A diplomatic tussle between the United States and Pakistan, coupled with a recent series of attacks on fuel tankers destined for coalition facilities in Afghanistan, is refocusing the Pentagon’s attention on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a US-NATO supply line running through Central Asia.
US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) maintains that security conditions in Pakistan are not so dire as to require a serious increase of traffic on NDN. But defense officials say NDN stands ready to handle a surge in traffic, should the Khyber Pass, the critical transit point on the Pakistani-Afghan transport route, remain closed.
The US military has been reducing its reliance on Pakistani ground routes since 2005. “In general terms, of all cargo destined for Afghanistan, about half goes through Pakistan, about 30 percent goes through the NDN, and 20 percent by air,” Cynthia Bauer, a spokeswoman for TRANSCOM, told EurasiaNet.org on October 2.
Between March and August of this year, freight traffic on NDN rose steadily from 1,904 containers in March to 3,057 containers in June. Some 1,883 and 2,939 containers were shipped along the distribution network in July and August respectively, Bauer added.
NDN’s emphasis is now firmly on fuel sourced from Eurasia and delivered via “northern routes.” As of this year, roughly 60 percent of the fuel consumed by the US military in Afghanistan is routed through Central Asia, according to a paper published in August by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.
The NDN is a “key component of [the International Security Assistance Force’s] fuel supply infrastructure. … Apart from fuel, goods most commonly dispatched included cement, lumber, blast barriers, septic tanks and rubberized matting,” stated the IISS paper.
As early as 2005, the Defense Logistic Agency (DLA) specified in fuel tenders that the US military sought “multiple lines of supply.”
“The requirements being solicited herein are intended to provide additional diesel fuel to Kandahar and Bagram via non-Pakistani supply routes/sources in order to ensure multiple lines of supply,” a DLA solicitation for diesel fuel supplies in 2005 stated.
Five years later, a similar solicitation issued on June 14, 2010, for jet fuel deliveries to Bagram said supplies “must be imported from northern and western sources.”
“Historically, there have been disruptions in supply that have severely impacted continuity of operations in the area and raise serious concerns that future disruptions may result in mission failure,” the June 14 solicitation continued.
Any attempt to significantly increase NDN traffic could pose logistical challenges. US contractors involved in shipping supplies via the NDN have reported long delays at the Uzbek-Tajik and Tajik-Afghan borders. The Termez-Hairaton rail crossing at the Uzbek-Afghan border is perhaps the most notorious chokepoint: in June, 3,500 fuel tanks languished on the Uzbek side of the border for weeks before passing into Afghanistan.
Security is also a concern. Afghan MPs have cautioned that northern Afghanistan is awash with militants who are “arming the population,” the news website, Afghanistan.ru reported on October 5. According to one claim, 80 percent of Kunduz Province bordering Tajikistan is under Taliban control.
The increased use of the NDN could draw the attention of Islamic militants, leading to the same type of attacks on fuel tankers in Central Asia that have been seen in Pakistan.
Currently, the Taliban lacks the ability to cause a major disruption to NDN’s operations, asserted Andrei Grozin, the director of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow. But if supplies routes continue to be interrupted in Pakistan, the NDN could develop into a tempting Taliban target, he warned.
“Militant groups will aim at ground deliveries, such as railways and roads, and if they gather their resources this year they may well be in a position to use them early next year,” Grozin told EurasiaNet.org on October 5.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs.