Pakistan: A Tough Way To Do Business

Pakistan has once more shut its border with Afghanistan, blocking a third of NATO supplies. What are the alternatives, and how much do they cost?

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 22 December 2011 4 minute READ

The military historian Martin Van Creveld noted in his famous study, Supplying War, that ‘logistics make up as much as nine tenths of the business of war, and the mathematical problems involved are…not unworthy of a Leibnitz or a Newton’. Now, logistics are back on the agenda in Afghanistan.

The death of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO strike was a national tragedy and point of serious contestation between Washington and Islamabad. Major General Ishfaq Nadeem, Pakistan’s director general of military operations, has claimed that NATO forces fired over a period of two hours, despite being informed of the location and status of the Pakistani border posts.

US sources have hit back (although lamentably, through anonymous briefings to the US press rather than open and transparent actions). They claim that “an Afghan-led assault force that included American commandos was hunting Taliban militants when it came under fire from an encampment along the Afghan-Pakistan border”, and that “the assailants turned out to be Pakistani military personnel who had established a temporary campsite.” A joint border-control centre, manned by US, Afghan and Pakistani personnel, declared that there were no Pakistani forces in the area.

That a US-Afghan cross-border raid was taking place should not be a surprise. The US has grown increasingly frustrated with Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network, its sheltering of the Afghan Taliban, and, increasingly, perceived role in directing fire into Afghanistan. According to one account, ‘ground-to-ground rockets fired within Pakistan have landed on or near American military outposts in one Afghan border province at least 55 times since May’. US military offices ‘viscerally rejected Pakistan’s official position, and said elements of the Pakistani military or intelligence service were most likely involved’. The latest raid may have resulted from Pakistani personnel sheltering or abetting militants, or something more benign – but despite Obama offering his “condolences” and labelling the incident “regrettable”, the absence of an explicit American apology a week after the attack indicates that the US may have some confidence in its version of events.

Regardless of which side is culpable for the crisis, it presents immediate logistical difficulties because Pakistan has once more reacted by shutting the overland routes into Afghanistan to NATO convoys. After a surge of forces initiated by President Obama last year, NATO and the US maintain approximately 140,000 troops in Afghanistan, all of whom must be fuelled, fed and armed. As Afghanistan is a landlocked country, that requires the cooperation of one or other of its neighbours – and Iran, for obvious reasons, is out. What does it mean for the war effort that Pakistan has withdrawn that cooperation?

Pakistan has shut down the border in the past – for a few days in September 2008 after US cross-border raids; for two weeks in September 2010, after two Pakistani soldiers were killed by NATO helicopters; and for three days last April, in protest at drone attacks. Many in the Pakistani and foreign presshave assumed that General Kayani’s decision is a crippling blow that will bring the US to its knees.

Three claims are worth scrutinising in particular: that Pakistani routes account for 49 percent of NATO supplies; that only Pakistani routes can account for lethal or sensitive cargo; and, finally, that alternative routes are much more expensive. These claims are, respectively: untrue, mostly untrue, and largely correct.

General Duncan McNabb, then US Transportation Commander, told a Senate hearing of the Armed Services Committee in April 2011 that “about thirty percent of our stuff comes in through the port of Karachi and up through the Pakistan LOC [lines of communication]. About 35 percent we’re bringing over the Northern Distribution Network”, and “35 percent we bring in by air”. These figures have been reiterated at various Senate hearings since. Observers perhaps get this wrong because, only a few years ago the equivalent figure was 75 to ninety percent.

The Economist corroborated these figures last week, noting that “over the past 120 days … of the materiel received by the Americans in Afghanistan, around thirty percent was flown in and forty percent was driven over Afghanistan’s northern borders from Central Asia, leaving just thirty percent to come via Pakistan’s roads”.

Today, the Northern Distribution Network – a string of routes cutting through over half a dozen European and Central Asian states, including Turkey and Iraq – carries about ninety percent of all non-military items, and more than sixty percent of fuel. Last year, two additional routes were added through the Baltics and Central Asia.

This year, the US has sought greater engagement with Uzbekistan to strengthen that route. In September 2011, Senator Lindsey Graham told the Armed Services Committee that “I just want to let the committee know … that we’re on the verge of a major breakthrough in terms of northern supply and the committee will need to come up with a consensus about how we can help the Uzbekistan government”, since “some waivers would be necessary to sell them equipment, monitoring their human rights problems in the past”. Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, has argued, against those who object to engaging Uzbekistan, that “denying the ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence service] the ability to launder US money and equipment to launch terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India [and] ending the military subsidies to Pakistan and shifting the military’s supply chain to Uzbekistan is a massive net-gain for the entire region.”

There are, however, some catches. Material can go into Afghanistan, but not back out. And McNabb’s successor, General Fraser, told the Senate that “the current transit agreements only allow non-lethal cargo to transit the NDN”, creating “heavier reliance on the Pakistan ground lines of communication for some military equipment”. But this blurs an important distinction: Pakistan does allow military cargo but, just like the Central Asian states, forbids lethal cargo.

As General McNabb noted, “everything that is high value, everything that is lethal, everything that is special, we bring in by air now”. McNabb argued, with a flourish, that “air is kind of our ultimate ace in the hole”. General Fraser has fleshed this out, stating that “working with the countries in the Persian Gulf to have access to ports will allow us in to bring goods into the ports and then move them on from there with intra-theatre lift” (intra-theatre lift refers to transport within the region; inter-theatre lift would refer to, say, direct flights from the US).

Is this prohibitively expensive? McNabb argued that “it is much less expensive, because you’re taking advantage of the surface for the majority of the trip and you’re only using the air for the last part”. This seems exceedingly unlikely. Dr. Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute, has specified that “it costs about three dollars per pound to ship goods by air to Afghanistan, compared with thirty cents for surface delivery”. That is consonant with earlier estimates, and much more likely to be accurate. In any case, the US remains limited by the capacity of Afghan airfields, something it’s working to improve.

Stars and Stripes, a publication covering the US armed forces, last week cited US Transport Command as recording that ‘the average cost of all NDN truck and rail routes between April and September was 12,367 dollars per twenty-foot container unit, or TEU’, whereas ‘the cost was 14,410 dollars per TEU for northern distribution routes that included ocean commercial transport’ and ‘about 6,700 dollars per TEU on the Pakistan route’. These figures indicate that Pakistani routes are ten times cheaper than airlift, and half the cost of northern routes. Competition between routes is driving the NDN cost down, but it will likely remain more expensive than the Pakistani option.

At time of writing, Pakistani routes are still shut, but may not remain so for long. In past crises, they have reopened after weeks. Many inside Pakistan, including its mafia and parts of the military-business complex, enjoy great benefits from the taxation and theft from NATO convoys – they will be lobbying General Kayani to go easy. But US-Pakistan relations are on a long and inexorable decline, and each side is increasingly tired of indulging the other. As such crises become more frequent and NATO’s troop footprint lightens, NATO will strengthen and deepen its alternative routes, and be more willing to bear the higher costs of circumventing Pakistan.

Pakistan’s leverage will fall further. Admiral Mike Mullen, formerly the top US military officer, noted just before his retirement two months ago that ‘we will have more operational flexibility because we just won’t have as many troops’. Nonetheless, Pakistani leverage will not vanish entirely. Intelligence cooperation, particularly against al Qaeda, will be of continued importance. And a lighter US footprint will make it harder to monitor Pakistan’s policy toward militants.

In April, Senator Joe Manchin lamented that ‘I just can’t believe that we had to have a northern route because our ally Pakistan was shaking us down for thirty percent of all the products being moved through there. Don’t you find that to be extremely offensive?’ General Carter Ham, to whom the question was directed, wearily agreed. ‘Sir, it’s a tough way to do business’.