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 new 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 U.S. 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 McNabb, commander of the U.S. military’s transportation command, in testimony that focused on Afghanistan last week.
McNabb said that so far 130 contract drivers have been killed trucking U.S. 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 per day, to meet the needs of the initial increase of 17,000 U.S. troops this year ordered by President Obama last month, McNabb said. There are currently about 38,000 U.S. troops 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 U.S. 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 further 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 per week, compared with about 500 per 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 paper work 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.
Apart from the ground cargo, all lethal and sensitive U.S. military supplies, as well as all personnel, travel into Afghanistan by air. Such supplies include ammunition, weapons and vehicles with sensitive communications and other gear. Air cargo demands will increase significantly as fresh troops move into Afghanistan, according to McNabb. For example, when the Army’s Stryker combat brigade heads to Afghanistan this summer, all of its vehicles will be flown into the country, he said. The military’s mine-resistant armored vehicles are also flown in to avoid attacks, he said.
The U.S. military’s efforts to sustain and grow air supply in the region faced a setback, however, with Kyrgyzstan’s decision last month to close Manas Air Base, the last remaining U.S. base in Central Asia following the shutdown in 2005 of a base in Uzbekistan.
Manas, a key mobility hub, served annually as a base for thousands of air missions, the transport of about 50,000 tons of cargo, and the refueling of more than 5,000 airplanes to support the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, according to U.S. data for 2007.
Indeed, the requirement to remove the Air Force tanker refueling aircraft from Manas will pose one of the biggest problems for the U.S. military if the base is closed as expected. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev told the BBC on Wednesday that “the doors are not closed” for talks on the base. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates “remains hopeful” that the base agreement can be extended before the six-month deadline imposed by the Kyrgyz government for U.S. troops to leave, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said yesterday. Still, Morrell said the Pentagon has “a number of very good alternatives” if Manas closes.
Experts said the refueling could be done from U.S. bases in the Middle East — perhaps from Bahrain or Qatar — but that would be far more expensive and time-consuming given the distance from Afghanistan. Defense officials said negotiations are underway on possible places to relocate the tankers.
Still, experts said they do not foresee other Central Asian countries allowing the U.S. military to station an air base on their territory. “If you define the region as the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, I don’t think there is a possibility at this time for an air base of the kind we had in Manas or in Uzbekistan prior to 2005,” said Evan Feigenbaum, a former U.S. envoy in Kyrgyzstan who is currently a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “A fixed American military installation is a huge undertaking politically for them,” he said.
One important factor is what experts see as Russia’s efforts to expel the U.S. military from bases in Central Asia.
“For Moscow, the absolute priority is holding onto their sphere of influence” in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, said Stephen Blank, a Russia expert at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. “That overrides everything else. That means excluding the U.S.”
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009; A10