NATO supplies via NDN routes
Sultan M Hali


Following the NATO led attacks on Pakistani military check post at Salala well within Pakistani territory, which resulted in the slaughter of 24 Pakistani military personnel forced the government of Pakistan to stop the NATO supply routes transiting through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Instead of rendering an unconditional apology to Pakistan, NATO chose to let US CENTCOM conduct an inquiry to apportion blame for the coldblooded murder of Pakistani military personnel. The CENTCOM inquiry under the supervision of Brigadier General Stephen Clark, who in fact was responsible for ordering the attack failed to pin point blame on the NATO/ISAF commanders but also found Pakistan Army culpable for the debacle. Pakistan Army rejected the findings and the morass grew deeper.

Unnamed U.S. officials told the Associated Press wire service that the raid was triggered by an attack on a joint U.S.-Afghan Special Ops team, and that the Pakistani check posts had been mistaken for militant encampments, in the direction of which the alleged militants had apparently fled, they claim. Brian Cloughley, a former Australian defense attaché in Islamabad, says this explanation is a nonstarter. “It was inevitable that they would seek to spin the story,” he says. “NATO and ISAF forces were told the exact locations of all the check posts in the border region in Mohmand.” Cloughley had visited Mohmand in early November with the 77 Brigade and says he has accounts from soldiers wounded in the recent airstrikes. According to his information, the first strike came at around 11:30 p.m. on Nov. 25, slightly ahead of the Pakistan military’s timeline, and the strikes lasted “five to six hours.” Pakistan maintains that the airstrikes were deliberate. The director-general of military operations, Major General Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, told reporters three days after the attack that NATO and ISAF’s actions were not unintended and violated all coordination procedures.

Meanwhile, NATO has been banking on utilizing the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), hosted by Central Asian States to enable movement of NATO supplies and troops to Afghanistan. According to US estimate, currently, 48 percent of NATO supplies were going through Pakistan. This figure would have been higher had it not been for the NDN, which now runs 60 percent of fuel and 52 percent of non-lethal NATO supplies through Russia, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia using road and rail network. Although plans are underway to further increase this capacity, the NATO and U.S. defence logistics planners fail to take two major aspects into consideration. Firstly, NDN permits the transit of only non-lethal supplies. For the transportation of weapons, arms and ammunition, alternate routes would have to be found. Secondly, presently, the cargo passing through Pakistan only is subjected to terrorist attacks. However, when lethal cargo is added to the traffic on NDN routes, it is definitely going to invite the wrath of the terrorists much to the expectations of Central Asian leaders. Hence, the NDN just cannot replace Pakistani route for sustaining NATO Forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s closure of supply routes and other measures taken in response to the attack on its soldiers has put more than 100,000 coalition forces at risk. Islamabad has already forced the US to leave Shamsi airbase and ordered a review of military cooperation with the US and NATO, claiming the “deliberate” attack violated its sovereignty. “Enough is enough. The government will not tolerate any incident of spilling even a single drop of any civilian or soldier’s blood,” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has declared.

US-Pakistani relations hit a low point after a covert US operation killed Osama Bin Laden inside Pakistan in May. Conflicting priorities over the war in Afghanistan have fueled tensions between the two countries. Subsequent events like the November 26 attack and sidelining Pakistan from the talks with Taliban have only widened the gulf between Islamabad and the US, adding to the woe of the NATO and ISAF troops in Afghanistan.

Russia is unlikely to close the NDN transiting provisions to coalition forces in Afghanistan, for fear of undermining regional security and its ties with the US, but it does feel threatened by the missile defense initiative and tries to pressure Washington to at least compromise on the plan, if not discard it entirely. The situation forces the US to find viable policy tools to prevent what some fear could be an ultimate foreign policy crisis. Pakistan’s decision comes at an opportune time for Russia, whose envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, shortly afterwards threatened a review of Russia’s cooperation on Afghanistan if the US and NATO failed to address Moscow’s concerns over US missile defense plans in Europe. “If our partners do not react to the statements which were predictable and proportionate to risks and threats, we will have to reconsider our relations with our partners in other areas as well,” Rogozin said, adding that this review could include Afghanistan. Rogozin’s statements follow the recent warnings by President Dmitry Medvedev to equip Russia’s ballistic missiles with advanced defense-penetration systems, deploy tactical missiles close to Europe, and withdraw from START III, if Russia’s “legitimate security interests” in upholding “strategic nuclear parity” are ignored. Moscow has been unable to secure a legally-binding agreement from Washington that the missile defense shield, currently deployed in Romania, Poland, Turkey, and Israel, would not threaten Russia’s security.

NATO has been unable to bring in fuel across the Pakistan border since late November, when Islamabad imposed a blockade and choked off a major supply artery for the 130,000-strong American-led force. As fuel becomes scarcer and pricier in the Afghan capital Kabul, many are pointing the finger at NATO for buying up oil products domestically to make up for blocked supplies from Pakistan. Stocked-up supplies and reliance on the NDN thus far enables the US and NATO to sustain the war that for many looks no longer winnable although the United States has had to pay six times as much to import supplies via alternative routes. The writing on the wall is that the US will have to mend fences with Pakistan.