Saturday, December 10, 2011

Northern Distributing Nightmare - The failed alternate Supply Route for NATO

The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), also called Northern Distribution Nightmare, is a key supply route for US and NATO Forces fighting in Afghanistan, is thought to be a nightmare for logistics, as  it involves lots of politicking with the Former Soviet States, is extremely costly and is fairly difficult to safe guard. Moreover, for different reasons the Russians threatened to close the route.

The NDN is set to experience a spike in traffic due to the closure of the Pak-Afghan Border. But it will take several weeks for the United States and NATO to work out the logistics of rerouting cargo, i.e. atleast safely at any cost.

A couple of weeks ago, a railway bridge reportedly blew up in Southern Uzbekistan, near the Afghan border. A few days later, the state-controlled media tersely blamed the explosion on a Terrorist Attack, but gave no details on who may have carried out the strike or why. Local Officials have kept mum ever since.

While US may once have considered this an obscure regional conflict, the urgent need for supplies to the war in Afghanistan has upped the international stakes considerably. In order to transport people and goods to the theater of operations, NATO must play ball with former Soviet Republics whom the Center for Strategic and International Studies has called "Unwieldy and Volatile Partners" beset by "Persistent Tensions, Mistrust, Paranoia, Authoritarianism, and a Near-Exclusive Focus on ‘Regime Preservation.'" Of these, Uzbekistan plays the most crucial role.

The damaged bridge leading to Tajikistan was not a key part of the transport route to Afghanistan, but it shines a sinister light on the weak links in NATO's vital supply chain. How did Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan become all that important? Apart from geography, it was Pakistan that heightened their role: Infuriated by a NATO Attack on a Pakistani Outpost 26th November, Pakistan has blocked NATO Supplies into Afghanistan. Now Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan must provide safe passage for troops, contractors, food, fuel, prefabricated buildings, vehicles, and more. Russia's interactions with NATO are often marked by suspicion and short-sightedness, as Russia seeks to reestablish influence in in Central Asia. Now NATO will be hard-pressed to navigate these shoals.

Any military logistician since Alexander the Great could tell you that landlocked Afghanistan is not an easily accessible destination for material. In 2008, Pentagon strategists, seeing an uptick in violence against their cargo and fuel trucks in sometime ally Pakistan, began looking for an alternative route. What they came up with is the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a transport web through the former Soviet Union, with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as its penultimate stopping points. The route has been operating since early 2009, and though US Transport Command says the trip through Central Asia costs twice as much per shipping container as going via Pakistan, over 50 percent of non-lethal goods destined for NATO troops have passed along the NDN in recent months. Washington had hoped that figure would reach 75 percent by the end of the year. With Pakistan out, the only other option would be expensive airlifts.

Most supplies on the NDN begin in the Baltic Sea port of Riga, Latvia, where they're shipped from suppliers around the world. From there, they take about ten days to transit Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan by rail, crossing into Afghanistan over the Friendship Bridge at Termez. Another branch of the route completely bypasses Russia, starting at the Black Sea port of Poti, in Georgia, snaking across Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan, then funneling into southern Uzbekistan. The two routes come together at Termez, creating a bottleneck where supplies can languish for over a month.

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