To get around Pak blockade, US eyes other supply routes

New York: Supply trucks for US-led forces in Afghanistan lined Pakistani roads near the border, after Islamabad retaliated against US strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers by sealing its Afghan border. The Pentagon said on Monday that the blockade had not unduly impacted the US war effort.

US military officials said they had enough stockpiles in Afghanistan to maintain operational capability if Pakistan opted to keep the border crossings into Afghanistan closed. The US military is also looking at alternative supply routes that don't rely on Pakistan.

“There are other supply routes,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters on Monday. “The war effort continues.”

On the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, NATO supply trucks idle after Pakistan sealed the border. Shahid Shinwari/Reuters

According to a Bloomberg report, US-led forces in Afghanistan get 35 percent of "non-lethal" supplies like food and fuel via Pakistan supply routes. Alternative routes are being investigated in Russia and Central Asia, according to US General William Fraser.

The US military and its allies may have to rely more heavily on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a key gateway for military equipment. The NDN comprises rail and truck routes cutting across several countries in Europe and Central Asia. It already accounts for about 40 percent of US cargo deliveries into Afghanistan and 52 percent of all coalition cargo, according to US Transportation Command officials.

The US has also been exploring other Europe-based ways to get deliveries to Afghanistan. Earlier this year, “US cargo planes delivered weapons and other supplies from Romania to test whether an airport near the Black Sea could serve as another piece in solving the logistical puzzle of getting gear into Afghanistan,” reported Stars and Stripes.

Although alternatives supply routes exist, they come at double the cost. The US Transportation Command’s back of the envelope calculation showed that in 2011, the average cost of hauling a 20-foot container on NDN truck and rail routes between April and September was $12,367. The cost was about $6,700 per container on the Pakistan route.

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Military officials on both sides of the incident are disputing the other side's story. The Pakistani military insisted on Monday that it had not fired first in the incident; it said it had told NATO its aircraft were firing on friendly troops. US officials have said the attack was in response to gunfire coming from the direction of a Pakistani border check post, but they are open to the idea that the gunfire may have come from someone besides the Pakistani military.

The top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, has asked the US Central Command to lead an investigation into the air strikes. “The facts need to be collected, analysed and the investigation needs to unfold,” Little said.

Cameron P Munter, US ambassador to Pakistan, also met with Pakistani government officials in Islamabad. “The Pakistani government knows our position,” Little said, “and that is that we do regret the loss of life in this incident and we are investigating it.”

The drone war will continue

Pakistan also ordered US officials to leave the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan that has served as a launching point for Predator drone strikes against the Taliban militants on both sides of the border.

It’s not like losing Shamsi means the US drones pack up and fly home. Analysts said that most likely, they’ll migrate across the Afghanistan border, where big airbases at Jalalabad and Kandahar can serve as launch pads for drones and other US warplanes hovering over the Pakistani tribal areas.

The US will continue to send unmanned drones and the occasional special ops teams into Pakistan, without acknowledging those incursions. It is no secret that despite being a war on terror ally, Pakistan’s ISI spy agency runs secret operations, maintaining links with the Taliban militants in the border region.

However, the political fallout from the Pakistani soldiers being killed could affect the 5 December conference in Bonn, Germany, where all players in the Afghan war were scheduled to sit down and discuss solutions to the conflict.