Analysis: The US-Pakistan relationship and the critical factor of supply

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].

map-afghan-supply-624.gifMap from NPR/US TRANSCOM.

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.

The future

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.

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  • sanman says:

    It’s a fundamental failure of US leadership. It’s ridiculous that US leaders could not see the supply vulnerability in advance, and its full implications. This is a failure of the Bush whitehouse carried on over into the next administration and compounded by it. The troop surge only increased US reliance on an unreliable Pakistan.
    It’s a failure of US political and military leadership, and it is this layer which must be held accountable, and made to answer for their glaring oversight.

  • naresh c. says:

    US should also acknowledge that Balochistan has legitimate demands for an independent state. Once Balochis are independent, they will be happily aligned with the democratic nations and support a stable Afghanistan and also provide a safe supply route to central Asia.

  • Tom Brown says:

    US TRANSCOM is a Joint US Command not an Army command as listed. It’s Headquarters are at Scott AFB. It has been mostly commanded by an Air Force 4 star.

  • blert says:

    The nation-building elements of the ISAF need to be withdrawn ASAP since they are THE main source of Pakistani leverage.
    Think for a second: hauling in building supplies is VERY burdensome on the transport network.
    So, the elimination of these non-priority burdens will have an outsized impact on logistics.
    Likewise, pulling out of helicopter-sustained fire bases will have a massive impact.
    The Taliban should be stopped Beau Geste style: at the water hole.
    We should also employ computer based local accent pattern recognition — like an iPad App. This would permit our guys to separate the locals from Taliban ‘visitors.’
    Like Professor Higgins this App would eventually localize each accent — to the point of villages or valleys.
    Biometrics, for such in-bred populations, would take it the rest of the way.

  • Goatweed says:

    A biofuel facility inside Afghanistan using local organics might solve cost and supply line problems.

  • Charles says:

    The best way to give the Taliban trouble in the frontier areas is to do a geological survey of the waziristans and other areas on the pakistani side of the border.


    Consider. The US is currently training afghans to use air survey tools so that they can fly over afghanistan and map the kind and extent of minerals that underlay afghanistan.

    Likely nothing even remotely similiar has been done for the tribal belt in Pakistan.

    But since they share the same geological structures as afghanistan–its likely that the wealth that underlays them is as great as that found in afghanistan.

    so it would be of interest to all parties to find out what riches the pakistanis have–especially in the tribal belt along the afghan border.

    That said, on the day that great wealth in say lithium or various rare earths, or gold, or silver, gems or hydrocarbons is discovered in the tribal belt–the interests of the ISI will change.

    Suddenly it will be much easier for the ISI to put troops in the tribal belt. Suddenly, the ISI will find the resources to confront the Taliban for control of the region.

  • Devin Leonard says:

    We need to use our “AID” leverage more against the Pakis. If they are going t block our shipments, we should block their aid and watch thier country dry up like a twig. China will not step into save Pakistan.

  • etudiant says:

    While the US has done well to get some alternative links in place, these are even more fragile than those in Pakistan, being dependent on the continued goodwill of multiple transit counties rather than just one.
    So it is foolish to conclude that we can just step away from Pakistan as long as we have tens of thousands of service personnel in Afghanistan.

  • flloyd says:

    finally we can tell the pak to take a hike and bring the force of arms upon the border region with impunity.between this and the removal of funding of the pak economy will intice them to change there future course of action

  • Rob Lane says:

    Operation Nickel Grass was an overt strategic airlift operation conducted by the United States to deliver weapons and supplies to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The Military Airlift Command of the U.S. Air Force shipped 22,325 tons of tanks, artillery, ammunition, and supplies in C-141 Starlifter and C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft between October 14 and November 14, 1973. Seems like a no brainer this day and age.

  • munib says:

    The Baluch nation should be supported by the world to gain their independence. So far, in spite of multiple requests by Baluch freedom leaders, the world, especially the US has not backed Baluch for their goal to create a developed, independent and peaceful Baluchistan. This is another failure of the US. It is not late, the Baluchistan-US relationship can be formed from now to the benefits of both countries.

  • What USA does not understand is this “dependence” on Pakistan makes it to compromise on strategic matters and this in turn makes China,India and Japan wonder about USA as a partner or as an opponent.

  • Charu says:

    Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have a lot to lose if the Taliban ever come back to power in Afghanistan. It should be in their interest to see that ISAF is supplied. A lot of these issues would go away if Baluchistan becomes independent. Likewise, if the entire state of Kashmir had gone over to India in 1947, Afghanistan would have had a direct link to India. The stability and development of an entire country that is older than Pakistan is being held hostage by the Punjabis.

  • dr burke says:

    Why don’t we have Russia fly and drop heavy tanks, trucks; etc, where we need them? All fuel up and ready to go.
    They have a new rocket parachute for heavy payloads…..
    Those Crazy Russians Use Retrorockets to Slow Down Tanks Dropped From Planes
    You know what looks like a lot of fun? Dropping Soviet T-80 battle tanks from huge Soviet cargo planes, using both a parachute and retro-rockets to slow them down just before they land safely on Earth. Don’t believe me? Watch.
    Apparently, the Russians are the only ones who use this technique. I wonder if the landings are soft enough to drop the tanks with their full crew inside.

  • David says:

    Time to agree with the Chinese and build the roads across the China-Afghan border

  • Don Vandervelde says:

    Excellent comments, much better than apparantly the Obama Regime can fathom.
    1.Ally with the independence-minded Baluchis, ignoring the Paks. Make agreements to trade our support for their independence, for a supply route.
    1. Ally with the Indians, first for an air supply route over Northern Pak defended by the US
    AF, and Indian troops to defend the Kyber Pass inside. Afgfhanistan.
    3. Remember, the Afghans suffer immensely from Paks supporting Taliban raids and artillery fire against them, from inside their Waziriastan border(s).
    Make plans to include Indian mountain troops in a combined Nato, US, and Afghan thrust into N. Waz. There are more opportunities for victory, but here’s a good start.

  • Cog says:

    I read recently that the U.S. built up a significant surplus of certain goods in Afghanistan over the last 6 months.
    Given the political strategy of hammering Pakistan with a new scandal every other week, I think there was some foresight of the situation by this administration.
    How much more expensive is NDN rail and air transit over Pakistan port and truck delivery?

  • Al says:

    Charles, good ideas. Make the area valuable to Pakistan, and their need to make it safe for mineral exploitation. That would also bring in more moderate people as a workforce, and could even lift locals out of Taliban influence by showing benefits of economic opportunity. Strategic thinking is what this Administration (and others) lacks.
    Taliban and Radical Islam are in it for the long term (Centuries) while the West, especially the U.S. often can think no farther than next election cycle.

  • K Gupta says:

    The excessive arrogance of China and Pakistan rising rapidly in last month is no coincidence. Time to block both China and Pakistani ports and declare sanctions against China & Pakistan.
    It will pave the way for a proper & complete solution to avoid all military confrontations in future .

  • David says:

    The DLA (nor the direct purchase authorties on the ground) can build [ground delivered] supplies lasting more than 45 days, especially fuel.
    NDN ground supply lines are about x3 more expensive on average and about 1/3 of that cost is corruption related (remember, you are transiting about 5 different countries including mother Russia).
    Another challenge comes from the logistics related choke-points alongside the three northern neigbors:
    (a) Turkmenistan (Turgundi) – the country’s railway system is not electrified, slow and sluggish; some traffic to Herat is feasible though.
    (b) Uzbekistan (Termez) – the soviet-built Friendship Bridge (unique one, allowing both rail and truck traffic) over Panji river is the only real artery… but plenty of stoppages and demurrage charges (good reason for the Uzbeks to ask for back shish)
    (c) Tajikistan (Shir Khan Bandar) – recent, US built bridge (trucks only) over the same river, not well utilized but perhpas some potential there.
    Doubt Indian ground transport alternative (and involving their mountain batallions) can work due to the Kashmir geography, etc. If there is some hope on the Paki opposition today to replace current regime and be more reasonable, playing Kashmir card means going to war with the entire Pakistan.
    Out of the two remaining options (Iran and China)China is still America’s Most-Favored Nation Trading Partner. How’s about a Hong-Kong style lease of that South-Western part of [extremely]underdevolped China for 100 years and building tunnels through the mountains?

  • Lakshmanan says:

    Use Indian Air Facility from North India, preferably from Ladakh. Afghan can be reached in a few minutes. Less fuel. Inform Pak any attack on US Planes will not be tolerated. Let there be specific open request from Afghan President to India to guard certain areas inside Afghanistan. India will be more inclined if expense part is taken care by the U.S. U.S SHOULD engage Pakistan military through Afghan army in the border that Pakistan army remains always in tension and military preparedness. They enjoy terrorism because they fight through proxies. If frequent strikes kills Pak army members regularly, it will get to their nerves. Internal dissensions will arise and atleast one party will opt for peace with outside world. Use Pak sources to kill their top ranking Taliban allies in thier military. Unless they are given blows and severe head-ache, Pakistan army will not leave Afghanistan and stop supporting terrorism through proxies.

  • Ashraf says:

    Please view this situation in broader perspective. I recommend reading of ‘The Wars Within’ by Imran Malik at

  • Raja says:

    i see a lot of indian comments here with reference to baluchistan….secondly the west and india must not forget that now the chief of pak army has given directives to eliminate any NATO or US incursion into pakistan borders…. from now on it will not be bussiness as usual.

  • David says:

    Indian alternative to the Shamshi AB?

  • AMac says:

    Here is a lengthy Bloomberg Businessweek report by Shahan Mufti on the logistics chain from Karachi to Afghanistan. It is dated 12/14/11, but I only just noticed it.
    From Pakistan to Afghanistan, U.S. Finds Convoy of Chaos.
    Good analysis with lots of grim anecdotes. The US/NATO supply line was a bonanza for the Pakistani Taliban (etc. etc. etc.), even when things were going well. “Going well” in sneer quotes, of course.


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