Logistics: The Afghan Supply Line Shifts From Pakistan To Central Asia


July 15, 2011:  The United States has finally overcome obstacles (mainly diplomatic) to moving its Afghanistan supply lines from the Pakistani port of Karachi, to rail lines running through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. NATO and the U.S. have negotiated with Russia to allow supplies to move to Afghanistan via Russian rail lines and those of Central Asian nations. These only go as far as the Afghan border. There are no railroads in Afghanistan. Thus from the Uzbek border, the freight containers are trucked south to where most of the U.S. and NATO troops are stationed. This has been going on for several years, but now about 40 percent of supplies are arriving via the "Northern Distribution Network". The U.S. is rushing to move 75 percent of cargo via the northern route by the end of this year, and all of it within a year. It took five years to negotiate unfettered transit rights for NATO military cargo via Russian and Central Asian railroads. Belarus also became part of the deal.

Currently the U.S. uses a Russian contractor to arrange for the movement of over 50,000 freight containers a year via the trans-Siberian railroad, and thence through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the Afghan border. Afghans trucking companies then move the containers south, along with civilian cargo that can also move in and out of a rebuilt rail yard on the Uzbek border.

This shift amounts to a large loss of business for Pakistani transportation firms. For a long time, Pakistan used that income as an incentive to protect the traffic going through the Khyber pass. But the Pakistanis always had a hard time controlling bandits and tribal gangs who frequently plundered the truck traffic from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Tribal leaders received gifts and promises of more if things remained peaceful, and threats if their men were found to be attacking trucks.

The Taliban have long threatened (and failed) to cut the U.S./NATO supply line from Pakistan to Afghanistan. To do this they had to halt the truck traffic going through the Khyber pass, which is the main road from Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan. At one time, some 90 percent of the supplies for foreign troops come via this road. The rest were flown in.

Normally, about 700 large trucks a day make the Khyber run, but several times a year, trucks are attacked by gunmen, and destroyed, stolen or looted. This attacks can halt traffic for as long as a week. This has not hurt U.S. or NATO troops, who, as is the military custom, maintain reserves of all supplies. The Taliban took responsibility for some of the attacks.

Moving goods across the border is a major business for Pakistan, and vital to the economy of Afghanistan. So both countries have responded to the threat by moving more troops and police in to guard the road. Local tribes have also sent more armed men along the route, as they have long done, to go after anyone who threatens the vital trade, and the money they get out of it. It's believed that many of the recent interruptions to Khyber Pass traffic were more about money, than about the Taliban. NATO and the U.S. are seen as rich foreigners, who can pay more than the Afghan and Pakistani merchants who own most of the goods going up the road into Afghanistan. Squeezing some extra cash out of rich foreigners is an ancient and honored custom in this part of the world. But the Pakistani government was rightly worried that the U.S. and NATO would take their trucking business elsewhere if the interruptions persisted. With the NATO supply line moving to Central Asia, the Port of Karachi and the trucking companies will lose over $100 million worth of business a year.




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