There are two routes into Afghanistan from Pakistan, one across the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border town of Torkham and on to Kabul. The other goes through Balochistan to the border town of Chaman and on to the Afghan city of Kandahar.
Between them, these two routes account for just under one third of all cargo that the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) ships into Afghanistan.
Just over one-third of all cargo goes on routes dubbed the “northern distribution network” through Central Asia, and the Caucasus or Russia. The remaining 31% is flown in.
Nato declined to give details of how the shipments through Pakistan are divided between the two routes, but a spokesman said the figures likely change each month.
Some imported supplies for the fledgling Afghan armed forces, which the United States and its allies are building up, also come through the Pakistani routes.
As recently as July, the balance of supplies transiting through Pakistan and the northern distribution network were weighted in Pakistan’s favour, with slightly more than half of ground-transported supplies arriving through Khyber or Chaman.
After disruptions, Nato-led forces decided to push supply networks away from reliance on Pakistan. The US has decided that only 25% of ground cargo should arrive via Pakistan. This was done with the goal of “reducing reliance on any single line of communication to avoid any unnecessary vulnerabilities should that network become unavailable”, according to an Isaf spokeswoman.
Two cross-border attacks by Nato aircraft in autumn 2010, that killed three Pakistani soldiers, closed one supply route through Pakistan for several days. Nato apologised for the incident which it said happened when its gunships mistook warning shots by the Pakistani forces for a militant attack.
In April a rally on a key highway by thousands of people against drone strikes again closed the supply route briefly.
The routes through Pakistan, particularly the northern one, are also vulnerable to insurgent attacks. In May a bomb on a Nato fuel truck killed at least 16 people in the Khyber area.
The northern distribution network threads through either Russia or the Caucasus, across the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and then into northern Afghanistan. It is largely used to bring commercial-type cargo – described by Isaf as “sustainment items like food and spare parts” to troops serving in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan also has a border with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and China – but that is too remote and high-altitude to make a major transit route. What would be a convenient and cheap link through Iran’s port of Chabahar to western Afghanistan is ruled out by hostility between Tehran and Washington.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2011.