A ‘messy’ Afghan exit plan
June 11, 2012
Oil tankers used to transport NATO fuel supplies to
Afghanistan are parked with other tankers in a compound in Karachi, Pakistan,
Monday, June 4, 2012. Photo: AP Photo/Fareed Khan
Last week, NATO
Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that NATO had inked a deal
to move its equipment and vehicles out of Afghanistan via the so-called
“Northern Distribution Network,” or NDN. NATO thinks this northern evacuation
route gives them a way to wind down the war without having to rely on Pakistan.
NATO is overselling this new deal. While the NDN certainly lessens the need for
Pakistan, it is not a viable replacement for Pakistan’s supply
For starters, this new deal in the north is for “non-lethal
goods only.” While the precise definition varies, the term “non-lethal
goods” usually applies to equipment and materials that are not weapons: armored
Humvees are probably considered non-lethal and therefore can be shipped
northward, but a rocket launcher or huge artillery cannon are clearly not
permitted to transit Central Asia. It’s unclear what percentage of NATO’s
equipment cannot leave because it is categorized as non-lethal.
there’s the issue of how it’s moving north. NATO says it will be relying on the
same commercial logistics firms that currently use the NDN to move non-lethal
supplies into Afghanistan. While this plan soundsgood, those firms are
often rife with corruption. Even when senior State Department officials are
waxing optimistic about using Central Asia as a transit corridor, they express
concern about the role corruption
plays in these transactions. The U.S. Senate has even expressed concern in its
legislation about the way the NDN will increase the risk of corruption in
Bookending the Central Asian states is Russia’s
offer to host a major base for NATO’s withdrawal. While such an offer,
again, sounds lovely, it’s fraught with challenges. On a basic level, the U.S.
and Russia are in an increasingly heated argument over not just Syria, but
ballistic missile defense in Europe and even NATO membership for eastern and
some northern European countries. Russia-U.S. relations may be coming
to a head over these disputes, and for at least the next two years or so,
the U.S. will be dependent on Russia’s good will to evacuate its equipment
through the northern route.
Finally, there’s cost and capacity. Gen.
William Fraser, who commands the U.S. Transportation Command (which handles
logistics for the military), told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in
February that the northern route simply does
not have the capacity to handle the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Moreover,
using the northern route costs up to six
times as much as the normal southern routes through
Pakistan is, as ever, the key. Gen. Fraser thinks it is the key
to withdrawing from Afghanistan. So does CENTCOM commander General James Mattis
– and he also said
as much to the Senate Armed Services Committee this year. Pakistan closed
down NATO’s supply routes after a border skirmish between U.S. and Pakistani
forces resulted in 24 dead Pakistani soldiers. The U.S. has refused to apologize
for the incident, and Pakistan has refused to admit that Pakistani troops were
firing on a U.S. base inside Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the closure of the routes
There was hope that Pakistan’s last-minute invitation to
this past May’s NATO Summit in Chicago would have been enough to get the supply
lines open. But that didn’t
So how will the evacuation from Afghanistan proceed? It will
probably be messy. Despite the exorbitant cost and low capacity of the northern
routes, the U.S. in particular will rely on them (plus airplanes, which are even
more expensive) to remove as much equipment as they can.
Asian states are reviled by human rights groups for their many abuses. Last
year, a consortium of 19 rights groups beggedSecretary
of State Hillary Clinton to reject a waiver allowing the U.S. to collaborate
more closely with Uzbekistan, one of the region’s worst offenders. Other states
that will handle the transit, including Kazakhstan have backslid
on almost every measure of political and human rights.
Working with the
Central Asian states requires the U.S. to compromise its stance on human rights
but from the administration’s perspective that’s an acceptable cost to end the
war in Afghanistan.
In a way, the difficulty of withdrawing from
Afghanistan reflects the difficulty of fighting in Afghanistan: it is never
straightforward, and it’s almost impossible to make progress without making
often seemingly intolerable compromises. Yet for American policymakers, there
is a desperate need to end the combat phase of the war on time, by the end of
2014. And so, for now, the many problems inherent to using the NDN to drawdown
from Afghanistan will be set aside for later.
Joshua Foust is a fellow
at the American Security Project, where he focuses on asymmetric operations and
national security strategy, as well as a columnist for The Atlantic.
modified: June 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm