No Good Ways Out of Afghanistan

Air and land routes out of the country are either insufficient or troublesome.

Western forces looking to exit Afghanistan over the next two years are playing a game of roulette, looking for the luckiest and cheapest way out of the warzone. Central Asian countries are scrambling to be the most attractive bet. Difficult and still closed, the road through Pakistan remains the preferred route.

Afghanistan’s neighbors stand to make huge profits as NATO countries move to withdraw their troops and equipment. Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan will remain under American control until the war is over but the base cannot handle all of the equipment which NATO forces must remove from the region. Land routes are numerous but difficult for a variety of reasons and Central Asia is poised to cash in on the scramble to depart.

Additionally, Central Asian states are more submissive to Russia than America. Russia and the United States have recently begun to negotiate a “retrograde transit” agreement to use the Northern Distribution Network but the Kremlin may well seek to exploit the deal in order to achieve its aims elsewhere.

There are numerous options for getting into and alternatively out of Afghanistan but none are perfect bets.

The Pakistan route is the easiest and the cheapest but unreliable. In late November 2011, Pakistan closed the border to NATO traffic in protest after an American airstrike killed nearly thirty Pakistani soldiers by accident. The border is still closed and Pakistan obstinate about reopening it without an American apology.

The Northern Distribution Network was developed by the Americans as an alternative to the Pakistan route but there are signs that its gatekeeper Uzbekistan will seek to raise transit fees. While Uzbekistan has by far the best road and railroad network among Afghanistan’s neighbors, its price gouging will prompt NATO powers to seek additional alternate routes.

The trouble is that difficult and pernicious as Pakistan and Uzbekistan can be, alternative land routes through Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are even more troublesome. Bad roads and bad winters are only where the problems begin.

There is discussion of selling some equipment to the Central Asian republics and thus removing the need to transport such equipment out of the region on NATO’s dime. In February, British armed forces minister Nick Harvey suggested trading military equipment for favorable transit fees. He alluded to the unspecified equipment as being potentially useful in Central Asia’s battle with narcotics and terrorism.

The United States have been more circumspect about leaving military equipment in the hands of Central Asian autocrats. Robert Blake, the American assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs said that arms transfers to countries along the Northern Distribution Network would be subject to the same restrictions that apply to regular arms transfers. Thus far, the Americans have been unwilling to sell any weapons to Uzbekistan, which has a less than pristine human rights record.

The bottom line is that Pakistan holds the lucky numbers. The average shipping cost of a container, as reported by Radio Free Europe, from Afghanistan to Karachi is $7,200. By northern routes shipping the same container would cost $17,500. When Pakistan decides to reopen the road to NATO convoys, it is likely to be at a higher price but still able to undercut the Central Asian route.

Money, power and politics all play a part in this game of supply route roulette. Money is on Pakistan and it is doubtful that by 2014 NATO powers will be interested in taking the longer, more expensive road through authoritarian Central Asia and into Russia’s arms. Islamabad will eventually reopen the border and happily usher the West out of its backyard.