The United States and Pakistan have had strained relations ever since the US first entered Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. But over the past year, the relationship has further deteriorated in the wake of the US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in May, the Raymond Davis incident in the winter of 2011, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the controversial drone strikes against terror groups based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and a number of cross-border incidents that resulted in the deaths of Pakistani troops.
On Nov. 25, there was another cross-border incident, in which US forces killed 24 Pakistani troops in Pakistan’s tribal agency of Mohmand. Pakistan holds the US responsible and in retaliation has cut off the US supply routes to Afghanistan that run through Pakistan.
Why did Pakistan choose this action? What are the consequences for US policy?
US supply route to Afghanistan is dependent on Pakistan
Fundamental to the US-Pakistan relationship is the hard fact that a major US military supply route to Afghanistan runs through Pakistan. No army cannot operate in the field without supplies, and the US has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. The supply route starts at the Pakistani port of Karachi, where ships dock and offload their supplies onto trucks. The trucks then drive through Pakistan and enter Afghanistan through either the Khyber Pass near Peshawar or through the Chaman crossing near Quetta.
Dependence on this supply route creates a fundamental vulnerability for the US in its relations with Pakistan. At any time, Pakistan can choose to cut off supplies to US troops. This provides Pakistan with a major lever over US policy. And Pakistan has used this leverage many times. After previous incidents, Pakistan temporarily halted supply trucks from transiting to Afghanistan or allowed trucks to be destroyed. Consequently, US policy has been constrained by the level of Pakistani tolerance.
Consider the latest incident. Pakistan does not tolerate US incursions or attacks into its territory. At the same time, insurgents use Pakistani territory as a safe haven, moving back and forth across the border with Afghanistan at will. As a result, the US’ ability to interdict insurgents as they cross the border is severely limited.
How will this latest incident play out? There is reason to believe that the aftermath of this incident, and future ones, may be different from previous similar incidents.
Alternative supply routes: the Northern Distribution Network (NDN)
The US has been working to address its supply vulnerability for some time. US TRANSCOM (US Transportation Command), the department responsible for delivering supplies, has been developing alternative supply routes that avoid Pakistan. Given the geography of the region, all of the supply routes into landlocked Afghanistan are difficult. A hostile Iran borders the west. The former Soviet Central Asian republics to the north have an underdeveloped infrastructure, are politically unstable, and are strongly influenced by Russia. Despite all this, US has developed the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).
The NDN’s goal is to bring in supplies, not from the south through Pakistan [indicated on map by light blue paths], but from the north through Central Asia, Russia, and the Caucasus region [dark blue paths].
Since late 2008, the US has struck a series of deals with countries in the region for transit rights and infrastructure improvements, including:
- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: states with Baltic Sea ports
- Russia, with a railroad network from the Baltic states to Central Asia
- Georgia and Azerbaijan: Caucasus states with ports and railroad network from Black Sea and Caspian Sea to Central Asia
- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan: Central Asian states with rail networks from Russia and the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan
In addition, some deals include air transit rights. This allows supplies delivered by aircraft to avoid transiting Pakistani airspace.
There are now a number of supply routes to Afghanistan that bypass Pakistan. But the NDN is not a panacea. It remains a difficult supply route, with each part of the route having advantages and disadvantages. For example:
- The Northern Spur brings supplies by ship to a Baltic port, then by rail through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. While this route avoids Pakistan, it is more expensive. In addition, it goes through Russia, which has its own national interests. This makes the US vulnerable to Russian policy demands.
- The Southern Spur brings supplies by ship or rail to a Georgian port on the Black Sea, then by rail through Georgia and Azerbaijan, by ferry across the Caspian Sea, and by rail again through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. This route avoids both Pakistan and Russia. But it is complex, transiting several countries, and requires offloading to several different transportation modes along the way. Consequently, it is the most expensive route and has limited capacity.
While the NDN has taken time to develop, it is now delivering supplies in substantial quantities. The first shipments were made in March 2009, and since then the amounts have steadily increased, while the amounts delivered through Pakistan have decreased. The NDN provided 35% of US supplies in April 2010, 50% in April 2011, and 55%-65% in July-Sept 2011. By the end of 2011, the NDN is expected to provide 75% of US supplies to Afghanistan.
At the same time, other ISAF nations with troops in Afghanistan are following the US lead, shifting their supply routes to the NDN. However, they are not as far along, with upwards of 60% of their supplies still being transported through Pakistan.
Decreasing US supply needs
The second factor affecting the US supply situation is an upcoming reduction in the demand. As part of the drawdown of forces announced by President Obama in June 2011, the US will reduce troop levels in Afghanistan from 100,000 to 68,000 by September 2012. The quantity of supplies needed should decrease by a comparable amount.
With increasing NDN capacity, and decreasing demand for military supplies, it is possible that the need for a Pakistani supply route will end by late 2012. While the option is not publicly acknowledged, the US would have the capacity to halt supply shipments through Pakistan altogether, thus eliminating one of Pakistan’s major levers on US policy. Although this is not Pakistan’s only lever, it is one of the strongest and the one that Pakistan has been quickest to use. How Pakistan will react to future disputes, and how US policy will change due to this new calculus, remains to be seen.