Supply of arms, ammunitions and other necessities is a crucial factor in the war in Afghanistan. The routes are, however, riddled with great risks.
The NATO-led coalition forces are set to begin gradual withdrawal of troops from seven areas in Afghanistan in the coming weeks. However, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the Alliance’s defense ministers in June, “Transition is based on conditions, not calendars.”
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and NATO troops have planned to withdraw the bulk of combat troops by 2014. In the meanwhile, supplies for the massive deployment of troops would have to continue to keep the lifeline alive, which is being jeopardized by terrorist attacks on NATO caravans every now and then.
Not a single day passes when NATO supply caravans are not attacked somewhere in Pakistan. The situation partly reflects CIA Director Leon Panetta’s observation of the bumpy Pak-U.S. bilateral ties. Panetta sees it as an extremely “frustrating” and “complicated” relationship. It leads the U.S. to consider other op- tions. However, their viability is another question to ponder.
Talking of diverting the bulk of NATO supplies to Afghanistan through Pakistan, it isn’t the only reason behind the trepidation, as it has already been under consideration at least for a couple of years amid consistently rising sporadic interruptions of loot and torching of NATO supply containers.
It is also not the sole reason behind the nagging consideration of abandoning the shortest and cheapest supply route into Afghanistan. The professional rivalry between Pakistan’s premier intelligence organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is cited as an apparent reason that has compelled the United States to seriously take up the issue of shifting the NATO supply route out of Pakistan. Particularly, it seems to be intensifying in the backdrop of a recent controversy erupting out of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis’ case and the subsequent marching orders to over 400 alleged U.S. intelligence operatives to leave Pakistan.
The voice against an unchecked, tax and customsfree “all kinds of” cargo supplies, including lethal weapons that other countries don’t permit, is getting stronger, as an all “agreeable” President Asif Ali Zardari-led and democratically elected government of the Pakistan Peo-
ples Party (PPP) appears to be challenged by the uniformed watchdogs not to let the U.S. have a free hand anymore on its soil.
It is geared for exposing the U.S.led NATO interests and snapping exploitations to more restrictions that it had been enjoying since Pakistan had inked an agreement with NATO in 2001, which allows an “all kinds” of “customs inspection and tax free” supplies to Afghanistan. It had been kept under the rug for years but had ultimately been exposed last year and questioned in the Pakistani parliament. Reportedly, the agreement earns Islamabad almost $1.5 billion annually.
Frustrated by frequent terrorist attacks on NATO supplies in Pakistan, a Pentagon spokesman has recently announced that 50 percent of the overland cargo delivery for U.S. forces in Afghanistan is now transferred through the northern supply line. That is up from the recent 30 percent.
Over 200 tankers/containers were turned to ashes in various terrorist incidents last year with several dozen more lost to more such incidents during this year. NATO supplies were worst hit during the 10 day blockade in October last year, which Pakistan had imposed to protest a NATO gunship incursion on September 30, killing three paramilitary troops at a northern checkpoint on the troubled Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Disbanded Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had accepted responsibility of most of these attacks on NATO containers.
Can NATO really shift the bulk of its supplies to Afghanistan en route from the Baltic or the Black Sea through the Northern Distribution Network or NDN in Central Asia? This is a question which requires reviewing of certain ground realities before inferring a possible conclusion.
Some 40 percent of fuel and 70 percent of all other supplies are needed for the 152,000 NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) including 97,000 U.S. troops fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime’s ouster in 2001.
From the southern port city of Karachi, the overland supplies are rolled down into Afghanistan through two entry points: over 500 miles to Chaman in the south and 1,000 miles via Torkham in the north which are also the shortest and cheapest routes available so far. Over 7,000 NATO contracted trucks with private security have been involved in this mega project.
Whereas the long and costly route that started three years ago to supply 60 percent of ISAF troops fuel supply, accords importance to NDN. In the north it starts from the Baltic Sea at Riga Port passing through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and into Afghanistan through the Termez border.
The southern NDN supply point begins at Poti Port in Georgia and passes through Azerbaijan before crossing the Caspian Sea into the Kazakh port of Aktau, then be trucked into Afghanistan through Uzbekistan.
A leased Uzbek airport at Navoi, bordering Russia, had also offered a supply route a couple of years ago, but none of these routes are bottleneck free and do not allow shipment of lethal weapons, something which is of vital importance to NATO troops in Afghanistan. Navoi airport is being operated by Korean Airlines since August last year and has reportedly been in contract with several companies serving the U.S. Department of Defense. The Pentagon has repeatedly admitted that Navoi is a limited commercial cargo transport facility. This concern and limitations on cargo supply casts a dark shadow over NATO’s optimism on finding alternative routes.
Besides, an unleashed narcotics and gun-running mafia has plagued the costlier and longer NDN routes. Other impractical options include a dirt track from China through Wakhan and Iran. Both these have failed to present a brighter picture which the Pentagon is trying to paint amid an inconvenient “tightening of the noose” gesture by the ISI in Pakistan.
The scenario implies that the U.S. has to offer more compromises and smiling gestures to Pakistan to continue enjoying the convenience of the Pakistani supply route. Under the prevailing circumstances, it should try to avoid trying to find another option.
Can NATO really shift bulk of its supplies to Afghanistan en route Baltic or Black seas through the Northern Distribution
Network in Central Asia? This is a question which requires reviewing of certain ground realities.
The writer is a senior journalist, consultant on counter-terrorism and political affairs and former political affairs advisor to the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi, Pakistan.