STUTTGART, Germany — If Pakistan opts to keep the border crossings into Afghanistan closed to NATO resupply convoys for an extended period following an air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the U.S. military and its allies may have to rely more heavily on the Northern Distribution Network, a key gateway for military equipment.
The NDN comprises rail and truck routes traversing several countries in Europe and Central Asia [see map]. It already accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. cargo deliveries into Afghanistan and 52 percent of all coalition cargo, according to NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Transportation Command officials.
For now, military officials at ISAF headquarters in Kabul and in the field say existing stockpiles in Afghanistan should avert a supply shortfall in the near-term, though refused to give an indication of how long that might be, citing security concerns.
Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment less than 10 miles from the Pakistan border in northeastern Kunar province, said his troops are accustomed to conserving food and fuel. But if the border gates remain closed for several weeks, Wilson said, “Fuel is probably going to become an issue.”
However, Wilson said he was not worried about the border closing, primarily because of alternative supply routes through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the north. “If need be, I’m sure (the Army) will find a way to get us supplies so we’ll be able to maintain operational capability,” he said.
While military officials in Kabul have stopped short of saying how they will keep sufficient supplies coming if stockpiles run out, the U.S. has made no secret about the need for dependable alternatives to the southern Pakistan route.
Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, getting equipment in and out of the country has been a struggle. Land transit through Pakistan has proved risky, with many convoys coming under Taliban attack in the tribal areas along the border. Political unrest in Kyrgyzstan disrupted flights from U.S.-operated Manas Air Base for a time in 2010, and Russia has restrictions on what can move through its territory.
And routes through Central Asia are not without risks. In mid-November, an explosion at a bridge near Termez, Uzbekistan, on Afghanistan’s northern border disrupted rail traffic, and is being treated as a terrorist attack.
The last time the border from Pakistan was closed was in 2010, when Pakistan closed one of the border crossings for 10 days after two Pakistani soldiers were killed in a helicopter attack.
According to U.S. Central Command, rail traffic flowed through Russia and Central Asian countries soon after Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off. As the number of U.S. troops doubled in 2008, the effort took on greater importance.
One route from the north, established in 2010, starts with long-haul trucks that leave from Germany. As of October, truck drivers made about 2,000 deliveries to Afghanistan. During that time, only two trucks failed to reach their destination, according to Glenn Paxton, a Defense Logistics Agency distribution specialist at U.S. European Command.
In the case of the truck route, there are 12 main destinations for the deliveries, said Paxton during an interview last month. Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, and Bagram, north of Kabul, get the most traffic, receiving 30 percent and 25 percent of deliveries respectively, he said.
The trucks, which deliver mostly lumber and other construction supplies, also are faster than most other ground routes into Afghanistan, Paxton said. From the time an order is placed to the time of delivery it takes on average about 75 days, he said.
While there is the capacity to deliver more material via trucks, an increase in activity will depend on demand, Paxton said.
U.S. military officials also have been exploring other Europe-based ways to expand deliveries to Afghanistan. This past summer, U.S. cargo planes were delivering weapons and other supplies from Romania to test whether an airport near the Black Sea could serve as another piece in solving the logistical puzzle of getting gear into Afghanistan.
But losing the Pakistan line comes at a cost.
In 2011, the average cost of all Northern Distribution Network truck and rail routes between April and September was $12,367 per 20-foot container unit, or TEU, according to U.S. Transportation Command. The cost was $14,410 per TEU for northern distribution routes that included ocean commercial transport. Meanwhile, the cost was about $6,700 per TEU on the Pakistan route, TRANSCOM reported.
The nature of goods transported also could complicate any efforts to redirect supplies.
But for commanders in the field such as Wilson, the greater concern is improving the relationship between coalition forces and Pakistanis as the two sides deal with a Taliban-led insurgency that straddles the border.
“I believe we’ve got to work with them to eliminate a common threat,” Wilson said. “And so anytime we’re not doing that, it’s a problem, and it’s unfortunate.”
Martin Kuz reported from eastern Afghanistan.