The Realities of the NATO Supply Route Tangle

By Ahsan ur Rahman Khan 1

Map – NATO Supply Routes Through Pakistan and Central Asia

Source: National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. By Gene Thorp (Courtesy The Washington Post. July 2, 2012) 2


There are a number of questions which are boggling the minds of the multitude of Pakistanis relating to the constantly swinging news, even from the official pronouncements of our government, of the ‘opening next week’ and ‘no decision yet about opening’ of the NATO supply routes to Afghanistan through Pakistan. Some of those questions may be summerised as under:-

  • What in reality is the stance of our government on this issue of the gravest public sensitivity?
  • Is US really satisfied with the alternative arrangement of US / NATO supplies to, and exit from, Afghanistan through the Northern Supply Route, for which an agreement has already been finalised with certain Central Asian States with Russian approval?  
  • If US is so satisfied, then why is it so brazenly threatening Pakistan to open the NATO supply routes through Pakistan’s territory or else face such punitive actions from US as the US’ already commenced openly violent spate of Drone attacks killing scores the innocent Pakistanis in the name of ‘reported terrorists’, economic sanctions, non-payment of the huge amount of money already spent by Pakistan on behest of US in support of US’ ‘war on terror’, etc?
  • Under these circumstances, what is the way out for Pakistan?

As for our government’s stance, the unfortunate reality is that our government is too weak to say no to the

demand of US and its allies because of the serious economic crisis in which it has itself led the country due to its rampant corruption and bad governance. However, it is also too weak in public support too due to the seriously mounting  public outrage against the government because of its failings; and In opting to accept US’ demands in the hope of getting some financial breathing space, it fears a violent reaction from an already charged anti-US and anti-government public. Thus, finding itself on the horns of the dilemma, it prefers to use the crutches of either the military or the parliament to dilly-dally the decision whether or not to open the NATO supply routes which were closed after the unprovoked US / NATO aerial attack on a Pakistani military post, killing 24 personnel of Pakistan Army.

                From what has come to light during US’ negotiations with Pakistan since last one-and-half months regarding reopening of these routes, it appears that at certain times our government was buckling under US’ pressure, but had to turn back from the oft-reported ‘opening next week’ pronouncements due to the fear of a serious blow-back from the people. The US team’s  hopes to make our government finally buckle under the ever increasing US’ threats however have been duped, at least for now when, as acknowledged by Pentagon, our COAS refused to grant a meeting to the top Pentagon official Peter Lavoy who was heading the negotiations from US’ side. 3 It should, however, be clear that this return of US’ negotiating team is not the final act. It is only a tactical withdrawal, for preparing to launch another effort. And, US’ impatience for such a ‘diplomatic preparation’ was also clearly discernible in the efforts in this regard by the visit of UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague to Pakistan just a couple of days after stalling of the US’ negotiations..    

                As for the newly negotiated NATO supply and exit route through Central Asia with Russian approval, the number two US commander in Afghanistan Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti has declared that because of this alternative route his command is able to get what it needs despite closing of Pakistani routes. 4 Other Western quarters have also shown the optimism that US / NATO can depend upon these routes for supply and exit, without depending upon Pakistani routes. This expressed version is factually only to bluff Pakistan. A number of very credible reasons belie such pronouncements. These reasons emanate from the undeniable technical, financial, and geopolitical realities.

                The bluff of this ‘satisfactory’ alternative route through Central Asia is called when these realities are correctly grasped. The first of these aspects is the excessive length and cumbrance of the route. This route is factually a combination of three routes, collectively called the Northern Distribution Network (NDN):-

  • The most commonly used route commences from the port of Riga, Latvia on the Baltic Sea, along a 5,169 km train track through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan’s northern border at Termez. Subsequently, the supplies are truck-transported through the mountainous Hindu Kush and the Salang Tunnel.
  • The next route commences at Ponti, Georgia on the Black Sea to Baku, Azerbaijan. From there, the goods are ferried across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan. Subsequently these supplies are moved by rail through Uzbekistan to reach the Afghan border.
  • Yet another route traverses from Khazakstan to Kyrgyzstan and then through Tajikistan before reaching Termez.

                Since Salang Tunnel is the only passage through these mountains which is considered safe from militants’ attacks, it holds the key to US / NATO supplies into, and exit from, Afghanistan. A proper grasp of its peculiarities is, therefore, essential. Some of those peculiarities, as also published by Media Point 5 in the Study of NATO Supply Route on 23 May 2012, and by CBS News 6 on 9 June 2012, are worth noting:-

  • This 1 .5 miles long tunnel at an altitude of 11,100 feet was built by the Soviet Union in 1964, is prone to avalanches and is quite dangerous.
  • This tunnel was built for a traffic volume of 1,000 vehicles a day, but now has ten times that traffic volume; and “The badly rutted road can jam trucks against the rocks or tip them over. Drivers can wait for more than a week to get through this dangerous mountain pass”.
  • “Almost 1,000 Soviet troops died of asphyxiation in 1982 when an explosion trapped them in the tunnel. Since then, hundreds of travelers have died in accidents and avalanches”.
  • The traffic-worthiness of this tunnel is so low that the Afghan Gen. Mohammad Rajab, who is in-charge of maintenance on the pass, has cautioned, “It’s just one accident away from disaster, and unless something is done soon, it will be impossible for the tunnel to function.” He also conveyed to CBS News that NATO should pay for the repairs the added traffic has caused. However, so far there are no plans to rebuild.  


There are serious adverse financial implications also related to the use of NDN routes by US / NATO. Much has already been published in that regard. However, one of the reports of this aspect published by the afore-mentioned Media Point is worthy of note, i.e., “Officials have disclosed that the actual cost per container figure for NDN cargo has been calculated to be $17,500, compared with an approximately $7,200 for cargo passed through Pakistan ground routes. It takes 60 days to reach the destination. The difference in costs clearly manifests that without mending fences with Pakistan, US and NATO cannot sustain its forces in the war ravaged region of Afghanistan for long”. That report reflected the initial estimates of the additional financial burden besides the longevity of the NDN routes. However, the later and more accurate estimates, published on 13 june 2012, have shown that this financial burden is much more serious for US. According to latest reports, US’ Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has now informed Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that using the NDN routes is costing about $100 million month; and on his report the Defense Department official commented that the $100 million figure Panetta was citing was actually $100 million more a month than the Pakistan routes used to cost, raising cost of US’ war in Afghanistan to $6 billion a month. 7

                Additionally, there are also the geopolitical implications of a ‘really assured’ use of NDN by US / NATO; because the prolonged use of this passage through Central Asia / Russia will entail the requirement of the continued retention of the political goodwill of Russia by US / NATO, which is more likely to be quite dicey, keeping in view the reemerging geopolitical tussle between these powers (serious frictions over the issues of Missile Shield, Libya, Syria, etc., are the examples).   

All these technical, financial, and geopolitical problems are so overwhelming that these make it impracticable for US / NATO to disregard the supply and exit routes through Pakistan and depend solely upon the use of NDN. That fact was also confirmed by Gen. William Fraser, who heads the Transportation Command of US military. Following extracts of the testimony of Gen. William Fraser before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 28 February 2012, and published by Army Times (US) 8, are significant:-

  • S. moved more than 35,000 containers through Pakistan by ground transportation before the border was closed in November.
  • In November, 39 ships with hundreds of containers headed for Afghanistan were diverted to Dubai and Aqaba, Jordan, where they were stored and airlifted into Afghanistan.
  • The governments that agreed to the Northern Distribution Network have given permission to move armored vehicles and other eligible commodities, but not weapons.
  • Despite increased support from European, Central Asian and Baltic countries to open the Northern Distribution Network to Afghanistan, the U.S. and allied forces need the Pakistan Ground Line of Communication, or GLOC, as the drawdown in Afghanistan ramps up.
  • Cargo lines through Pakistan need to reopen for the S. to bring troops and equipment back on schedule as the war draws down.

These problems highlighted by Gen. William Fraser are the undeniable realities and his assertions logical;

specially the inescapable requirement of the NATO routes through Pakistan for the exit phase, despite the availability of the Central Asian routes. That aspect can easily be understood when we take into account the huge bulk the military wherewithal which US and NATO have brought into Afghanistan. A general idea in that regard can be had from the report that the mere about 3,000 strong French military contingent in Afghanistan has about 900 armoured personnel carriers (APCs); the number of tanks, artillery weapons, etc., being in addition. That can give a clear idea of what a huge bulk of the heavy military material of the formations / contingents of US (about 90, 000), UK (9, 500), and the other about 45 countries (making a total of 1, 30, 000), have to extricate from Afghanistan.      

                There is yet another very important point which has to be very clearly understood; i.e., the actual requirement of US for these routes through Pakistan is not only upto the exit phase. Factually US requires these Pakistan routes much beyond the exit phase too, as an essential requirement to serve its Grand Strategy. To have a clear grasp of this extremely significant angle of the US’ strategic design, a reference has to be made to the US’ Grand Strategy of 21st Century relating to the Eurasian Heartland. Many a published research and analysis papers on the subject are available. However, the more important aspects, which have to be grasped in that context, are briefly elaborated in the succeeding paragraphs.

The overall design of US’ grand strategy is to implant US’ geopolitical and energy-resource control mechanism (using economic, military, and political instruments) in the Eurasian Heartland (Central Asian Republics (CARs) and the Caspian Region), so as to obtain dominance / control over the contesting powers (specially Russia and China), and also the emerging economic powers.

It was for this design, that studies for obtaining politico-economic openings in CARs were initiated in US not much later than the disintegration of USSR. In that context even a plan of the re-invigoration of the ancient Silk Road (passing through Central Asia) was also made, outwardly propagated to be a measure for improving the economic condition of the people of the region through development of trade, commerce, and infrastructure, etc, but actually to gain a politico-economic entry in the Eurasian Heartland.  And for that purpose the bill, ‘Silk Road Strategy Act 1999’ was also enacted in US congress. Further efforts in politico-economic fields were also made by US; and it started gaining some, albeit not much significant, entry in CARs and the Caspian region. Obtaining a really meaningful entry in the Eurasian Heartland was extremely significant for US, because this region, known in the common jargon as the ‘soft underbelly’ of USSR (and now Russia) was, and still is, the control leverage of not only the energy resources  but also of the geopolitics of Eurasia. This design is in line with the earlier recommendations of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the well-known US political scientist and national security adviser of US President Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski had emphesised that to retain its global hegemony, US had to dominate the post-Soviet space, not allowing Russian attempts to regain its influence in that region; while both manipulating and accommodating the principal geostrategic players of Eurasia, and managing the key geopolitical pivots of the region. He had further asserted, “The most immediate task is to make certain that no state or combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive arbitrary role”. 9 However, the problem for US was that, itself being thousands of nautical miles away, and Russia being contiguous to the region, it could not force its entry in the CARs or Caspian region, due to sheer dictate of spatial geography. It was only Afghanistan, the occupation of which could provide the US that much needed geographical placement for launching its domineering moves in Central Asia, and that too without arousing as severe a reaction from Russia as could have been in retaliation to any US attempt to enter the CARs by force. That was factually one of the major reasons of US attacking Afghanistan in 2001. As for the projected theory of the ‘Al-Quaeda attack on Twin Towers’ being the cause of US attack on Afghanistan, it was not found to be sustainable under careful scrutiny. Many a scholars and researchers have highlighted the invalidity of that theory. 10

A grasp of the overall design of US’ grand strategy, as clearly highlighted by the aforementioned realities, makes it absolutely clear that while US is compelled to withdraw its military occupation from Afghanistan, it has all the intentions to retain its military and political stranglehold on the country, as fully evident from the ‘strategic partnership’ treaty signed by Presidents Obama and Karzai. It is for this reason that US is so desperate for the reopening of its routes to Afghanistan, through Pakistan. And, it is in that desperation that US has gone to the extent of launching the tirade of almost  ‘hysterically threatening insistence’ on Pakistan to open the supply routes: examples – US’ Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s warning on 7 June 2012: “United States was reaching the limits of our patience with Pakistan” 11 and a senior US’ official’s communication through Reuters published on12 June 2012: “Pakistan’s civilian government should “bite the bullet” and re-open supply routes to Nato forces in Afghanistan in order to ease tensions with the United     States”  12).

Despite these brazen threats and acceleration of the extremely inhuman acts of brutal ‘drone-killings’ of innocent Pakistani men, women and children by US, and the very weak economic condition of Pakistan, the fact cannot be denied that this Route is the jugular vein of application of US’ Grand Strategy 21st Century; that, US cannot get it re-opened by using military force; and that, the decision of opening of this Route is now in the hands of the highly charged Pakistani nation and not in the hands of the government or military. if the Pakistani nation continues forcing its government not to accept US’ demand on unjustified grounds, US will have to climb down to negotiate the opening of the Route on justifiable terms.     

As for the way out for Pakistan, what is extremely important is that Pakistani nation has already reached such a charged state that it will not accept any settlement of the issue if certain conditions, clearly pronounced by the nation, are met. These are:-  

  • There are three critical conditions: (1) A clear apology, without playing with words, by the President of US for the unprovoked attack on Salala check post killing 24 Pakistan Army personnel; implying thereby admission of the crime of US / NATO forces and the assurance that such acts will not be repeated; (2) immediate cessation of drone attacks, or handing over the control of these operations in Pakistan to the Pakistan authorities; and (3) No further supplies of any type of lethal weapons or ammunition into Afghanistan through Pakistani ground routes and air space; only the exit movement of such material may be permitted. Neglect of any of these conditions in the settlement of the issue is almost certain to unleash such a violent reaction by the multitude of masses throughout Pakistan which will surely be disastrous for the interests of both the Pakistan government and US.
  • The vital conditions include: (1) The settlement should be such that the Afghan people and their brethren in FATA donot have any major objection against it; (2) Payment of compensation by US to the families of the victims of drone attacks and Salala check post attack; (3) Immediate payment by US of the amount of money already spent by Pakistan on behest of US to support US war in Afghanistan; (4) Payment by US / NATO for the repairs of the roads infrastructure damaged due to the load of NATO convoys; and (5) Pakistan Army or Para-military forces must not be required to provide security to NATO convoys moving through Pakistani route; that responsibility be given to police reinforced with better weapons, APCs, and helicopters, etc.   

The areas of compromise could be in such matters like payment of the amount spent by Pakistan in supporting US’

war on terror, and for the repairs of road infrastructure, in the form of writing off the amounts in IMF loans due to be paid by Pakistan; and amount of transit fee, etc.             


  1. Author is a Retired Brigadier; a post-retirement Ph.D. from University of Peshawar; and currently lectures in social sciences in the universities of Islamabad. (e-mail—
  2. supplyroutes/2012/05/15/


  1. France 24 H/ 7 (International News. 12 June 2012. (
  2. AP. 11 June, 2012. (
  5. ABC News. ( )
  7. Macedo, Jose. What is Driving The US, Russia and China in Central Asia’s New Great Game? P.p.6 -7. (


  1. Free Online Research Papers (
  2. CNN Wire Staff (
  3. Reuters ( )