Progress towards solving Afghanistan logistical issues

February 19, 2009

As the United States is increasing the size of its forces in Afghanistan while the supply line is being attacked in Pakistan, the development of new means to transport cargo to NATO forces is of critical importance.  In January it was reported that the U.S. had obtained new routes to Afghanistan. Today, we received news of a rail line originating in Latvia being put in use for the first time for the purpose of supplying forces in Afghanistan:

A train carrying non-lethal supplies for the U.S. military in Afghanistan has left a cargo terminal at the Latvian port of Riga for transit through Russia, a source in the port administration said on Thursday.

“The train has left the Riga port heading for transit to Afghanistan through Russian territory,” the source said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Monday that a consignment of U.S. non-military cargos was being prepared in the Latvian capital of Riga for transit to Afghanistan via Russia, and would soon be dispatched.

Russia and NATO signed a framework agreement on the transit of non-military cargos in April 2008, and a subsequent Russia-U.S. deal was signed in January.

Another article states that up to 700 containers per week could be shipped via this route, which goes through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Now, assuming the line could be kept near capacity on a weekly basis, that comes out to 30-35,000 containers per year.  Using the frequently cited number of 70,000 per year, that would reduce dependency on the Pakistan supply route by nearly half.

map of central Asia

It remains to be seen if there will also be a “western route”.  One possibility would be from the Black Sea into Georgia to Azerbaijan, then across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan. A second, arguably less likely possibility would be to avail new routes linking Afghanistan to Iranian ports. After all the Afghazn Container Transport Company website does say:

The most preferred routing for cargo originating or destined for Afghanistan is via Gateway Bandar Abbas.

i.e. Iran.  (This new route originates in the more southern port of Chabhar).

Establishing and maintaining these lines will be a significant diplomatic challenge, as the U.S. experience with its airbase in Kyrgyzstan demonstrates.  The latest is that the Kyrgyz President is expected to sign tomorrow a bill that would give notice to the U.S. that it must leave within six months.  The State Department states that they remain in discussion with the Kyrgyz government and will remain so until “a final decision is received” (see today’s Daily Press Briefing).

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