Only four percent of cargo that the U.S. military is shipping out of Afghanistan is being sent north through Central Asia, a senior U.S. military official has said. In an interview with the American Forces Press Service, Scott Anderson, U.S. Central Command’s deputy director for logistics and engineering, said the Northern Distribution Network is “not as viable” as the U.S. would like, but is still a vital option for the Pentagon. The problems seem limited to shipping cargo out: the NDN has accounted for 80 percent of cargo going into Afghanistan since Pakistan shut off its border with Afghanistan in November 2011, Anderson said.
He gave a number of reasons for the low amount of outward-bound traffic on the NDN. Part of it is just geographical:
One reason, Anderson explained, is that the vast majority of U.S. forces now are operating in eastern Afghanistan, which is closer to Pakistan than the NDN. “The majority of our cargo simply isn’t leaving the northern part of Afghanistan,” he said.
To get it across Afghanistan to the NDN involves crossing the towering Hindu Kush mountain range — a logistical challenge that becomes monumental during the winter months.
There are political challenges, as well, which Anderson somewhat delicately addresses:
But there are other complications to making greater use of the Northern Distribution Network, particularly for many of the shipments that initially entered Afghanistan via Pakistan or by air, Anderson explained.
Some of the physical infrastructure simply can’t accommodate the heavy equipment being moved. Many of the countries involved have strict rules about what kinds of equipment can and can’t transit through their territory — with particular objection to weapons systems and combat vehicles. In some cases, nations will allow these shipments to cross into their borders — but only if the contents are covered.
“For retrograde, we have had to renegotiate agreements with all the Central Asian nations” that make up the Northern Distribution Network, Anderson said. “It may not be as viable as route as we would like, but the bottom line is, we need it.”
Military officials I spoke to at the Riga NDN conference two weeks ago said that while the NDN countries (in particular Uzbekistan) were making it difficult for the Pentagon, Pakistan was not much better, and that the bottlenecks that had built up on that southern route still persisted today.
Relatedly, the Washington Post had a good feature on the effort to destroy military equipment in Afghanistan because in some cases that is more economical than shipping it out or giving it to allies.
That has left the Pentagon in a quandary about what to do with the items. Bequeathing a large share to the Afghan government would be challenging because of complicated rules governing equipment donations to other countries, and there is concern that Afghanistan’s fledgling forces would be unable to maintain it. Some gear may be sold or donated to allied nations, but few are likely to be able to retrieve it from the war zone.
Therefore, much of it will continue to be shredded, cut and crushed to be sold for pennies per pound on the Afghan scrap market — a process that reflects a presumptive end to an era of protracted ground wars.
Nevertheless, some equipment — both military and civilian — will be handed over to allies along the NDN. including to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Those discussions are still in the early stages.