Pakistan has recently re-opened a vital supply line to NATO troops in Afghanistan - the so-called southern route. But, NATO forces also use another major thoroughfare.
The so-called northern route is a far more complex network of supply lines than the southern route, which relies merely on trucks transiting through Pakistan to provide military equipment to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Alexander Cooley is a Central Asian expert at Barnard College, New York.
“The northern route uses a mix of ship, road, rail and air. It’s not one route," Cooley stated. "It’s really a series of different routes that originate in the Baltic states, then come down via rail - old Soviet rails - through Russia, through Kazakhstan. Most of them pass through Uzbekistan and the border town of Termez.”
From Termez, the trucks pass over the “Friendship Bridge” into Afghanistan.
Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan with the RAND Corporation, says whether the supplies come by rail, air or truck, NATO and the United States must sign agreements with each country involved.
“In order for any material to come through any of the Central Asian governments, or Russia for that matter, they have to agree on specifics on how much those governments are going to make and any companies that are exporting or importing goods, how much they are going to make. So there are a lot of details that have to be agreed on both by the host nation as well as by any private companies that are involved in moving the goods,” explained Jones.
Experts say the exact terms and transit fees paid to each country remain classified. But they say given the complexity of the northern route, experts estimate it costs twice as much to ship supplies through that network than through the southern route.
However the northern route was the only way to ship supplies into Afghanistan for the past seven months. Pakistan shut down the southern route after a U.S.-led coalition air strike accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier last November. Islamabad recently re-opened it after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is “sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military.”
Analysts say both southern and northern routes will also be used to move soldiers and equipment out of Afghanistan, as the United States and other NATO countries wind down their military presence in that country.
Alexander Cooley says the so-called “reverse transit” operation will be another source of revenue for the countries involved. “There is a perception that the drawdown is going to be a type of one-shot affair, that they can squeeze now, make increased demands for payments now with the understanding that NATO and the U.S. will just want to get the stuff out and will give in to these demands,” he said.
Many human rights organizations question whether the United States and NATO should rely on authoritarian countries for getting supplies in and ultimately soldiers out of Afghanistan.
Cooley says it is difficult to strike a balance between short-term military needs and long-term democratic aspirations.
“Over the last 10 years, Washington and Brussels [NATO Headquarters] have come to tone down criticism on so-called rights issues and also tone down engagement in other areas to focus primarily on the security and logistics cooperation," said Cooley. "In some way, Central Asia has been made an appendage to the Afghanistan war. And those in the advocacy community who look at questions of democracy and human rights, would like a little more honesty about Washington’s policy and view what has happened in Central Asia as also a political casualty of the Afghan war.”
Seth Jones from the RAND Corporation says there has been no major success, nor prospects of success, in establishing greater democratization across Central Asia.