Afghan Supply Chain a Weak Point

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

The U.S. military is laboring to shore up a vulnerable supply chain through Pakistan and Central Asia as it seeks to expand the flow of supplies into Afghanistan by at least 50 percent to support an influx of tens of thousands of troops, according to defense officials and experts.

One new link is now undergoing testing with the first shipment of U.S. military nonlethal cargo through Russia, officials said. That cargo has already crossed into Kazakhstan on its way to Afghanistan, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

Escalating attacks on supply convoys in Pakistan, the anticipated closure in less than six months of the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan -- the last remaining American air hub in Central Asia -- and slow progress in opening up the northern supply route into Afghanistan have added urgency to the effort to strengthen the logistical backup for the troop increase, they said.

"If you ask me what I worry about at night, it is the fact that our supply chain is always under attack," said Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, commander of the U.S. military's Transportation Command, in testimony last week that focused on Afghanistan.

McNabb said 130 contract drivers have been killed trucking American supplies through Pakistan, for example. Once inside Afghanistan, he said, some roads are so dangerous that the U.S. military will have to fly over them to carry in supplies and personnel.

"As we increase the troop presence there, we will have to look at which areas will you secure, which areas will you convoy through and which areas will you have to jump over -- in other words, go by vertical lift," he said in House Armed Services Committee testimony.

The U.S. military is seeking to expand its flow of ground cargo into Afghanistan by at least 50 percent, to more than 100 containers a day, to meet the needs of the initial increase of 17,000 troops this year ordered by President Obama last month, McNabb said. About 38,000 American troops are currently in Afghanistan, and U.S. commanders have asked to increase that number to as many as 60,000 to combat an intensifying Taliban insurgency.

Up to 90 percent of American military ground cargo, which consists of nonlethal supplies such as food, fuel, water and construction materials, currently flows through Pakistan, defense officials said. Those supplies enter Afghanistan primarily through Torkham gate at the Khyber Pass and Chaman gate farther south.

"You very clearly have an issue of flow through a small number of choke points that seem increasingly vulnerable," said Craig Mullaney, who served as an Army officer in Afghanistan before becoming a war adviser to the Obama campaign.

The military wants to open a significant new ground supply distribution route into Afghanistan through the north, primarily through rail lines in Termez, Uzbekistan, which connect with tracks that extend about 10 miles across the border into Afghanistan, officials said. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan also agreed last month to allow nonlethal U.S. military cargo to travel on their roads and rail lines, officials and experts said.

The goal is for the northern route via the Russian rail system to handle about 20 percent of the ground cargo destined for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, or about 100 20-foot containers a week, compared with about 500 a week through Pakistan, officials said.

So far, however, that flow is much smaller, partly due to bureaucratic problems, they said. "There are obviously learning curves in crossing different boundaries and making sure customs paperwork is in place," said one defense official, who like the others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations over supply routes.


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