Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
November 19, 2008

New Supply Routes To Afghanistan

"[In Afghanistan] a small army would be annihilated and a large one starved."
Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) (source)

With recent attacks on convoys through the Khyber pass, the line of communications through Pakistan to Afghanistan is in deep trouble. WaPo reports:

Security restrictions forced customs officials to slow the flow of traffic to 25 trucks every few hours. Before the Taliban raid and border closure last week, an average of 600 to 800 tractor-trailers moved through Torkham a day, according to Afghan customs officials. Customs officials said they hoped at best to see 200 trucks pass through on Tuesday.

The U.S. military asking suppliers to evaluate alternatives:

The first option is to move cargo between Northern Europe and various destinations in Afghanistan through Caucus’ and Central Asia. The second option is to move cargo between CONUS and Afghanistan through Asia and Central Asia.

Some European countries have arranged transport via railroad through Russia and Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. The U.S. seems not be willing to depend on Russian goodwill. That leaves the red and the green lines as the only possible transport routes. Both are much longer than the current blue route through Pakistan.


The request for information to suppliers says the new route's capacity should eventual be some 75,000 twenty foot container equivalent units (TEU) per year. Those would be some 200 medium truck loads every day on roads build for much less traffic.

That is certainly not enough to replace the 600 to 800 daily trucks passing through Torkham, but it would certainly relief that line. Unless more troops are needed.

Lt. Col. John Nagl, who works for General Petraeus on a new Afghanistan plan, wants more troops:

Nagl says he believes the U.S. needs to double its American troops from 30,000 to 60,000 in Afghanistan. He also says the Afghan National Army needs to grow from 70,000 to 250,000. That may mean getting more help from the international community.

Double the U.S. troops will need double as much in supplies. The Afghan troops will also need lots of ammunition, fuel, food and other materials. (So many Afghan troops would cost much more than the Afghanistans total GDP. Who will finance them how long?)

And who will finance the logistics for U.S. troops?

The troops in Iraq also had a transport problem. But the road from Kuwait to Baghdad is much shorter than the one from Bremerhaven or Shanghai to Kabul. And while fuel to Iraq could come from refineries in Kuwait, where will the fuel for the additional troops in Afghanistan come from? It does not seem to be included in the above TEU calculation.

A retreat from Iraq would relief the U.S. from some costs. But to supply a soldier in Afghanistan might easily cost double or triple as much as to supply a soldier in Iraq. Has Obama thought about how he will finance that war?

While a large U.S. army in Afghanistan may not starve these days, what about children in the U.S.?

older coverage:
Fuel for War in Afghanistan Aug 20, 2008
The Road War in Afghanistan Aug 16, 2008
Fuel Tanker Attacks in Afghanistan Mar 24, 2008

Posted by b on November 19, 2008 at 18:57 UTC | Permalink


B, thanks so much for blogging this! I was just about to start doing so myself. Now I don't need to.

Handy map. Thanks!

Just a few comments:

1. You're probably right that the present US administration doesn't want to DEPEND on the goodwill of the Russians. But that doesn't mean they aren't planning to use the cross-Russia rail route to the Afghan border in addition to some combination of the red and green routes you've drawn. The WaPo writer does, after all, say, Russia agreed this year to allow NATO to send material by rail. The coalition in Afghanistan is working to create an intercontinental rail system that would carry nonlethal equipment and materials for both economic assistance and military programs that would go through Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan...

2. The "red" route you draw could actually be considerably shorter than you draw it-- but it also has one huge complication called the Caspian Sea. Materiel from CONUS (or, say, Israel) could be shipped directly to some port on the Black Sea-- in Turkey or Georgia, depending on the rail map-- and then on-shipped through some combination of eastern Turkey and the Caucasus nations to... Then what? If the US doesn't want to ship through Russia or Iran, the shipments have to be taken across the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan BY BOAT. Hugely complicating!

3. Just reflecting on the massive scale of this intercontinental shipping challenge should bring home to us all just how incredibly expensive and actually unsustainable this whole logistics effort actually is. You are quite right to preface your post with Wellington's apt dictum. Military planners in China and Russia must be sitting around laughing out loud to see the US military tie itself into such unbelievable knots trying to salvage Washington's thus-far-almost-unilateral military project in Afghanistan. Of course, the Russians could have told Rumsfeld a bit about the difficulties of maintaining military ops in Afghanistan, if he'd been inclined to listen. But compared with the US, the Red Army was on the doorstep of Afghanistan... and even then it couldn't succeed.

Posted by: Helena Cobban | Nov 19 2008 20:25 utc | 1

@Helena -

On 1. The U.S., Nato and Russia are very distinct in what is NATO and what is under direct U.S. command.

The WaPo writers also write: Russia agreed this year to allow NATO to send material by rail. The coalition in Afghanistan is working to create an intercontinental rail system that would carry nonlethal equipment and materials for both economic assistance and military programs that would go through Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
and "We do not expect transit agreements with Iran or Uzbekistan," the Transportation Command told potential contractors.

Which together makes the Russia route not feasible.

But more importantly is that the Transportation Command did not give the option of evaluating a Russian route. It also asked for the red line to start in Europe, not Georgia.

2. Yes, the Read Route could be shorter if the stuff could be landed from sea directly in Georgia. I am not sure of the capabilities of Georgian ports though.

Forget the route by road from Turkey to Georgia. I traveled the area years ago - no feasible roads for heavy truck traffic at all. That has changed a bit but what is there today is still not able to carry much of the truck traffic that would be needed (and do not forget the PKK activities in the area).

I agree that the Caspian sea is the real bummer. Also for fuel which could come from the Baku refineries when the (already too small) refineries in Pakistan are eventually taken out.

3. Yes, the Russians had a quite secure landline into Afghanistan. The U.S./NATO has none. You can't fly in all that stuff - impossible! You could if you had only very ideologically committed forces, but 'the west' does not have such troops who are willing to suffer long enough on short strings.

The last point is, I think, the most important one. There is no reason to fight in Afghanistan, there is no real ideology behind it (other than greed) and therefore nobody is committed to do it the really hard way (not that it would guarantee 'success').

The soft way, soft toilet paper include for the very last FOB, requires a logistic tail that is defeating the original effort.

Posted by: b | Nov 19 2008 21:10 utc | 2

I read Helena's new post about seeking approachment with Iran with interest. I think it would be the only solution for our mid eastern problems but it seems unlikely to happen. Our new government is starting to look like the AIPAC administration. The Dem's Lieberman vote shows where their hearts are. That's a real nice invisible 800 pound gorilla in the room. I searched the anguished posts on the liberal blogs including comments(MoA is the only blog where I regularly read comments) and found one little reference to AIPAC. At least nobody can call them anti-Semitic. We who supported the Democrats can be proud. Our senators voted 42-13 to join the Republicans in supporting genocide in Gaza.

Posted by: Sgt Dan | Nov 19 2008 21:31 utc | 3

@Sgt Dan - I searched the anguished posts on the liberal blogs including comments

The treachery on principles the Democrats expose on all issues involving Israel, which would included the Lieberman vote, was commented on here quite a lot years ago. But it is tiring and I am sick of it but don't feel that it even deserves one post.

Maybe it should though.

It is obvious to anyone who looks. The Dems have not much of a backbone on anything but on Israel they have none at all.

And yes, Gaza is genocide on slow motion. Auschwitz did operate for quote some time too.

Posted by: b | Nov 19 2008 21:42 utc | 4

Point totally taken about the soft toilet paper (and bottled water!) nature of today's US armed forces, B.

Btw, I couldn't resist blogging this anyway over at JWN. I built a lot on what you wrote here, and put in another couple of things.

Mainly because I'm fascinated by logistics. Who was it that wrote that armchair generals discuss theories but real generals keep their eyes firmly on logistics? (Not that i aspire to be either kind.)

Posted by: Helena Cobban | Nov 19 2008 21:43 utc | 5

The starving American kids is something nobody is covering. I posted a comment at DKos a couple of days ago, but it got no traction. To quote from there:

If you gave $10 worth of food each day to each of 700,000 children, for a week you'd spend about $50 million. Our war/intelligence/security budgets runs over $10 billon a month. So feeding the kids, if my figures are right, is roughly 50 cents out of every hundred dollars spent on war.

As to supply routes to Afghanistan, at whatever cost, I don't see why the Caucus route would be any more secure from targeting than the one through Pakistan, if the jihadists are serious about stopping traffic. And that last bit through China is, again, jihadist-friendly territory. So we might get the same result at even greater cost.

I dunno. Is this Long War business really all that good for our national security. I want to write Riggio over at the LongWarJournal and ask him if we shouldn't rename the project the RapidBankruptcy, but I think I might get added to some list.

Posted by: jim p | Nov 19 2008 22:13 utc | 6

Is the US military lead by idiots who really think Patton single-handedly destroyed the Reich and killed Hitler in a gunfight? Don't they have anyone up there who's read his military history. Like reading about the Stalingrad massive failure?

Posted by: CluelessJoe | Nov 20 2008 0:59 utc | 7

Interesting that this RFI will be used to develop the 'requirement.' Although sketchy reqs are listed below that, this sequence, in terms of the procurement cycle, seems to imply that the logisticians are scrambling - requirements ought to be formalized 1st. Is something up in Pakistan?

Or, more innocuously, this could just be more of this administration's incestuous procurement procedures that give favored sources an early leg up by defining the procurement package.

Posted by: ...---... | Nov 20 2008 4:09 utc | 8

Wow. The red and green lines are insane.

Posted by: Cloud | Nov 20 2008 4:35 utc | 9

Amen, Cloud. The only good alternative to Pakistan, logistically, is to go through Iran.
In fact, India has just finished a road link through to Iran from Afghanistan.
Could it be that the US is being forced to choose between wars, rather than picking 'all of the above'?

Posted by: Dick Durata | Nov 20 2008 6:23 utc | 10

The red route is too balkanized. The green route is the reason for the blue route, to hold Pakistan-Afghanistan ground against a super-corridor to western China from GCC. The conflict in Waziristan has nothing to do with Osama, everything to do with Aynak. Besides the US mercenaries need a reason, a draw for those three more US battalions. It's a push whether they'll get them, but if they can keep things hot by UAV'ing Paki villages, and letting Paki truck drivers take the IED hits on the Khyber Pass, then their only inconvenience in supply-route slowdown is fewer truckloads to over-order, surplus and sell for cash to local warlords. That profiteer back door still in play.
It's a chess game. Afghan pawns. It's makin' bacon large, and looking the other way. Don't overthink or dialect it. It's just business. We won, they lost. Get over it!!

Posted by: Wazir Ahmad | Nov 20 2008 7:14 utc | 11>China Hand discusses the probability of Mullah Omar entering into the prospective talks with the Taliban.

Posted by: anna missed | Nov 20 2008 9:48 utc | 12

WSJ: Militant Attacks Impede NATO Supply Route From Pakistan

Islamist militants loyal to a powerful Taliban leader in Pakistan have moved in to block a vital supply route leading through the Khyber Pass to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The U.S. is exploring other routes to supply soldiers in Afghanistan, said a U.S. official, speaking from Washington. There is talk of trying to send non-lethal supplies overland across Europe, Russia and through Central Asia. "But right now, and probably for a long time, Pakistan is the best way in," said the official.
Authorities say they believe both attacks were carried out by some of roughly 400 tribal fighters dispatched in recent weeks to Khyber Agency by Baitullah Mehsud, a top Taliban commander blamed for last year's assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The fighters are backed by a network of informants with knowledge of the convoys' goods and timetables, say Pakistani security officials.

Khyber was relatively peaceful until recently. Mr. Mehsud's power base is located hundreds of miles to the south in another one of the tribal areas, South Waziristan. Violence has surged in Khyber as militants flee a Pakistani military offensive in the Bajaur region to the north.

I don't think that Mehsud's forces would act autonom so far away from their original base. Locals must be involved.
In Peshawar, truckers waiting to make the trip to Afghanistan expressed little optimism about the escorts, saying the paramilitary forces hailed from the tribal areas and were hesitant to take on the Taliban and al Qaeda. "They stand aside when Taliban attack the convoys. Most of the paramilitary soldiers belong to the same area and will not fight because of fear of reprisal against their families," said Jahangir Khan, a trucker who has been driving the route for three years.


The U.S. made the very dumb move to start drone attacks BEYOND the tribal regions that make up FATA. FATA has a very special legal status.

Soon after Independence, the various tribes in the region entered into an agreement with the government of Pakistan, pledging allegiance to the newly created state. Some 30 instruments of accession were subsequently signed, cementing this arrangement. To the tribal agencies of Khyber, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan were later added Mohmand Agency (in 1951), and Bajaur and Orakzai (in 1973).

Accession did not subsume the political autonomy of the tribes. The instruments of accession, signed in 1948, granted the tribal areas a special administrative status. Except where strategic considerations dictated, the tribal areas were allowed to retain their semi-autonomous status, exercising administrative authority based on tribal codes and traditional institutions. This unique system, given varying degrees of legal cover in each of the country’s earlier constitutions, was crystallised in Pakistan’s Constitution of 1973.

It is not really a full part of Pakistan and attacks there do not have the street effect in Karachi than attacks on Pakistani heartland.

Suspected U.S. Missiles Strike Deep Inside Pakistan

The U.S. military apparently struck at Islamic militants outside Pakistan's lawless tribal belt for the first time Wednesday, firing a missile that killed six suspected insurgents taking refuge away from the conflict zone along the Afghan border.
All the previous attacks had come in North and South Waziristan, semiautonomous tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. But Wednesday's attack blew up a house in Indi Khel, a village in the Bannu district about 30 miles from the Afghan border and beyond the tribal region.
While Bannu is inland from the frontier tribal areas, it is still a dangerous place, and it falls under the control of the regional government _ making the attack specially sensitive.

A large Islamist political party threatened to block two major Pakistani roads used to truck supplies to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan unless the cross-border attacks stop.

"If these missiles attacks continue, then we will ask the people to create hurdles in the way of supplies for NATO," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, which has shown it can mobilize thousands of supporters at short notice.

The supply lines have never been blocked by protests, but militants and criminals often attack trucks traveling them.

As the U.S. is totally tone-deaf, expect further attacks and a total blockade of the roads.

Posted by: b | Nov 20 2008 10:28 utc | 13

The right-wing Long War Journal quotes a Pentagon guy:

While the security situation in much of Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agencies has deteriorated over the past several years, the road through Khyber has largely remained secure.

To keep the road open, , a senior US intelligence official told The Long War Journal. "This strategy clearly is not working any longer," the official said.
The US has been quietly trying to secure alternate routes through central Asia, but the routes are less dependable and increase the amount of time it takes to move the supplies into Afghanistan.

But the military is concerned these alternate routes can be shut down if the US has major disagreements with Russia or China, who control these routes.

"We'd have to depend on Russia or China for our supplies to reach Afghanistan," a senior US military officer told The Long War Journal.

"Over time, this is not sustainable. Take the Georgian crisis," the officer said, noting Russia's invasion of the Republic of Georgia last summer. "If we move our supplies through Russia, and another crisis like this arises, say in the Ukraine, our hands will be tied. We will have to choose between supporting a burgeoning democracy and supporting the protracted fight in Afghanistan."

The officer also expressed concerns about the US' ability to deploy more forces into Afghanistan to fight against a resurgent Taliban given the poor security in Pakistan. "Adding three more brigades of troops and their accompanying support elements means we need to significantly increase the supplies moving through Pakistan," the officer stated. "We are only increasing our logistical problems and betting on Pakistan to keep these routes open is a bad play."

Ok - now go tell that to Obama.

Posted by: b | Nov 20 2008 14:01 utc | 14

Additional information on how many trucks might go through Khyber now - in short: not enough:

About 100 Frontier Corps (FC) and Khasadar (tribal police) troops escorted Afghanistan-bound container trucks and oil tankers crossing the troubled Jamrud sub-division of Khyber Agency, as supplies to NATO and US forces resumed on Monday.

Fifty-two vehicles in two convoys carried military equipment and food supplies for NATO troops and wheat for the World Food Programme (WFP) through the Khyber Pass, a critical supply route for the forces battling Taliban in Afghanistan.
Security forces will accompany two convoys of 25 vehicles each from Jamrud to Torkham every day initially, political administration officials said. The number of convoys may be increased to three depending on the security situation.

Three or four convoys with 25 trucks each are not enough to sustain the forces in Afghanistan.

Posted by: b | Nov 20 2008 14:09 utc | 15

B, thanks for all the additional resources you've brought in via your comments. I guess I need to head over to long War Journal and read all of that one.

This part struck me as hilarious though: "Over time, this is not sustainable. Take the Georgian crisis," the officer said, noting Russia's invasion of the Republic of Georgia last summer. "If we move our supplies through Russia, and another crisis like this arises, say in the Ukraine, our hands will be tied. We will have to choose between supporting a burgeoning democracy and supporting the protracted fight in Afghanistan."

Quite apart from the rhetoric about "burgeoning democracy... in Ukraine" he is quite ignoring the fact that last August Bob Gates and the Joint Chiefs already made the entirely sensible judgment that they couldn't do anything to "save" Saak in Georgia, sinply because they didn't have any spare troops. Nothing to do, at that time, with having dependence on Russia for the ISAF logistics train (though they were already discussing it.)

This brings to mind the possibility that the intention in winding down the Iraq deployment so much faster now than they'd originally planned is not just to "surge" in Afghanistan but to be able also to rebuild a "ready" force capable of intervening in response to crises/opportunities elsewhere. And the numbers involved bear that out: a decrease of 145K troops over three years in Iraq vs. an increase of 32K in Afghanistan...

But the logistics problem for ISAF still remains and looks insuperable under present political circs. Basically, they don't want to use Iran; they don't want to build reliance on Russia or China; and Pakistan is iffy for them in the extreme. No wonder if they're getting a little desperate.

Posted by: Helena | Nov 20 2008 14:45 utc | 16

Helena Quite apart from the rhetoric about "burgeoning democracy... in Ukraine" he is quite ignoring the fact that last August Bob Gates and the Joint Chiefs already made the entirely sensible judgment that they couldn't do anything to "save" Saak in Georgia, simply because they didn't have any spare troops.

from Strategic case for U.S.-Iran rapprochement (MESH, btw, just noticed the link i posted over at the obama/osama thread has a similiar theme and mentions dobbins, same person mentioned in your iran reproachment post..)

But Russia’s successful intervention in Georgia casts doubt on whether Georgia can serve as an alternative to Russia as a pipeline route. The ease with which Russian forces took control of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as pushed into Georgia proper, demonstrated how readily Moscow could disrupt pipelines through Georgia. There is also the possibility that Moscow could wait until a gas pipeline through Georgia is built, and then take over both the country and all pipelines through it. This would not just frustrate Europe’s efforts to reduce dependence on Russia for gas, but actually increase it. Just the possibility that this could occur may prevent the proposed gas pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey from being built.

it isn't just the spare troops now, it would require spare troops way into the future.

b, Double the U.S. troops will need double as much in supplies.

how much of those 'supplies' are actually being spent on troops vs pipeline infrastructure?

Posted by: annie | Nov 20 2008 17:10 utc | 17

annie - how much of those 'supplies' are actually being spent on troops vs pipeline infrastructure?

Very few. Here is current news and a lot of interesting background on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline and the companies (Unical) and people behind it.

(Sorry for the format at that link - the webmaster in Peshawar is not the very best...)

Posted by: b | Nov 20 2008 18:00 utc | 18

The German army (Bundeswehr) has received permission from Russia to move military equipment on Russian rails to Afghanistan. So far the only one allowed to do so. Report in German.

(and no - I am not happy at all about this. WTF have German soldiers to do in Afghanistan.)

Posted by: b | Nov 20 2008 21:13 utc | 19

it kinda looks to me that obvious solution is to occupy Iran. Kill two birds with one stone. the US would have complete control of all the oil in the middle east and give them a land bridge to Afghanistan. Then start the build up for the next move on the Caspian basin.

gotta be bold, meek people don't make history.

Posted by: dan of steele | Nov 20 2008 21:40 utc | 20

i say supply the mission totally from the air, kinda like a permanent baby cockfight hitler rescues fat fag mussolini pigs at dien bien phu alamo

Posted by: stumblewire | Nov 20 2008 23:30 utc | 21

I don't expect the Iran route can be used for logistics in the near or mid term, but this probably needs to be added to the picture:

India Doubles Down in Afghanistan...Maybe
by Peter Lee

[...] India ’s signature aid project is the Zaranj-Delaram highway, which links Afghanistan ’s highway system to the Iranian border and onward to the Iranian port of Chabahar .

The explicit intent of this project is to break Pakistan ’s monopoly on Afghanistan’s links to the outside world through the Khyber Pass, and the Taliban strongholds of eastern Afghanistan, and reorient Afghanistan ’s transport, economic, and strategic focus to its west.

The project was finally completed in September 2008, almost two years behind schedule.

Posted by: Alamet | Nov 21 2008 0:00 utc | 22

@b 19. Germany's not the only one. Also Spain.

Posted by: Helena | Nov 21 2008 0:03 utc | 23

The logistics into Afghanistan and Credit Default Swaps are the two subjects only that are only discussed intelligently here on the Moon of Alabama.

If not addressed with determination and skill, both could sink the Obama Presidency into a depression and ignoble withdrawal under fire. This is without even touching on the dangers in the Iraq disengagement.

Posted by: VietnamVet | Nov 21 2008 19:42 utc | 24

Gates now on Obama line with more troops to Afghanistan: Gates Backs Buildup of U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

Gates said he intends to meet the requests of top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan for an increase of four more combat brigades and an aviation brigade, as well as thousands of support troops -- a total reinforcement of "well north of 20,000" in the coming year and a half, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

The troops would deploy primarily to eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, where the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division is headed in January, as well as to southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is based.
In the long run, Gates stressed, a primary goal must be to accelerate the growth and capabilities of Afghan national security forces. That will require an international investment of billions for years, he said, because the Kabul government, with an annual budget of about $700 million, "will never be able to sustain this force."
"One general theme that I am pushing very hard . . . is we need to remember this is Afghanistan's war against a threat to a freely elected Afghan government, and we're there to help them take on that threat," Gates told reporters on his aircraft after the meeting.

"This isn't our war, necessarily," he said.

The Afghans may disagree on that ...

Posted by: b | Nov 22 2008 9:51 utc | 25

1. Why do we keep shipping water when we could purify it locally?

2. Shouldn't our strategy be shifting toward training local Afghan forces and playing off local tribes v. vastly increasing our own footprint?

3. Does the logistics tail differ if we deploy far more special forces that integrate with indigenous forces instead of trying to support a larger footprint of conventional US forces?

Posted by: bth | Nov 23 2008 12:50 utc | 26

A Russian General (ret.) on the mistakes in Afghanistan: Moscow and Washington have made the same mistakes in their conflicts there, says Ruslan Aushev.

I can tell you which mistakes you made and which mistakes we made. They are the same mistakes. We set up a very weak leader, Babrak Karmal. He didn't have prestige with the people. Today the leadership of Afghanistan does not enjoy popularity with the people. They said of Babrak Karmal, he only sits there with the help of Russian bayonets.

We said, "Afghans, you are living according to the Soviet way of life, where religion is separated from the state, mullahs should be expelled, religion is the opiate of the people. You'll be living in collective farms. You will have pioneer camps, Comsomol [youth] organizations, and so on and so forth." The Soviet way of life in a country that still lives in the Dark Ages!

And what did you say? You said, "We are giving you democracy." They cannot even translate the term properly. Under us there was a lot of corruption, and today there's a lot of corruption. Neither under you nor under us did an ordinary person get anything.

Posted by: b | Nov 23 2008 14:29 utc | 27

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