The (Other) Long Road to Afghanistan
Nine years and two U.S. presidents in, the war effort in Afghanistan has never appeared more difficult. And if fighting the fast-metastasizing insurgency and keeping the government in Kabul in line weren't difficult enough, just getting supplies into the country is emerging as a major challenge.
NATO's main supply route into Afghanistan has come under increasing threat from border closures on the Pakistani side and lethal Taliban attacks, meaning that international forces are likely to rely even more on what the United States calls its "Northern Distribution Network" to reinforce the 150,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan. But the route, a series of long supply lines snaking through the mountains and deserts of Central Asia, comes with its own, largely overlooked, set of headaches as political disputes, corruption, poor infrastructure, and security concerns continue to put supply lines at risk -- as 2010 viscerally showed.
In April, NATO supplies coming in through Kyrgyzstan's Manas transit center were held up by political unrest and then again by a tax dispute over the base in May. But even before that, the system was showing signs of trouble. Goods traveling by rail through Uzbekistan typically experience a 20-day delay at the Uzbek-Afghan border while waiting for inspection. (The U.S. Defense Department told Defense News in March that it had been reduced from 30 days, though shipping companies report that it can be cut to as few as seven for the right bribe.)
Then there are local political feuds to contend with. In May, thousands of rail carriages, containing badly needed fuel and food for NATO troops, were held up at the Uzbek-Tajik border by Uzbekistan's national railroad. The company blamed technical problems, but it is widely suspected that Tashkent was trying to block building materials from reaching a hydroelectric plant being built on the Tajik side, which Uzbeks think will divert water away from their farmland.
Even during the best of times, bottlenecks are inevitable. Trucks are forced to crowd onto the single bridge over the Amu Darya River that separates Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan or use one of the hastily constructed barges put in by NATO. In June, 3,500 fuel tanks were languishing on the Uzbek side of the river. A new rail bridge won't be finished until next year at the earliest.
And that doesn't even factor in the region's fast-deteriorating security situation. Northern Afghanistan was once one of the country's most peaceful regions. But Taliban activity has been increasing in the area, and fuel tankers crossing into Kunduz province have been hijacked by militants. Experts worry that the strengthening Islamist militant movements in Central Asian countries could begin to target the supply lines as well.
With unstable Pakistan to the east and actively hostile Iran to the west, NATO commanders had little choice but to cut deals with Russia and Central Asian autocrats to open up the northern route. Already, the White House says the Northern Distribution Network accounts for nearly 30 percent of ground supplies delivered to U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- the rest still comes in through Pakistan. But it's quickly becoming clear that looking north might not be the answer.
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