After a recent incident where U.S. helicopter gunships crossed into Pakistan, in hot pursuit of Islamic terrorists, and killed three Pakistani soldiers (and a lot more terrorists), Pakistan cut one of the two NATO supply routes that pass through Pakistan. Aside from the fact that the Pakistani soldiers fired on the NATO helicopters (which they often do, even when the choppers are on the Afghan side of the border), the U.S. didn't have to remind the Pakistanis that such a gesture was self-defeating. The Pakistani government is heavily dependent on American economic and military aid, and more and more of the supplies for foreign troops in Pakistan is coming from non-Pakistani sources. This hurts Pakistani businesses that move, and often provide, the supplies.
At the moment, about half those supplies come through Pakistan. The Pakistanis only closed, for about a day, one of the two main routes. About 30 percent of the supplies come in via Central Asia railroads, and another comes from the Black Sea, via rail to the Afghan border. The remaining 20 percent comes in by air. But some of that may be shifted to the Central Asian route, which is much safer (from bandits, bad roads and the Taliban) than the Pakistan routes.
The U.S. and NATO supplies coming in via railroad from Western Europe, go through Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to Afghanistan. This approach costs $400 a ton to get supplies into Afghanistan, versus three times that to truck it in from Pakistani ports, or $14,000 a ton to fly stuff in. This Central Asian route has been under negotiation since 2003, but Russia kept agreeing to it, and then withdrawing cooperation. What has finally compelled Russia to cooperate in the last year is the growing problems they are having with heroin and opium coming out of Afghanistan into, and through, Russia.
Shipping supplies to Afghanistan via Russian and Central Asian railroads has advantages for the nations it passes through. Russia has an economic interest in this, as more traffic makes it financially attractive for Central Asian nations to invest in upgrading their rail connections to Afghanistan. Tajikistan, for example, is extending its railroad to the Afghan border by building another 145 kilometers of track. Afghanistan itself has no railroads, mainly because there is not enough economic activity in the country to make this worthwhile. Foreign donors have contributed billions of dollars since 2002 to build more paved roads in Afghanistan. Currently, there are 42,000 kilometers of roads there, but only a third are paved. There are few rivers, much less navigable ones, and no access to the sea. The place has long been a logistical nightmare. Most Afghans recognize that roads will make the country more prosperous, by making it economically feasible to export many commodities, and cheaper to bring in, and distribute, foreign goods. Naturally, the Taliban are opposed to all this road building, as it threatens the poverty and ancient customs that Islamic conservatives are so fond of.
Afghanistan's neighbors are eager to trade, and are using the U.S. and NATO need for more access to upgrade their transport links to the country. For example, 90 cargo containers were shipped through the Caucasus, via Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Caspian sea and Kazakhstan, to Afghanistan last year, as a test, and regular shipments began shortly thereafter. It's also possible to ship containers across the Caspian to a port in Turkmenistan, and thence to Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO wants to move up to 50,000 containers a year via these new Russian and Caucasus routes. This makes it economically feasible to ship more civilian goods this way. As the traffic increases, it makes economic sense for Afghanistan to start building rail lines, something most nations began doing over a century ago.