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The Soaring Cost of Supplying NATO Troops in Afghanistan

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Congressional report, released Monday, detailing how taxpayer money is going into the pockets of Afghan warlords in return for protecting NATO truck convoys has drawn attention to an immense logistical problem in Afghanistan that gets only intermittent attention: resupplying NATO forces in the conflict. Hopefully the House will broaden its investigation to take in the broader issue of the cost and security of the resupply lines themselves.

The high cost of providing American and other allied troops with everything from ammunition to condoms is a key reason why keeping a soldier on the ground there costs almost double what it did in much more easily accessible Iraq.

The focus of further scrutiny should be the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), launched in 2008 when losses from Taliban and al-Qaida attacks along the traditional resupply corridor -- through Pakistan's lawless tribal territories and the Khyber Pass, then down into Kabul -- reached alarming proportions. In 2009, 80 drivers were killed and about 500 goods-laden trucks were destroyed or hijacked as a result of militant ambushes along the Pakistani route.

Protection money paid to Afghan warlords is only a portion of the sums disbursed to keep the NDN lifeline open. NDN leaves a money trail that starts at the Latvian port of Riga, and includes a per-container freight charge of $4,000 by the Russian state railways for transporting supplies across Russia, as well as various additional charges in at least two Central Asian transit countries, depending on which corridor is traversed. To say nothing of the hefty "aid packages" to secure cooperation from corrupt and autocratic regimes the U.S. shouldn't really be touching with a barge pole.

It's also hard to believe that the flow of supplies on the NDN -- now averaging 300 containers a week and still only a fraction of what is required, with the rest still braving the old Khyber route -- will not sooner or later attract the attention of Islamic insurgents in Kazakhstan or Tajikistan, perhaps acting in conjunction with their Taliban comrades, thus further extending the conflict beyond Afghanistan itself.

Resupply by air is ruled out because of the cost and the logistical complexity of such a continuous operation. "If we had to send everything in by air, you would see [another] Berlin airlift," Air Force Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, head of the U.S. Transportation Command told a Senate hearing last year.

A couple of months ago, the Obama administration in effect recognized that Uzbek chickens, too, lay eggs, and that Tajik pigs can be used to make bacon. But it required an act of Congress -- actually, an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act -- for the Pentagon to be allowed to purchase the GIs' breakfast locally. The Central Asia local purchasing program is now up and running, at a considerable saving in time and money to the American government. Now would be a good time to look for similar savings.