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
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
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
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
But NATO and the Pentagon have a backup plan - since 2009 they
have been shifting their logistics to the Northern Distribution
), a railway link running from Latvia's Riga Baltic port through
Russia and Kazakhstan terminating in Uzbekistan's Termez on the
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
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
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
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
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.
By. John C.K. Daly of