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Geopolitical Diary: A Breakdown in Transporting Supplies to Afghanistan

4 MINS READDec 16, 2008 | 02:55 GMT
The president of the Khyber Transport Union in Pakistan announced Monday that his union is boycotting the transportation of military goods and supplies for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The president, Shakirullah Afridi, put it rather pointedly: “If all the countries of NATO cannot control the situation in Afghanistan, how can escorts from [Pakistan’s paramilitary] Frontier Corps ensure our safety?” Afridi’s complaint epitomizes one of the mounting problems for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan. Last week, Taliban fighters attacked shipping depots in Peshawar, the last major city in Pakistan before the Khyber Pass, which leads to Kabul in Afghanistan. Afridi’s truck drivers are on strike not for more money, but because they are not looking to sacrifice their lives for the transportation of U.S. and NATO military supplies. It is not as though this is merely a disruption of one of many supply lines into Afghanistan. At least 70 percent of the supplies for U.S. and NATO forces operating in Afghanistan arrive through the Pakistani port of Karachi and are shipped by truck through Quetta to Kandahar and through Peshawar to Kabul. Complicating matters further, an even higher percentage of military fuel is refined in Pakistan before being shipped by tankers over the road. While NATO spokesmen continue to insist that operations are not being affected, the Pentagon is hardly unaware of the potential problem. Though a search for alternative routes has been under way for some time, and has accelerated recently, Pakistan remains the single most important logistics route for the Afghan campaign. This is not by accident. It is by far the quickest and most efficient overland route to the open ocean; airlifting the massive amount of supplies necessary to sustain operations in Afghanistan is simply too costly and impractical for a number of reasons. Some additional fuel and supplies come in through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but these alternatives have not yet been meaningfully expanded, they entail much longer distances to ports accessible to ocean-going shipping, and they come with the added disadvantage of increased (though not necessarily decisive) Russian influence. Two factors are compounding the deteriorating Pakistani situation. First is the impending surge of some four U.S. brigade combat teams (as part of the roughly 20,000-strong addition currently being discussed for 2009) into Afghanistan. At a time when both U.S. and NATO troop numbers are surging and operations (and thus logistical needs) are intensifying, existing lines will be pressured and the United States and NATO will need to look to alternative routes to prevent Pakistan from becoming more important as a supply line, or even to reduce reliance on it as the single most important logistics route for the entire campaign. The second issue is Pakistan’s shrinking military capacity. Washington was pressuring Islamabad to strengthen internal security operations along the Afghan border and to expand security for logistics convoys even before the Nov. 26 Mumbai attacks. With additional U.S. and NATO troops badly needed for operations in Afghanistan proper, it was only with Pakistan’s cooperation that the border could be controlled and supply lines protected. In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, however, India is pressuring Pakistan to project its military force into Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Military pressure from New Delhi inevitably leaves Islamabad feeling insecure about its border with India —- especially in Punjab, where the Pakistani demographic, agricultural and industrial core is geographically vulnerable to overwhelming Indian conventional military power -— and thus less concerned about its border with Afghanistan. In short, even before the Mumbai attacks, it was unclear whether Islamabad had the capacity to carry out the military operations Washington demanded. Now, in the aftermath of those attacks, Pakistan almost certainly lacks the military capability to fulfill all of its defense and security obligations. It is hard to see a way in which the security of U.S. and NATO supply lines in and through Pakistan will not erode further as the crisis intensifies. That erosion is taking place at just the moment when Washington must lean more heavily upon and demand more from the Pakistanis, and it is not at all clear that the available logistical alternatives will be anything close to sufficient —- especially in the near term.

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