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June 9, 2015: Yet another casualty of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is supply lines for Western troops in Afghanistan. In response to sanctions Russia has shut down railroad access to Afghanistan via Central Asia and Russia. This move is not popular with the other nations involved because everyone along the route, including Russia, got paid. But Russia has few options as it seeks to fight back against Western economic sanctions (in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine).

Even though most Western forces are out of Afghanistan, there are still about 20,000 troops and civilians remaining who serve as military and technical advisors. Now all ground traffic has to go through Pakistan and that can be a hassle, or worse. This is because for thousands of years tribes along the roads into landlocked Afghanistan, especially those going through key mountain passes, got rich by demanding a bribe from travelers. This money was for “protection” from the tribe in question and, in theory, from any other tribesmen or stray bandits along the route. The tribes making the most money were the ones that could keep others from attacking the travelers that had paid for protection.

These days the trade routes are usually paved roads and the travelers are trucks operated by Pakistani and Afghan transportation companies. These companies pay governments and powerful tribes to ensure that their trucks are unmolested. That doesn’t always work, especially when there’s a lot more traffic. That has been the case since 2002, when the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan and Western troops, and foreign aid money, was flooding in. This meant a lot more traffic because the Afghan economy was revived and those rich foreigners needed a lot of imported stuff. Sensing an opportunity the demands for bribes just kept getting bigger.

In response, the United States overcame obstacles (mainly diplomatic) and moved much of  its Afghanistan line from the Pakistani port of Karachi to rail lines running through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. NATO and the U.S. negotiated with Russia to allow supplies to move to Afghanistan via Russian rail lines and those of Central Asian nations. These railroads only go as far as the Afghan border. There are no railroads in Afghanistan. Thus, from the Uzbek border, the freight containers are trucked south to where most of the U.S. and NATO troops are stationed. By 2011, about 40 percent of supplies were arriving via the “Northern Distribution Network” (NDN). The U.S. wanted to eventually move all truck cargo via the northern route but the roads especially the one through the Salang tunnel, were not able to handle it. Moreover, the Russians and other nations controlling parts of the rail network got greedy and kept demanding higher transit fees.

Moving goods across the border is vital to the economy of Afghanistan as well. Most of the interruptions to Khyber Pass traffic are more about money than about the Taliban. NATO and the U.S. are seen as rich foreigners, who can pay more than the Afghan and Pakistani merchants who own most of the goods going up the road into Afghanistan. Squeezing some extra cash out of rich foreigners is an ancient and honored custom in this part of the world. But the Pakistani government was rightly worried that the U.S. and NATO would take their trucking business elsewhere if the interruptions persisted. Pakistani leaders did the math and concluded that the NATO supply line shifting to Central Asia meant the Port of Karachi and the trucking companies stood to lose over $100 million worth of business a year. Pakistan lost a lot of this business when most NATO troops departed Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and now they will get some of the remaining business back because the NDN has been shut down.

Meanwhile an alternative to the NDN is being built. This is the route from western Afghanistan into Iran where a railroad goes to an Iranian port. After several years of negotiations India signed a deal with Iran in early May to invest $100 million to upgrade the Iranian port of Chabahar. Iran would then allow Indian ships to move cargo in and out of Afghanistan via Iranian roads, railroads, and the port of Chabahar. The Pakistani port of Gwadar is 72 kilometers east of Chabahar but Indian relations with Pakistan are too unreliable to allow use of Gwadar (which is now controlled by Chinese firms). During 2004-9 India spent over $70 million to build a 218 kilometer highway from Kandahar (the major city in southwest Afghanistan) to the Iranian border. That connects to Iranian roads and railroads that go the thousand kilometers to Chabahar. This gives Afghanistan easy access to the ocean without going through Pakistan (and its bandits, corrupt officials, and unreliable politics). Afghanistan likes having close relations with Iran because both India and Afghanistan have had problems with Pakistani hostility and support of Islamic terrorists. The U.S. openly opposed the Chabahar deal but India felt it was essential in its efforts to thwart Chinese and Pakistani aggression. Iran might not allow NATO cargo along this route but commercial cargo, which makes up most of what is trucked into Afghanistan, would be welcome and very lucrative. That would make it easier to get NATO cargo shipped in via Pakistan with minimal interruptions and price gouging.

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