NATO recently literally shot itself in the foot, imperiling the resupply of International Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan by shooting up two Pakistani border posts in a “hot pursuit’ raid.
Given that roughly 100 fuel tanker trucks along with 200 other trucks loaded with NATO supplies cross into Afghanistan each day from Pakistan, Pakistan’s closure of the border has ominous long-term consequences for the logistical resupply of ISAF forces, even as Pentagon officials downplay the issue and scramble for alternative resupply routes.
Pakistan, long angry about ISAF/NATO cross border raids, has apparently reached the end of its tether. Following the 26 November NATO aerial assault on two border posts in Mohmand Agency in Pakistan’s turbulent NorthWest Frontier Province, Islamabad promptly sealed its border with Afghanistan to NATO supplies after the allied strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
The U.S. military insists a joint patrol with Afghan forces was fired upon first and only responded with return fire and calling in airstrikes on the posts, which a commander mistakenly identified as Taliban training camps, after reportedly checking that there were no Pakistani military forces nearby. Pakistan Major General Ishfaq Nadeem, director general of military operations, rebutted Washington’s assertions one by one, commenting, “The positions of the posts were already conveyed to the ISAF through map references and it was impossible that they did not know these to be our posts.”
So, what does this mean for logistical support of ISAF forces? According to Nesar Ahmad Nasery, the deputy head of Torkham Customs, around 1,000 trucks cross into Afghanistan on a daily basis, nearly 300 of which are NATO contractors carrying NATO supplies in sealed containers. Khyber Transport Association chief Shakir Afridi said that each oil tanker has a capacity of 13,000-15,000 gallons. In October 2010 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said that fossil fuels are the number one import to Afghanistan.
Noting the obvious, as Afghanistan has no indigenous hydrocarbon supplies, every drop must be brought in, with transit greatly increasing the eventual cost. For 2001-2008, almost all U.S. and NATO supplies were trucked overland to Afghanistan through parts of Pakistan effectively controlled by the Taliban.
Ground supplies are shipped into Pakistan’s Arabian Sea Karachi port and offloaded onto trucks before being sent to one of five crossing points on the Afghan border, the most important being Torkham at the Khyber Pass and Baluchistan’s Chaman. The recent attack has put all these routes at risk, perhaps permanently. Pakistan, being the shortest and most economical route, has been used for nearly a decade to transit almost 75 percent of the ammunition, vehicles, foodstuff and around 50 percent of fuel for coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan.
On 27 November Interior Minister Rehman Malik, addressing journalists at the Ministry of the Interior’s National Crisis Management Cell, after strongly condemning the NATO attack on Pakistani forces, stated that the resupply routes for NATO via Pakistan have been stopped “permanently,” adding that the decisions of the Defense Cabinet Committee (DCC) on the NATO forces attack inside Pakistan would be implemented in letter and spirit, stressing that “The decisions of the DCC are final and would be implemented.”
The major issue at stake here for ISAF and U.S. forces is fuel, all of which must be brought in from abroad at high cost. In October 2009 Pentagon officials testified before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee that the “Fully Burdened Cost of Fuel” (FBCF) translates to about $400 per gallon by the time it arrives at a remote Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Afghanistan. Last year, the FBCF reached $800 in some FOBs following supply route bombings in Pakistan, while others have claimed the FBCF may be as high as $1,000 per gallon in some remote locations. For many remote locations, fuel supplies can only be provided by air – one of the most expensive ways being in helicopter fuel bladders.
The majority of U.S. tonnage transported into Afghanistan is fuel – 70 percent, according to Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Alan Haggerty. The Marines’ calculate that 39 percent of their tonnage is fuel, and 90 percent is either fuel or water.
According to ISAF spokesman Colonel Wayne Shanks, there are currently nearly 400 U.S. and coalition bases in Afghanistan, ranging from the massive Bagram airbase outside Kabul down to camps, forward operating bases and combat outposts.
The Pakistani supply lines have come under increasing attack by militants. Baluchistan Home Secretary Akbar Hussain Durani noted that last year, 136 NATO tankers were destroyed in 56 attacks in the province, with 34 people killed and 23 wounded in the assaults.
But NATO and the Pentagon have a backup plan – since 2009 they have been shifting their logistics to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a railway link running from Latvia’s Riga Baltic port through Russia and Kazakhstan terminating in Uzbekistan’s Termez on the Afghan border.
The NDN is a joint initiative of multiple Department of Defense agencies, including the US Transportation Command, CENTCOM, the US European Command, the Defense Logistics Agency and the Department of State. The NDN’s first shipment was sent on 20 February 2009 from Riga 3,212 miles to Termez, with U.S. commanders stating that 100 containers daily would be transported via the NDN. The supply trains have been given preferential right-of-way to speed the trip to about nine days. According to Pentagon officials, its goal is eventually to be able to bring 75 percent of its equipment into Afghanistan from the north.
But the true number of forces to be resupplied is far higher. Last year the Pentagon’s Central Command put the number of contractors for the U.S. military at 107,000.
According to ISAF spokesman Lieutenant Gregory Keeley in Kabul, the NDN now accounts for 52 percent of coalition cargo transport and 40 percent for the U.S., which also receives around 30 percent of its supplies by air.
According to the FMN Logistics, the Washington DC-based logistics company that oversees the NDN and provides “full supply-chain management to ensure the smooth transit of(European Union) government cargo from various Ports of Entry including Riga, Latvia;
Poti, Georgia; Mersin, Turkey and Bandar Abbas, Iran, through to multiple NATO/ ISAF camps in North and South Afghanistan,” in January Russian Railways increased rail tariffs for freight by 10 percent and is suggesting an additional increase of 11.7 percent in 2011 to cover “operating costs.” Further east, Uzbekistan increased rail tariffs twice last year.
Bringing supplies overland on the NDN costs two or three times as much as shipping them by sea and moving them up through Pakistan.
And the NDN is not without problems of its own. On 16 November Uzbek media reported an explosion on an NDN railway line on a railway bridge on the Galaba-Amuzang section of track on Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan.
Besides the NDN, the Pentagon also uses a supply route through Georgia’s Black Sea Poti port via Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, where goods are transshipped across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan, where the goods are carried by truck into Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. While shorter than the NDN, it is also more expensive because of the constant on-and-off loading from trucks to ferries and back onto trucks. A third supply route, a spur of the NDN, bypasses Uzbekistan from Kazakhstan via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but poor road conditions in Tajikistan limit its usefulness.
So, given Pakistan’s shutdown, can the NDN absorb the increased railway traffic?
Probably, but it won’t be cheap, and will take some time to implement.
NATO’s investigation of the Mohmand attack, led by a one-star general, will release its findings on 23 December. What does Pakistan want to resolve the issue? A formal apology and resolute action taken against those responsible for the deadly cross border air strike.
The U.S. military’s Transportation Command deputy commander Vice Adm. Mark Harnitchek said of resupplying Afghanistan, “This is the logistics challenge of our generation.”
If the Pentagon does not issue an apology, then the U.S. military had better expect “the logistics challenge of our generation” to continue.
Or get out and push and push the HUMVEES and helicopters.