Shipping Out: Countries Vie For Lucrative Afghanistan Withdrawal Business

With U.S. and NATO troops scheduled to start pulling out of Afghanistan next year, the U.S. military is gearing up for one of its biggest logistical challenges in its history: how to get all of its gear out of the country. Not just the tanks and guns but office equipment, air conditioners and all the other accoutrements of the best-funded military in the world. The gear that needs to be shipped out is estimated to be worth $30 billion, and the cost of getting it out about $6 billion — and that’s just for the U.S. forces, according to The Economist.

The question is, by what route to get it out? The troops themselves can be flown out relatively cheaply by plane, but shipping all of that equipment by air is prohibitively expensive. The land route south through Pakistan is the closest way to get to a sea port, but the route through Pakistan is both dangerous and subject to the rocky relationship between Washington and Islamabad. A 2011 NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers led Pakistan’s government to close the Afghanistan border to military cargo for seven months.

That led the U.S. to set up the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a series of transportation routes through the former Soviet republics to Afghanistan’s north. The bulk of NDN traffic into Afghanistan went through Uzbekistan, and as northern routes go, it is the most convenient: it was the hub of the Soviet Central Asian rail network, and is well connected through Kazakhstan and Russia. (It was through Uzbekistan that Soviet forces entered, and ultimately retreated from, Afghanistan in the 1980s.) In 2012 the U.S. rewarded the Uzbeks for their cooperation by reinstating military aid that had been suspended in 2004 because of Congressional concerns about Uzbekistan’s human rights record, one of the worst in the world.

But Uzbekistan has been an increasingly difficult partner, and is making it especially difficult for the so-called “retrograde” transit out of Afghanistan that the U.S. is trying to set up. So a whole series of countries — enticed by the $6 billion in U.S. government contracts that stands to be won — has begun to offer its services to the retreating forces.

recent conference in Latvia discussing military transportation to Afghanistan featured a number of sales pitches. Russia’s Deputy Minister of Transportation Sergey Aristov promoted the transit hub at Ulyanovsk, a city on the Volga River, that Russia established for NATO over a certain amount of nationalist opposition in Russia. The idea would be for Russia’s air cargo company Volga-Dnepr, operating massive An-124 cargo aircraft, could fly goods out of Afghanistan to Ulyanovsk, from where they could be shipped onward to Europe by rail. But Aristov acknowledged that “conservative thinking” among NATO members had resulted in the facility being underutilized; only Germany and the U.K. have sent test shipments through.

The head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Department of Relations with Caucasus and Central Asian countries, Yavuz Kül, praised the virtues of his country’s facilities at Trabzon, on the Black Sea, and Erzerum, in the far east of the country. Together with Georgia and Azerbaijan, Turkey is trying to accelerate the development of a new railway from Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia to Kars, Turkey, where it could connect with the Turkish rail network. That would allow coalition members in Afghanistan to fly their cargo to Baku and then ship it by rail and sea onward to Europe. The countries are working to speed it up so that it would be ready by the end of this year to take advantage of the possibility of retrograde transit, Kül said.

Kazakhstan wants the U.S. and other NATO members to use its territory “as much as possible,” said the country’s ambassador at large, Timur Orazaev, speaking at the conference. France has recently agreed to use Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan, as a transit hub, and the country is also promoting its port on the Caspian Sea, Aktau, for retrograde transit. (But another presenter at the conference threw a bit of cold water on Kazakhstan’s proposal: Michel Foucher, director of studies and research at the Institute for Higher National Defense Studies in Paris, noted that it took ten months of difficult negotiations to arrange the deal at Shymkent, and in the meanwhile 80 percent of France’s outgoing cargo has had to be flown to Abu Dhabi. “That was not the plan,” he said.)

The U.S., with of course the largest troop presence in Afghanistan, has not announced many details of how it plans to carry out the retrograde transit. Much will depend on the agreement currently being worked out between Washington and Kabul on the shape of the military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. But it’s likely to use a combination of routes, and U.S. officials emphasize that they want as many options as possible, as competition keeps costs down and allows for flexibility in case of political problems on any one route.

The day before the conference, the U.S. embassy in Riga held a ceremony celebrating the 100,000th container to be shipped through the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) to Afghanistan. In a speech touting Baltic cooperation on Afghanistan transit, Lithuania’s ambassador for energy and transport policy, Vytautas Naudazas, quipped that “Riga meets, Tallinn greets, Vilnius feeds, Brussels reads, and Washington treats.” With $6 billion in business up for grabs, a lot of countries are competing heavily for some of those treats.

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