Colonel GG Pamidi*


The recent news report of Pakistan agreeing in principle to reopen the supply routes to NATO has once again raised hopes of an improvement in the US-Pakistan relationship[1].  This relationship has witnessed a certain amount of frostiness, if not outright hostility at times. Things came to a head with Osama bin Laden being finally tracked down at handshaking distance from the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Just when it was thought that things could not get any worse, came the news of killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by NATO forces. Predictably, Pakistan had reacted by stopping the supply lines that pass through the country and which are vital for the sustenance of the ISAF. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had said that it was "an attack on Pakistan's sovereignty[2]."

Such is the leverage that Pakistan wields on the US; and so much is the US dependent on the land route at present that it generally acquiesces to most, if not all, of Pakistan’s demands. So the decision to reopen them is reassuring to the US.

Is there no alternative?

This throws up some really perplexing questions:-

  • Is there really no alternative to the land route? Are all supplies only through this route?
  • How exactly were the supplies being supplied till now, once the land route was closed?
  • Can Pakistan continue with its intransigent policy of literally holding the US to ransom? 
  • What is the quantum of stores that need to be supplied?
  • What about the type of supplies, namely, are all supplies permitted through the alternate route?

These are typical queries that puzzle any neutral observer and merits detailed analysis. Regarding the aspect about the availability of an alternate supply route; there is indeed an alternate northern route that comes through Central Asia. This is called as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The NDN comprises three principal land routes.

  • The first stretching from the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, through Baku, Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, and into Central Asia;
  • The second is from the Latvian port of Riga through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan;
  • The final route is the one that originates in Latvia and travels through Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and passes into Afghanistan via Tajikistan.

As a matter of fact, not only the PAKGLOC but the NDN as well as the air route were being used as supply routes to deliver stores to the troops in Afghanistan. Since the closure of NATO supply routes via Pakistan in late November 2011, it has been assumed that the US has compensated for its closure by using the supply routes through NDN and by moving supplies by air. While this is indeed true, the details of how it has happened are interesting. These need to be understood in the context of exactly how much of supplies were being supplied by the land route through Pakistan and how much through the NDN? Only then, the impact of closure of the Pakistan route as well as use of the NDN can be critically evaluated.

The actual quantum of supplies that are supplied through Pakistan and those through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) via Central Asia are different and what confuses the issue even more is that different figures are quoted by different agencies. The actual and reliable figures are obviously those that are quoted by the people in authority. For example The Economist says this about Pakistan, “It lets America drive three-quarters of its war supplies from Karachi[3]”. Some others quote various other numbers. To get an accurate picture, one can do no better than quote the figures that were revealed in the testimony  of General William Fraser, Commander, United States Transportation Command to the US Senate Armed Service Committee on 28 February 2012.[4] This is what he said:-

“The Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication (PAK GLOC) provide logistical support through the movement of cargo to Afghanistan.  In 2011 more than 35,000 containers were delivered on the PAK GLOC by surface transportation.  When open, the PAK GLOC remains the quickest and most cost effective route. The NDN provides an additional route for cargo to Afghanistan.  Over the past year, we moved an average of 40 percent of all cargo in support of OEF through the NDN’s multiple truck, water, rail, and air routes in an expanding distribution network.  In 2011 a total of 27,000 containers were delivered by surface transportation on the NDN, an increase of 15 percent from 2010.”

This testimony makes it very clear that far from about three quarters of supplies, namely 75%, being supplied through Pakistan, it was only about 40%. Also far from having no alternatives, the ISAF did have an alternative which they proceeded to utilise. What is really interesting is that when the PAKGLOC was closed in November, multimodal hubs were used to send in the stores. Not only was the NDN exploited, even the air route was used. What then is the ratio of the supplies sent through the PAKGLOC, the NDN and the air route? To clarify this aspect, the figures from the latest staff report prepared for the use of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations makes for some illuminating reading. To quote directly from the report:

Close to 75 percent of ground sustainment cargo is now shipped via the NDN. According to U.S. Transportation Command, an estimated 40 percent of all cargo transits the NDN, 31 percent is shipped by air, and the remaining 29 percent goes through Pakistan”[5].

Many stores being flown in to Afghanistan were actually being picked from commercial ports in the neighbourhood. This is how 39 ships were diverted from the Karachi port to Dubai and Aqaba (Jordan) after November. These multimodal hubs proved extremely beneficial and several hundred containers from these 39 different ships were then airlifted as needed into Afghanistan to ensure sustained support to combat operations.

Can Pakistan continue with its intransigent attitude? Has the dependency of the US on Pakistan’s ground route lost its value? This merits a closer scrutiny. Events from November 2011 till date do not mean the end of US dependency on Pakistan. This is because more than the need to supply troops in Afghanistan, the US needs Pakistan supply routes to bring equipment out of the theatre due to the impending drawdown in Afghanistan.

With the amount of equipment we need to move … we need the Pakistan GLOC open. Because of the large numbers that we are talking about that we need to bring out in a timely manner. The governments that agreed to the Northern Distribution Network have given permission to move armored vehicles and other eligible commodities, but not weapons[6]”, General Fraser said.

The next reality is that of the type of supplies. There are many reports which suggest that all sensitive and classified cargo to the troops in Afghanistan is routed only through Pakistan. The truth of this matter can be summed up by quoting the comments of Major General Kenneth S Dowd, who was the Director of Logistics at CENTCOM from June 2007 to June 2010 made in the September-October 2010 issue of Army Sustainment, which is a professional bulletin of the US Army[7] :

Our business rules call for all sensitive or classified cargo to be flown into Afghanistan on military or commercially contracted aircraft. All other cargo is shipped via surface routes”.


The US has worked on opening and utilising the alternate supply routes. They have succeeded in bringing down the reliance on PAKGLOC from a high of 90 per cent of supplies in 2009 to just about 29 per cent. As the US forces drawdown in Afghanistan, this dependency on Pakistan may well decline further. The reduction of their leverage over the US is an imminent reality which Pakistan appears to have realised and their belated acceptance to reopen the supply route only reflects realpolitik and not any high altruistic notions. Obviously, the Pakistani military leaders are equally anxious to reopen the NATO supply routes. This is not only for the financial benefits it brings to the Pakistan Army’s National Logistics Council but also to recreate the leeway it had over the US by threatening to shut these routes.


[1] See “Ruling coalition decides in principle to reopen NATO supply route”, The Express Tribune, March 14, 2012.

[2] Brian Padden,Pakistan Considers Re-Opening NATO Supply Routes”, Global Security, accessed at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/new/

[3] The Economist, 19 May 2011.

[4] Statement of General William Fraser, USAF Commander, United States Transportation Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the State of the Command made on February 28, 2012. Accessed at http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2012/02%20February/Fraser%2002-28-12.pdf

[5] “Central Asia and the Transition in Afghanistan”, a majority staff report prepared for the use of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate’s  One Hundred Twelfth Congress, First Session, December 19, 2011. Available via the World Wide Web: http://www.fdsys.gpo.gov

[6] Brian Everstine, “TRANSCOM boss: Pakistan cargo lines must reopen”, Army Times. Accessed at http://www.armytimes.com/news/2012/02/airforce-transcom-pakistan-cargolines-022812w/

[7] Major General Kenneth S. Dowd, “Building Log Nation in the U.S. Central Command”, accessed at http://www.almc.army.mil/alog/issues/SepOct10/log_nation.html


*Colonel GG Pamidi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI.

(Article uploaded on March 22, 2012). 

Disclaimer : The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI.




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