WASHINGTON — Even with the reopening of critical supply routes from Pakistan, the US military confronts a mammoth logistical challenge to wind down the war in Afghanistan, where it must withdraw nearly 90,000 troops and enormous depots of military equipment accumulated over the past decade.
Assuming Pakistan does not seal its border again, US and NATO commanders still face the prospect of pulling out at least a third of the cargo from northern Afghanistan on a winding, makeshift network of railways and roads that cross the former Soviet Union.
Those routes carry strategic risks of their own. Access to the transit lines depends on the whims of several authoritarian Central Asian leaders as well as President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a longtime nemesis of NATO. Moreover, the cost of shipping goods along the northern routes is about triple that of the much-shorter Pakistani lines.
The only other option for departing landlocked Afghanistan is by air — an even more expensive alternative, costing up to 10 times as much as the Pakistani ground routes.
All told, US military logisticians are preparing to bring home 100,000 shipping containers stuffed with materiel and 50,000 wheeled vehicles by the end of 2014, when US and NATO combat operations are scheduled to cease.
The US military has increasingly relied on the supply lines that cross the former Soviet Union to deliver cargo into Afghanistan since those routes opened in 2009.
After Pakistan sealed its border in November last year to protest an airstrike that killed 24 of its soldiers, the US military shifted about 60 percent of its supplies to the northern routes, with the remainder arriving in the war zone by air. Although delivery disruptions were largely avoided, the move resulted in extra expenses of about $100 million a month.
The importance of the northern routes will become even more acute when the traffic is reversed. By the end of September, 23,000 US troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan, along with a commensurate amount of materiel.
At first, Russia and several Central Asian countries approved deals that let the Pentagon and NATO deliver “nonlethal” supplies — no ammunition or armored vehicles — into Afghanistan, but provided no mechanism to withdraw the equipment. Several nations also opened their airspace for transport planes carrying troops.
The deals “focused on the needs of entry and didn’t address the needs of exiting,” said Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “All of this changed after Pakistan closed down.”
Over the past several months, the Obama administration and NATO have signed two-way transit deals with many of the former Soviet republics. But negotiations continue over a host of side issues, including alternate routes, access to airspace and airports, tariffs, and restrictions on what kinds of military cargo are eligible for shipment.
“These countries know it’s the last chance, it’s the last negotiation, so they’re going to squeeze very hard,” said Alexander Cooley, a Barnard College professor and specialist on US military relations in Central Asia. “They can escalate their demands in the confidence that this is a one-off transaction.”
Even with Pakistan reopening its border, the northern routes are seen as a vital hedge against a Pakistani change of heart. From the north, there are two primary ways out of Afghanistan: by rail into Uzbekistan or by road into Tajikistan. Both are authoritarian countries with checkered human rights records.
Beyond that, shipping convoys — which are run by private companies — must cross Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, with most of the land routes then entering Russia before zigzagging to ports in Siberia or on the Baltic Sea.
Negotiating with the Central Asians has often been as difficult as with Pakistan, according to US and NATO officials. The countries distrust, compete with, and often try to sabotage each other while simultaneously seeking to exact more concessions from Washington and its allies.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has sought to capitalize on its status as the only country with a rail link to Afghanistan by seeking a 50 percent surcharge on shipments leaving the war zone — insisting on a premium over what its neighbors earn.