Bloomberg Businessweek reports: Like a broker tracking the dips and spikes of a volatile but lucrative stock, Mohammad Shakir Afridi has kept a close eye on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan since the first Americans landed in the country 10 years ago. As president of the Khyber Transport Assn., one of the largest associations of truck owners in Pakistan, Afridi’s biggest contract involves moving military equipment for American and coalition forces through Pakistan to military bases in Afghanistan. The slightest policy shift in Washington can carry major consequences for Afridi and his business.
Sitting on a rooftop in a leafy residential block in Peshawar, the largest city in northwest Pakistan, Afridi slaps the morning paper on the floor beside his mat. “Twenty-four of our boys in one go,” he spits out. A front page photograph shows a field full of coffins draped in Pakistani flags. The soldiers were killed on Nov. 26 when U.S. helicopters and jet fighters from Afghanistan fired on military outposts on the Pakistani side of the border. The relationship between Pakistan and the U.S., which has been rocky for years, hit a new low. While the U.S. military promised to investigate and the NATO chief regretted the “tragic, unintended” incident, the Pakistani Prime Minister said there would be “no more business as usual” with the U.S. Pakistan demanded the U.S. vacate an airbase it was using in the South and choked off all U.S. and coalition military supplies traveling through the country.
Afridi learned of the American attack before the Pakistan military or government had issued any statement; one of his truck drivers called to tell him the border was closed. Afridi was later given orders from the military to halt trucks near the border, and to direct all others to the southern port city of Karachi. He quickly obliged. “It’s serious this time,” Afridi says. “They’ll make the Americans sweat.”
U.S. and Allied forces in Afghanistan get the bulk of their supplies in two ways. The first is the Northern Distribution Network, a web through Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia that crosses through at least 16 countries, using a combination of roads, railway, air, and water to move supplies in from the north. The chain can be complex and circuitous. One path through the network, for example, might involve military cargo that arrives by sea in Istanbul. From there it travels the width of Turkey on truck and crosses the northern border into Poti, Georgia. In Georgia the equipment goes by rail to Baku in Azerbaijan, where it’s loaded onto a ship bound for the Kazakh Port of Aktau, across the Caspian Sea. Then it’s put on trucks for the 1,000-mile ride through Kazakhstan, then a train through Kyrgyzstan and, finally, into Afghanistan.
The second passage to Afghanistan, known as Pakistani Lines of Communication, begins at the port of Karachi and continues on one of two land routes, north toward the logistical hub at Bagram Airfield or west toward Kandahar. It has always been the primary option for American forces: It’s the shortest and cheapest, requires only one border crossing, and minimal time on the road inside Afghanistan. Nearly 60,000 trucks drive more than 1,200 miles through the length of Pakistan every year carrying supplies and fuel. According to varying figures provided by U.S. and NATO forces, 40 percent to 60 percent of all military supplies used by coalition forces in Afghanistan come through Pakistan. [Continue reading…]