Re­al­ity Check

Sup­ply of arms, am­mu­ni­tions and other ne­ces­si­ties is a cru­cial fac­tor in the war in Afghanistan. The routes are, how­ever, rid­dled with great risks.

Southasia - - Neighbor - By Syed Moaz­zam Hashmi

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.

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