‘We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and allies,’ said US President Barack Obama in March when announcing his Administration’s policy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There are some 72,000 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). By their very nature, armies are intensely resource hungry. And given that this force is operating in a landlocked country in one of the world’s most politically sensitive regions, the task of keeping the troops supplied is especially challenging. Adding to the difficulties are attacks on the ISAF supply convoys by both the Taliban and local bandits; the former wanting to scupper operations and win the conflict, the latter seeking to steal supplies for sale on the black market.
Entire helicopters stolen
Delivering ‘lethal supplies’ – ammunition, weapons system and other security-related equipment to the country – into Afghanistan is particularly fraught. According to the manager of one freight company, in the past entire helicopters and other military hardware have been stolen from convoys travelling over land through Pakistan. So now security-related equipment is flown in from airbases in neighbouring Central Asian countries and Pakistan.
For most other, non-lethal supplies, however, there is little choice but to use land routes through Afghanistan’s eastern neighbour. ‘For clear geographical reasons, Pakistan does play an important role in the logistical support of the ISAF mission,’ explains ISAF spokesperson Brigadier-General Richard Blanchette.
According to Blanchette, the ISAF is ‘actively working on transit agreements’ to increase the delivery of supplies via Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan along routes that, while not entirely peaceful, are certainly less volatile than those through Pakistan. Even so, securing these supply channels is proving to be a political minefield. Russia has historically dominated Central Asia and it views NATO’s expansion into the region, along with the conscription of former Eastern European satellite states into its ranks, as a serious threat to its security and regional clout.
In February, the Kyrgyzstan government, for instance, under pressure from Moscow ordered the United States and NATO to vacate the vital Manas airbase. The two main land routes into Afghanistan from Central Asia are effectively under Russian control. They pass through Russia and two republics, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, which are staunchly aligned with Moscow. While Russia has permitted the transportation of non-lethal materials through these routes, they are not major supply channels. An increase in the flow of goods will need to be part of a broader political agreement with Russia.
The Pakistan connection
These permutations have led NATO countries to rely on Pakistan for the delivery of most supplies. At present, close to 75 per cent of non-lethal supplies are delivered via Pakistan. Almost all of these supplies reach the country by ship at the southern port city of Karachi. The vast majority of it – everything from tyres and petrol to toiletries – is trucked through two entry points from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
The first, which is facing the most disruption, passes through Peshawar, capital of the North Western Frontier Province, and on towards Torkum, a small town along the Khyber Pass that is on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. From Torkum, supplies are eventually transported to the Afghan capital, Kabul. The other route travels from Karachi to Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s southern state of Balochistan, to the border town of Chaman and on to Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan and the birthplace of the Taliban. The ISAF claims to control Kandahar, but the threat of attacks from the Taliban or bandits remains high.
‘[These attacks] do not pose a strategic threat to the ISAF mission,’ General Blanchette asserts. ‘We have a robust inventory of food and supplies, are able to absorb delays or closures, plan for or anticipate such events.’ But as the US-led forces seek to escalate operations against the Taliban, militants will likely step up attacks on what remains its soft underbelly.