A Logistics Nightmare

Critical to the success of any military mission is the ability to provide timely logistics support throughout the theater of operations. In the case of Afghanistan, the salience of transporting materiel is compounded by the geopolitical sensitivity of the region. The country's neighbors -- Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian republics -- all complicate this fundamental aspect of military planning.

Pakistan offers the most direct and the cheapest routes to Afghanistan. No U.S. military transportation units operate in Pakistan, so the Department of Defense relies on private contractors to transport supplies and equipment along the 1200-mile ground route and to provide security of the cargo while in transit.

Until recently, the principal contract supporting the U.S. supply chain in Afghanistan was called Host Nation Trucking, a $2.16 billion contract split among eight Afghan, American, and Middle Eastern companies. The companies transported over 70 percent of the supplies for the international forces in Afghanistan, roughly 6,000 to 8,000 truck missions per month.

However, the HNT contract suffered from serious oversight problems. "Warlord, Inc," a report published by the House Oversight Committee in June 2010, found that by paying local trucking companies to move its supplies across Afghanistan and by leaving it up to the companies to protect themselves, the American military's money ended up being given to warlords to provide security. A Senate study uncovered similar problems with subcontractors funneling money to insurgents.

To stem the flow of contract money to warlords and insurgents, DOD has recently moved to restructure the contracting process. Instead of dividing the funds between eight companies, at least twenty will be awarded contracts. Moreover, seven of the current contractors will be suspended for a lack of "integrity and business ethics." Under this model, DOD reduces its dependence on individual companies and augments competition among the bidders. The new contracts, which were finalized last Monday and will take effect next month, also aim to eliminate layers of middlemen who skimmed money and directed it into their personal coffers. The hope is that with greater competition, transparency, and oversight, companies will no longer think that they can deliver inferior services and still expect to continue receiving contracts because of the high demand and limited supply of host nation trucking contractors.

Some of the old problems persist, of course. Limited resources, demanding timelines, and the other constraints of the contracting process mean that DOD cannot stamp out all corruption. Thus, the U.S. and its allies need to be conscious of the fact that some funds may end up in insurgent hands and weigh the potential risks carefully when selecting among the bids.

Unfortunately, corruption in the trucking contracts is not the only factor complicating U.S. logistics efforts in Afghanistan. The worsening U.S.-Pakistani relationship and increasingly bold attacks by Pakistani Taliban on the southern supply routes have impelled the United States and its allies to diversify their transit corridors, looking north to the Central Asian republics for assistance. Thus, in addition to restructuring the contracts awarded to companies traveling through Pakistan, U.S. military planners have adopted the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a commercially based logistical corridor connecting Baltic and Black Sea ports with Afghanistan. Between expenses incurred for supplies such as jet fuel, base rental fees, and necessary upgrades to airport facilities, the NDN is an expensive alternative to the southern truck routes. In essence, the NDN represents the ultimate geopolitical cost-benefit calculation: is it better to pay more in transport costs and ship supplies through Afghanistan's northern neighbors or to pay bribes along southern routes?

Higher transport costs are not the only factor arguing against increased reliance on NDN routes. Greater U.S. involvement with these former Soviet bloc countries has important foreign policy implications. Because Washington is engaging these partners on an issue of utmost priority to U.S. security interests, the participating states (Latvia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) now have increased leverage in Washington.

This leverage is particular troubling in the context of these states' authoritarian political systems and poor human rights records, both of which make them difficult partners for Washington. Relations with Uzbekistan, which were initially very close at the start of the war in Afghanistan, have been complicated by human rights concerns, particularly after violence in Andijan in May 2005, when security forces killed several hundred protestors. In response to U.S. criticism, Uzbekistan shut down the K2 airbase on its territory. However, as tensions with and instability inside Pakistan have grown, the utility of Uzbekistan's well-developed road and rail networks to Afghanistan (particularly from Termez to Mazar-i-Sharif) have begun to look increasingly enticing. In April of 2009, the United States and Uzbekistan signed a deal to allow supplies for the NATO effort to travel through Uzbek territory. Since then, criticism of the regime has been muted.

The participants in the NDN can play a constructive role in the Afghan war effort. However, their persistent authoritarianism and the complications this entails for their dealings with Washington means that they must never be treated as safe default alternatives to the southern routes.

In the final analysis, choosing how much to rely on the NDN versus the southern supply routes speaks to high-level strategic questions: do the U.S. and its NATO allies want to fund Pakistani army -- ultimately responsible for transport through Pakistan -- or enhance U.S. dependence on the Central Asian republics? Ultimately, they are questions that will be decided by cost considerations. Due to the scale of the operation and the costs involved, host nation trucking will continue to be the logistical lynchpin of the mission. While diversification is important and other options should absolutely be explored, the NDN cannot deliver the same levels of materiel as the trucking routes. Given these realities, it is important that U.S. military planners approach their tasks with the fullest possible awareness. They must realize the implications of relying on the southern routes and take the necessary precautions so that the contracting mistakes of the past are not repeated.