Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Keep on Truckin’

Why fuel supplies hold the key to success in Afghanistan -- but not for the reasons you think.

A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Pakistan reopened the Torkham Gate, one of two crossings on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border used by international forces to transit supplies from the port of Karachi to troops in Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities had shut the gate on Sept. 30, citing "security concerns," but it is clear that this action was a response to the tragic but accidental killing of two and wounding of four Pakistani soldiers by U.S. helicopter attack days earlier.

Over the weekend, Pakistan reopened the Torkham Gate, one of two crossings on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border used by international forces to transit supplies from the port of Karachi to troops in Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities had shut the gate on Sept. 30, citing "security concerns," but it is clear that this action was a response to the tragic but accidental killing of two and wounding of four Pakistani soldiers by U.S. helicopter attack days earlier.

The closing of Torkham left thousands of trucks loaded with fuel and other supplies with no place to go and a great deal more vulnerable to Pakistani Taliban terrorist attacks, which resulted in several deaths and more than 100 trucks and containers destroyed last week alone. The saddest irony is that by closing Torkham, the Pakistani government left its own citizens more vulnerable to attack: All the drivers and workers killed were Pakistani citizens who earn their livelihood delivering essential nonlethal materials on a commercial basis for the fight in Afghanistan.

The daily images of convoys in flames were a stark reminder of the vulnerability of NATO’s supply lines through Pakistan across the Afghan border. What is really surprising, though, is that these convoys are not attacked a lot more often. The trucks must journey through dangerous territory in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas — Pakistan’s Wild West — and around Quetta, where Taliban forces are most predominant. Last year, in researching the opening of new transit corridors north and northwest of Afghanistan, our team was surprised to learn from Centcom officials that the loss rate of goods transited to Afghanistan through Pakistan is less than 1 percent, a loss rate less than in Bayonne County, New Jersey! In the nine years since 9/11, the total value of goods lost to pilferage and attack has been less than $50 million. (For the Pentagon, of course, any loss, not to speak of the human toll, is too much.)

Most of these goods being shipped, more than 85 percent, are "nonlethal" supplies (fuel, sustainment, construction materials, etc.) carried by commercial truckers, not specially protected military convoys. The more interesting question to ask is how and why such a high percentage of these supplies get through safely to their final destination. The simplest answer is that people on both sides of the border are making money to support themselves and their families. If the incentives for locals are greater to facilitate transit than to attack and/or steal, chances are the materials will get where they are supposed to go. This is especially important on the Pakistani side of the border, which does not benefit from many of the assistance and development efforts, including the Commanders’ Emergency Relief Program, on offer in Afghanistan. The subcontracting process wisely ensures some financial benefit for local trucking firms; otherwise, if all the transit fees were centralized in Islamabad and Karachi, that would reduce the incentives for local populations along the transit route to provide safe passage.

Many criticize this pragmatic approach, arguing that the Taliban is basically being paid off to let the supplies go through, and no doubt there is some truth in this. But the more important point to focus on is the fact that the vast bulk of the goods designed to support the defeat of the Taliban are getting through. The commercial transit of military supplies is also a jobs program providing income to thousands of individuals and families in Pakistan who desperately need the money.

The big and obvious lesson from this is that income-producing jobs are the best incentive to dissuade local populations from becoming or supporting insurgents. After reading Bob Woodward’s portrayal of the Obama administration’s lengthy review of U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, I concluded that if only it had devoted 5 or 10 percent of its time and resources to developing a coherent economic strategy designed to produce sustainable jobs, whatever battlefield success U.S. troops have in the short and medium term will have a much greater chance of enduring and stabilizing Afghanistan.

The Northern Distribution Network

Two years ago, a similar shutdown of the Torkham Gate accompanied by an uptick in attacks on trucks in Pakistan would have been a much bigger headache for the Pentagon. At the time, U.S. forces in Afghanistan were entirely dependent on Pakistan for transit of nonlethal goods. This critical vulnerability moved Gen. David Petraeus and his staff at Centcom, in cooperation with other government entities, in the summer and fall of 2008 to explore alternative routes. The possibility of a significant surge of U.S. troops made the task of creating additional transit options all the more urgent as the Obama administration came to office in January 2009. In the spring of 2009, military logisticians were expecting an increase in demand of two to three times the amount of materials delivered to U.S. forces in 2008. Another powerful motivation for additional transit corridors was to provide some healthy competition to Pakistani port operators and shippers, who are not known for their efficiency and professionalism.

The result of these efforts was the creation of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to send U.S. supplies of nonlethal goods through Europe, Russia, the Caspian basin, and Central Asia, in essence utilizing much of the same transit infrastructure that the Soviet Union used to support its forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, about half of nonlethal goods and 37 percent of all goods supporting the much larger NATO military footprint in Afghanistan are conveyed via trains, trucks, and planes over the several routes that comprise the NDN. The U.S. Defense Department continues to explore additional options, and though these routes are more expensive than conveying goods through Pakistan, costs have been driven down considerably. Creating these routes in such a short period of time was a considerable diplomatic achievement, as many of the states transited along the way are hardly traditional U.S. allies. Although some states — notably Georgia — certainly see supporting the NDN as important for strengthening security ties with Washington, probably the most important incentive is economic.

The truth is that landlocked and distant Afghanistan is actually more accessible than we might have thought. In fact, the biggest obstacles to transit to and through Afghanistan are not a l
ack of security or weak hard transit infrastructure (the underdeveloped road network or the virtually nonexistent rail network). The biggest contributors to increased costs and lengthened delivery times are bureaucratic, institutional, and political — what we call the soft transit infrastructure.

That doesn’t mean Afghanistan can ignore its isolation. Far from it: Whether it’s minerals, agriculture, or any other sector crucial for Afghan’s economic growth, improved transit infrastructure will be the "strategic enabler" for all. Afghan industrial enterprises, entrepreneurs, and farmers can only benefit if their goods can reach domestic and foreign markets. Afghanistan’s future depends on being a key node in emerging transit corridors linking East Asian, South Asian, Central Asian, Russian, European, and Middle Eastern producers and consumers across the Eurasian continent. This is why President Hamid Karzai gave first priority to the vision of Afghanistan as "the Asian roundabout" in his speech at the Kabul conference in July.

The attacks on trucks and containers in Pakistan are disturbing and tragic, and they naturally lead most Americans to be more pessimistic about the prospects for success in South Asia. Burning fuel trucks make for dramatic photos, but the more important lesson comes from examining the reasons why efforts to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan, just about the toughest logistical challenge one can imagine, are so successful.

Andrew C. Kuchins is senior fellow and directs the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.