NATO supply trucks carrying NATO equipment enter Quetta, Pakistan, in February. The US military is withdrawing equipment from Afghanistan through Pakistan ahead of next year's deadline for combat troops to leave the war against the Taliban. (Banaras Khan / Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — NATO cargo and supply shipments to and from Afghanistan through Pakistan are flowing at about the rate they were before Islamabad blocked US access to the roads in November 2011, according to a senior US military official.
Still, the introduction of new tasks and procedures not needed before the routes were closed have taken time to institute, according to US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), the Defense Department organization that oversees global military cargo and equipment movement.
“We are almost back to normal levels for Pakistan,” said Lt. Gen. Kathleen Gainey, TRANSCOM deputy commander. “There are some different processes that we’re using, different security, different customs documentation, different review and screening requirement of excess cargo that’s exiting [the] country, etc.”
Pakistan closed the ground routes after a US airstrike mistakenly killed 24 of its soldiers. The only other access to landlocked Afghanistan is through the Northern Distribution Network, a series of roads through Russia and Central Asia.
Supplies traverse the Northern Distribution Network by truck, rail and ship. On the Pakistan route, trucks drive between Afghanistan and a seaport in Karachi.
Routing supplies through the Northern Distribution Network takes two to three times as long as through Pakistan, depending on the item.
The northern route also takes longer because items must go through as many as five customs inspections along the way.
There are certain weapons, such as tanks and ammunition, that must be airlifted in and out of Afghanistan.
Closing the Pakistan ground roads cost the US more than $2 billion in shipping.
Even though the US struck a deal in July 2011 to use the Pakistan route until 2015, the institution of the new procedures has taken time, US officials say.
“It’s not as simple as it was before,” Gainey said.
Since the Pakistan route opened, the US is relying less on the Northern Distribution Network.
“We’re continuing to use the Northern Distribution Network, [but] not at the volume we had been,” Gainey said. “We are continuing to use it because you’ve got to keep some lanes warm as a result of needing to possibly go back to that. So there isn’t much going through there now, but there is still some and we’re trying to make sure that that is spread out on all of the routes.”
US combat operations are expected to wrap up at the end of 2014. US and Afghan officials are negotiating what type of residual force might remain in the country after that time. The Pentagon is planning how to move approximately $36 billion worth of US military equipment out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, including 28,000 vehicles and trailers, according to a September report by the Congressional Research Service.
It is expected to cost $5 billion to $7 billion to move equipment out of the landlocked country, Gainey said. That estimate could decline if the Pakistan ground roads remain open, depending on how much equipment the US leaves behind.
“But you know that that can change at anytime,” Gainey said. “We’re continuing to triage the volume of equipment to be either shipped back, transferred to the Afghans or destroyed in place there in country.”