Memories are fresh of Pakistan’s temporary closure of a major crossing into Afghanistan in September, resulting in a logjam of hundreds of supply trucks and fuel tankers, dozens of which were destroyed in attacks by insurgents.
While reducing the shipment of cargo through Pakistan would address a strategic weakness that U.S. military officials have long considered an Achilles’ heel, shifting supply lines elsewhere would substantially increase the cost of the war and make the United States more dependent on authoritarian countries in Central Asia.
A senior U.S. defense official said the military wants to keep using Pakistan, which offers the most direct and the cheapest routes to Afghanistan. But the Pentagon also wants the ability to bypass the country if necessary.
With landlocked Afghanistan lacking seaports, and hostile Iran blocking access from the west, Pentagon logisticians have limited alternatives.
“It’s either Central Asia or Pakistan — those are the two choices. We’d like to have both,” the defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating Pakistan. “We’d like to have a balance between them, and not be dependent on either one, but always have the possibility of switching.”
U.S. military officials said they have emergency backup plans in case the Pakistan routes became unavailable.
“We will be on time, all the time,” said Vice Adm. Mark D. Harnitchek, deputy commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees the movement of supplies and equipment.
In such an event, however, the military would have to deliver the bulk of its cargo by air, a method that might not be sustainable; it costs up to 10 times as much as shipping via Pakistan.
“We’d have to be a little bit more mindful of what we put in the pipe,” Harnitchek said.
The Defense Department is already boosting the amount of cargo it sends to Afghanistan by air. To save on costs, the military is shipping as many of those supplies as possible to seaports in the Persian Gulf before loading them on planes bound for the war zone.
As recently as 2009, the U.S. military moved 90 percent of its surface cargo through Pakistan, arriving by ship at the port in Karachi and then snaking through mountain passes, deserts and remote tribal areas before crossing the border into Afghanistan. The Pakistan supply lines are served entirely by contractors instead of U.S. military convoys and are vulnerable to bandits, insurgents and natural disasters.
Today, almost 40 percent of surface cargo arrives in Afghanistan from the north, along a patchwork of Central Asian rail and road routes that the Pentagon calls the Northern Distribution Network. Military planners said they are pushing to raise the northern network’s share to as much as 75 percent by the end of this year.