By Deirdre Tynan
The Northern Distribution Network, the key re-supply route for US and NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan, is set to experience a spike in traffic due to the closure of the Pakistani-Afghan border. But it will take several weeks for the United States and NATO to work out the logistics of rerouting cargo.
Islamabad closed border crossings to Afghanistan in late November in response to a NATO attack on a frontier post that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN) is already a vital link in Afghanistan’s supply chain. But to date it has not operated at maximum capacity. Contracted logistics firms, already on standby to start moving goods out of Afghanistan, are preparing for an imminent “all systems go” test of their capabilities, a commercial source told Eurasianet.org.
“It doesn’t happen overnight: they have to start re-routing their vessels from Houston/Eastern United States and possibly Karachi back up to the Baltic ports and only then will the volume on the NDN become real and apparent, so maybe in a few weeks we could see actual spiked volumes because of this,” the source said.
The closure of the Pakistani route through the Khyber Pass presents a financial windfall for the commercial carriers currently working on the NDN, and to the Central Asian states hosting it. The NDN has seen a steady increase in traffic since its inception in 2009, and the volume of two-way traffic could increase by as much as 300 percent as the drawdown of US troops begins.
US Air Force carriers are already airlifting supplies to Afghanistan, but their use, at this stage, is “imperceptible” given the $14,000-per-ton cost of moving goods this way, according to a US government source.
The NDN was designed by the US Department of Defense to be a safer re-supply option than trucking goods and fuel through Pakistan. The Pakistani route has become increasingly vulnerable in recent years to Taliban attacks. The NDN comprises of a rail link starting in Latvia going through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; a road route via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for goods initially delivered to the Manas Transit Center near Bishkek; and a Caucasus pathway that ferrys cargo from the United States and Europe by sea to the Turkish port of Metin, as well as to Poti in Georgia, for onward delivery across the Caspian Sea into Afghanistan.
Pakistan has closed its re-supply route on two previous occasions to protest US or NATO military activities — for almost two weeks in 2010 and again for 3-days in April 2011. This time, officials in Islamabad insist that the closure is permanent. Policy-makers in Washington have long planned for such a contingency. Since 2005, many US government contracts have specified that fuel should be sourced from countries north of Afghanistan. By 2010, northern sources were a requirement in tenders that cited potential “mission failure” due to disruptions in Pakistan.
“If you look at the trajectory, it’s clear which way the relationship is going. It will be difficult to overcome yet another serious problem. The policy implication is that we need to diversify [transit routes] as much as we can and as quickly as we can. That’s what the US government has been all about recently,” said a US government official.
“But the real question is whether the NDN can fully compensate for what’s happened in Pakistan. We have a good NDN, but we also have Central Asian roads that are not the best,” he added. The NDN’s rail component is expected to pick up most of the extra freight volume.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.