Napoleon declared that “an army marches on its stomach,” and Gen. Omar Bradley said, “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.” Successful military commanders have long recognized that few requirements rank higher in wartime than the need to maintain reliable supply lines.
Nowhere is that adage more relevant than in Afghanistan, a landlocked country flanked by hostile or wary neighbors. The shipment of supplies and equipment to U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan over the last 10 years has been handicapped by high costs, pilferage, and the threat of ambush.
“Look at the geography of getting things into Afghanistan,” says Derek Mitchell, until recently the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs. “Look at the countries that surround [Afghanistan], the nature of their relationships, and the distance from the United States.”
Logistics Challenge Of A Generation
To the west of Afghanistan lies Iran. Pakistan, politically unstable and home to a ruthless Taliban movement, lies on the south and east, across a mountainous border. It is no wonder that the shipment of supplies and equipment to U.S. forces in Afghanistan has been a source of headaches throughout the 10 years the United States has been engaged there.
“This is the logistics challenge of our generation,” says Vice Adm. Mark Harnitcheck, deputy commander of the U.S. military’s Transportation Command and a student of military logistics history. “The challenge of my father’s generation was escorting convoys across the north Atlantic when we didn’t know how to do that very well. Convoys in 1943 would lose 16 of their 32 ships. The Army had their challenge supplying Patton in his race across France, keeping him resupplied. Supporting operations in Afghanistan is our generational challenge.”
For the first seven years of the Afghanistan war, almost all supplies and equipment were shipped by sea to the Pakistani port of Karachi. From there, they were trucked overland to Afghanistan, through parts of Pakistan effectively controlled by the Taliban.
In 2008, according to Harnitcheck, the U.S. military lost as much as 15 percent of its supplies in those areas due to ambushes and theft. Establishing another supply route became a top priority.
When President Obama decided to surge 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan, the use of alternative routes became all the more critical, notes Mitchell.
“Given that President Obama was looking to move things even more rapidly in the surge, we needed more routes, more redundancy, more flexibility,” he says.
Finding Ways Around Pakistan
It was against this background that military planners developed what came to be known as the “Northern Distribution Network,” a variety of routes from Europe across Central Asia and into Afghanistan from the north. The routes all avoided transit through Pakistan.
The first pathway was across the Caucasus region and Central Asia, largely on rail lines. Routes were later added from Iraq through Turkey and then to the east. Routes originate in each of the major Baltic ports (Tallinn in Estonia, Riga in Latvia, and Klaipeda in Lithuania) and continue through Belarus. One new route begins in Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast and extends through Siberia.
“The other big change is that we are doing a lot of trucking,” says Harnitcheck, “all the way from Germany to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and then south through Tajikistan into Afghanistan.”
Under agreements negotiated with the governments of all countries involved in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the cargo is restricted to non-lethal equipment. Armored vehicles can be shipped, but only after their weaponry has been removed. The importance of the northern routes is, nevertheless, growing.
Of all non-lethal supplies coming over land into Afghanistan now, almost half arrive via the northern routes. According to Pentagon officials, the goal is to be able to bring 75 percent of that equipment into Afghanistan from the north.
The disruption of supply shipments through Pakistan has diminished since 2008, but the danger still exists, especially with the rise of anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid in May of this year.
“Given what happened in our relations with Pakistan over the past year and how unstable that relationship is, having that [northern route] as a contingency is a relief for the U.S. military,” says Andrew Kuchins, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has written extensively about the NDN.
Future Of The Northern Routes
The surge of troops and equipment into Afghanistan has mostly ended, but before long, there will be a flow out of the country. The NDN was established as a one-way route, from Europe into Afghanistan, but U.S. officials are now negotiating for permission to use the route in reverse.
“As we start to move forces out over time, we also need multiple places to pull forces out,” says Mitchell, who recently became the Obama administration’s special envoy to Burma. “That means the NDN will become more and more important to our operation.”
There is one downside to the northern routes, however. Bringing supplies overland on trucks and railroads all the way from Europe and across Central Asia costs two or three times as much as shipping them by sea and moving them up through Pakistan.
“Cost is a huge issue, obviously, for anything we’re doing in the [Defense] Department and the government right now,” says Mitchell. “But obviously the protection of our forces and the ability to achieve our mission is also extraordinarily important, so we need to balance the cost with the urgent requirements on the ground.”