The U.S. is facing a number of roadblocks in its effort to secure routes to pull its equipment out of Afghanistan, with erstwhile allies Pakistan and Uzbekistan making it clear that the U.S. can’t rely – as it has been until now – heavily on them. But in its effort to diversify its supply routes, it’s gaining cooperation from an unlikely source: Russia.
With plans to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan starting in 2014, the Pentagon is busy setting up what it calls “retrograde transit” agreements with countries neighboring Afghanistan. The U.S. already has a number of shipping routes in place, mainly through Pakistan and through the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia, a collection of routes known as the Northern Distribution Network.
But in November, an errant NATO airstrike killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers, and Pakistan immediately cut off all transit to coalition equipment. Those routes, which once carried about a third of the coalition's equipment to Afghanistan, remain closed, though U.S. officials have expressed optimism that they will be able to negotiate to reopen them.
The U.S. had set up the Northern Distribution Network as a strategic hedge against Pakistan’s unpredictability, a decision that proved wise when Pakistan implemented its blockade. But the first round of agreements that the U.S. signed with the Central Asian governments didn’t provide for taking equipment out of Afghanistan, only bringing it in. Now, the U.S. has signed agreements with all the Central Asian countries for reverse transit, but some of the countries appear to be lagging on the implementation of those deals.
Uzbekistan, in particular, is reportedly raising prices it charges for the transit and creating bureaucratic delays. When one of the major NDN contractors, FMN Logistics, carried out its first retrograde transit shipment on February 29, it notably did so via the so-called KKT route, crossing Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. That route is longer and uses much worse roads than the Uzbekistan route, but those countries are more cooperative. However, the KKT route is still an incomplete solution: during winter, it’s all but impassable.
Amid these difficulties, the U.S. is getting assistance from a country many regard as the United States’ biggest foe: Russia. Russia had already agreed to allow transit through the country (it is the best way to get to Europe after passing through Central Asia), but is now negotiating with the U.S. over opening a transit hub in the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk.
The Ulyanovsk facility would be used for the U.S. and NATO to fly goods from Afghanistan into Russia, and then by rail onward to Europe. That is more expensive than surface transport all the way to Europe or the U.S., but less expensive than flying the goods the whole way. As such, it provides an acceptable alternative to Uzbekistan and Pakistan.