17,000 escaped. The Soviets withdrawal in 1989 also ended in chaos, as their convoys struggled through the snow-covered mountains at Salang Tunnel while under fire from the Mujahideen. Both the British and the Soviets left a country that they had been unable to pacify. This also holds true for the US and NATO today. Afghan insurgents will presumably do everything possible to launch attacks on NATO troops as they withdraw.

The pressure during Drawdown may result into hot pursuit operations on Pakistani soil  
The US and NATO would be required to increase air power to protect the withdrawing troops. This is historically what the US has done, most especially in Vietnam during 1972. Increased air power is necessary for extrication of troops from interior Afghanistan. For the Iraq withdrawal, the US set up staging areas to move equipment to various staging areas, where it was prepared for shipment and then moved to Kuwait for storage until ready to be shipped out. They will not have these luxuries in Afghanistan. This could mean the smaller outposts will have to pack themselves up and ready for road transport out all the while being vulnerable to attack. They have to face all the risks of driving out of the mountains themselves. This all raises worries about the security of the forces that would be withdrawing and those remaining after the drawdown. If scheduled drawdown by 2014 is implemented, a stage may come wherein employing air power to protect the troops from insurgents including hot pursuit operations most likely on Pakistani soil become necessary. The sudden surge in the endeavours for operating the NDN at full capacity and unusual increase in carrier based aircrafts in the region reinforces such postulations.

Opening of Pak GLOCs after seven months illustrates that Pakistan is relevant and shall remain so even beyond 2014
The decision for restoration of Pak GLOCs as a preferred route despite having alternative route of the NDN has many reasons. The analysis of exiting cargo requirements, availability of routes and their capacity, security hazards along various routes with overall impact on the cargo flow, politico- diplomatic intricacies and terrain and weather related complicacies leads to the conclusion that no single route can sustain the logistic requirements for over 1,30,000 troops for foreseeable future. With military needs likely to shrink with intended drawdown of the US and NATO troops, the economic factor is going to take over and prevail in the future. Pakistan based routes will attain rather enhanced relevance allowing a requisite degree of leverage to Pakistan vis-à-vis the US and NATO especially after linkage of Karachi with Kandahar through Gwadar. That fits in the future military and economic overtures. The establishment of secretariat in Kabul for the Central Asia South Asia power supply project and conclusion of TAPI (The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-lndia Natural Gas Pipeline) projects are akin to a “Eurasian globalization” and the indicators of regional economic collaborations in the offing; bringing ripe moments for Pakistan to benefit exponentially. Late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke believed that there was no solution in Afghanistan unless Pakistan was part of that solution. Pakistan has a strategic geo-political location at the corridor of world major maritime oil supply lines and has close proximity to oil rich central Asian countries. Pakistan’s location could influences Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. So, Pakistan is focus of attention in wake of emerging geo-political scenario and its relevance cannot be diminished.

The author is an M Phil Scholar. He has done M Phil in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from NDU. He has intensive experience in the disaster management and strategic issues. He has been working with the United Nation at Sierra Leone and DR Congo. He also worked at Ministry of Interior as Director National Crisis Management Cell. Presently, he is working as Director at Ministry of Professional and Technical Training. He has visited over 11 countries as leader/part of official delegations.
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