Punish Russia? Why some Pentagon officials would prefer restraint.

The crisis in Ukraine has elicited tough talk from Capitol Hill, but in the back halls of the Pentagon, some officials are focused on a key supply line to Afghanistan that runs through Russia. 

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

While calls mount on Capitol Hill to robustly punish Russia for its incursion into Crimea, some officials in the back halls of the Pentagon are privately pushing for restraint.

That’s because senior US military officials are well aware that a key supply line in and out of Afghanistan runs through Russia.

That supply line, known as the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN, brings food, water, and building materials that keep US troops in Afghanistan fed and America’s longest war going.

Negotiating the NDN was a labor-intensive endeavor, and the Pentagon does not want to lose it, particularly as the spring fighting season in Afghanistan is set to begin soon.

“It’s been a heck of a process and of course we’re always looking out for any disruptions to it,” says a senior defense official. “Political problems with Russia is certainly one of them.” 

The good news is that so far, Russia has shown no inclination to use the NDN as leverage in the wake of US retaliation for its troop movements in Crimea.

This was true even in the middle of the conflict between Russian and Georgia in 2008, for example – in which the US took Georgia’s side. 

Back then, it remained business as usual along the NDN, notes Thomas Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

That surprised a number of defense analysts, he adds, but it also makes sense: In a time of economic uncertainty, the NDN offers Russia a considerable source of income, in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year.

“Putin’s finance guys might be telling him, ‘Hey, we really need the cash,’ ” Mr. Sanderson notes.

At the same time, Russia has long been able to “compartmentalize” its diplomatic relationship with the US, he adds, when Russia never even hinted that the NDN might be in jeopardy during the US-Russia diplomatic fallout over Georgia.

Even so, this doesn’t stop Pentagon officials from worrying about the possibility that the supply line could be cut off.

While the US military relationship with Pakistan is on steadier footing than it has been in recent years, any dust-ups between the two countries could imperil that state of affairs – such as when US military air strikes accidentally killed nearly two dozen Pakistani soldiers in 2011 and Pakistani officials duly closed US supply routes through their country for seven months. Any such future incidents would make the NDN even more important.

Today, roughly 40 percent of the supplies for US troops in Afghanistan move through the NDN, including food, water, and building materials. It is against the terms of the NDN for the Pentagon to use the route for anything that explodes – such as, say, ammunition – as well as other sensitive items including weapons and cryptological equipment.

It’s also a highly impractical route for shipping back large military trucks and other vehicles, which officials prefer to ship through Pakistan.

Flying a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle – the US military’s heaviest – out of Afghanistan, for example, uses “ungodly amounts of fuel,” the official adds, and only two of them can fit on a C-17 transport plane at any given time.

And shipping it through the NDN would mean it must travel through five countries and incur sizable customs fees.

Indeed, the port at Karachi “is our preferred method of shipping everything out of Afghanistan,” says the senior defense official, since it tends to be the most cost-effective.

However, travel through the region remains precarious, since it is frequented by insurgents who wouldn’t mind targeting US military supplies and the people who transport them. 

Late last year the Pentagon was forced to stop shipments through one supply route to Pakistan – through the Torkham Gate in Afghanistan – because the US military was worried about threats to its contracted drivers. “Protesters were stopping vehicles,” the senior official says, “And we don’t know what’s going to happen then. It’s a heck of a risk to take.” 

For that reason, the percentage of US military trucks and supplies being shipped back to the US through Pakistan dropped from 56 percent in November to 44 percent in the past month, according to Pentagon figures.

As the US military prepares to draw down in Afghanistan, the NDN – through which some five percent of US military materials are currently being moved out of the country – likely will continue to grow in importance, particularly if President Obama pursues a “zero option” and pulls all US troops from the war by the end of the year.

“That’s why we want to keep the NDN open,” the senior defense official says. “We can surge more material up and out through the network if we need to do that.”

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