Supply-line or life-line? By Dr Farrukh Saleem

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NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has 50,700 troops in Afghanistan. Of the total, the US has contributed 20,600 troops, the UK 8,330, Germany 3,310, France 2,730, Canada 2,500, Italy 2,350, Netherlands 1,770 and Turkey 1,300 (the US has an additional 11,900 troops in Afghanistan that are outside of ISAF). Of the 57 OIC member-states the six Muslim-majority states that have contributed troops to ISAF are Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Jordan, the UAE and Turkey.

ISAF needs around 300,000 gallons of oil per day in addition to 170 container-loads of food and water per day plus Humvees (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle), APCs (Armoured Personnel Carriers) and other military material. Of the 300,000 gallons of oil, 40 per cent, or 120,000 gallons per day, is supplied through Quetta-Chaman-Spin Boldak/Kandahar and Khyber Pass channels (Pakistani refineries refine a large percentage of military fuel for ISAF). Of the 170 container-loads per day, 140 containers per day pass through either Chaman or Torkhum. That translates into 84 per cent of all containerised cargo meant for ISAF troops first arriving at either Port Qasim or Karachi Port and then travelling either to Torkhum or Chaman.

Within the following month, ISAF is expecting an additional US combat brigade (some 4,000 troops from the 10th Mountain). Within the following six months, ISAF is expecting three additional US combat brigades. All put together that means an additional 20,000 US troops. And, all that means more oil, more food, more water, more Humvees and more APCs.

Is there an alternative to Quetta-Chaman-Spin Boldak/Kandahar and Khyber Pass channels? Well, there are at least three other corridors; the western corridor through Iran, the north-western corridor through Turkmenistan and the northern corridor through the ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia.

The western corridor through Iran will be the most efficient alternative route. Indian Army’s Corps of Engineers has recently built a road connecting Delaram to Zaranj which is then connected to the Iranian Port of Chabhar. From the Port of Chabhar, ISAF cargo will be taken to Zahedan and then Kabul is under a thousand kilometres.

The north-western corridor is through the Caspian Sea into the Port of Turkmenbasy (in Turkmenistan) to Ashgabat and then Kabul is around a thousand kilometres. The northern corridor shall be through Uzbekistan into Afghanistan, and depending on which seaport is used the distance to Kabul will be from a few thousand to several thousand kilometres.

Here’s the problem: the western corridor through Iran, perhaps the most efficient alternative potential supply-line, is part of the ‘axis of evil’. For Iran, the US is the ‘Great Satan’. The north-western corridor has the Caspian Sea, the largest enclosed body of water, but Turkmenistan has no access to open ocean. And, the northern corridor is under Russian influence.

According to Syed Saleem Shahzad, the star reporter on the ‘war on terror’, starting next year, ISAF cannot do without “70,000 containers a year.” And, that’s an average of 200 containers a day.

General David McKiernan, Commander ISAF, now wants to “redefine the Afghan battlefield to include Pakistan’s border regions.” Here’s the ‘Great Obama challenge’: What to do about Afghanistan-Pakistan? Obama has three choices: one, maintain status quo, protect Karzai and protect major cities. Two, launch an offensive. Three, withdraw. Launching an offensive would mean committing additional resources that the US military does not have, and a total withdrawal would leave American mainland vulnerable.

According to Strategic Forecasting, a Texas-based private intelligence entity: “Pakistan remains the single most important logistics route for the Afghan campaign. This is not by accident. It is by far the quickest and most efficient overland route to the open ocean…..”

Is Pakistan ISAF’s supply-line or are we ISAF’s life-line?

The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance columnist. Email:

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