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Forces Removing Equipment From Afghanistan Keep Eye on Russian Route

  • Henry Ridgwell

How to remove millions of tons of equipment from a landlocked country with primitive infrastructure?

That’s the challenge facing international military forces in Afghanistan as they work through the mammoth task of shipping most of their vehicles and equipment out of the country as the December 2014 withdrawal deadline approaches.

And there are new fears that a key transport route that transits Russia could be shut down.

The so-called Northern Distribution Network connects Afghanistan overland with ports in the Black Sea, and also with Baltic ports via Central Asia, the Caucasus and Russia.

There are fears that NATO’s deteriorating relations with Russia over its actions in Ukraine could lead to Moscow shutting down the route to the Baltic.

Andrew Foxall, of the British-based think-tank the Henry Jackson Society, said Russian President Vladimir Putin may use this tactic.

“In early April NATO halted all collaboration with Russia and there are suggestions over the last few days that NATO’s offices in Moscow will be closed down. So in that sense, I think it’s increasingly likely that Putin will play this card, the ace in the pack effectively that he has, with regards to NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Foxall said.

The cost of the U.S. withdrawal alone is estimated at $6 to 7 billion. NATO as a whole has already shipped 86,000 vehicles and containers.

Viable alternative routes have allowed the operation to move ahead of schedule, said retired British Brigadier Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The other route is the land route over the passes from Pakistan down to Karachi and thence by sea. And in addition, many NATO countries have been flying a lot of their heavy equipment out of Afghanistan, usually to a port in the region,” Barry said.

Barry said there are good reasons why Russia would not want to disrupt the route out of Afghanistan.

“The countries that are doing this are paying good, solid Western cash for this,” he said.

But for Putin, economics often comes second to strategy, Foxall said.

“Russia receives about $1 billion a year from NATO for NATO using Russian territory for transit purposes. But as we’ve seen in Ukraine, in Crimea, I don’t necessarily think that the economic costs are high on Putin’s agenda when he’s making these geopolitical calculations,” he said.

Moscow supported the West after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the fear that Afghanistan could again become an exporter of terrorism unites Russia and the West, Barry said.

“In the inner councils of the Russian government, for example in its National Security Council, there will be voices arguing for making sure that security transition in Afghanistan happens as well as it could do because the last thing Russia needs is more instability on another of its borders,” he added.

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