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NATO: The Way Out of Afghanistan

Updated on September 27, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Central Asia

Ground Lines of Communication

NATO is looking for a way out of Afghanistan. No, literally, they are looking for a way out of Afghanistan. They've been there 11 years and have accumulated a lot of stuff in that time and, as 2014 approaches, a lot of stuff has to be moved out. Only troops and weapons are airlifted in and out of landlocked Afghanistan, as this is extremely expensive and there is only so much capacity. The main ground route into and out of Afghanistan is through Pakistan, what the military, in its inimitable fashion, calls PAKGLOC, or PAKistan Ground Lines of Communication. When NATO airstrikes killed Pakistani soldiers in November 2011, Islamabad closed this route down.

Routes Out of Afghanistan

Map showing NDN routes (black lines) and PAKGLOC routes (red lines).
Map showing NDN routes (black lines) and PAKGLOC routes (red lines). | Source

The Northern Distribution Network

Since then, most “non-lethal” supplies and equipment have arrived in Afghanistan via what is called the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN. This 3,100 mile network of seas, roads and rails is already expensive, time-consuming and subject to physical and political realities. The countries involved are Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Estonia and Russia. Via this network, supplies start their journey either in a Black Sea port in Georgia or the Baltic Sea port of Riga, Latvia (or, to a lesser extent, Tallinn, Estonia). The realities include dictators, support for Iran, fear of Iran, fear of spreading extremism, the NATO missile shield, poor infrastructure, the constant loading and offloading of goods between ships, rail and trucks, et al. Russia, the main player, sees NATO at its front door in the Baltic countries and its backdoor in Afghanistan (and in its basement in the other “stans” in Central Asia-- all former Soviet Republics). On the other hand, they don't want all that NATO equipment falling into the hands of the Taliban or other extremist groups. They would prefer that NATO wipe out the Taliban then get the hell out, otherwise, the Russians see themselves worrying about Afghanistan... again. It's not like anything is black and white here.

Estonians Increasingly Participating

While the port of Riga, Latvia handles most of the cargo destined to and from the Russian rail network, the port of Tallinn, Estonia has seen a dramatic increase in its share of NDN cargo. In 2009, Tallin's transit flow was 1,500 tons; just two years later, Tallinn handled 250,000 tons.

Pakistani Supply Lines

NATO supply lines crossing through the Pakistani territory.
NATO supply lines crossing through the Pakistani territory. | Source

$17,500 Per Container

NATO would much rather use PAKGLOC than NDN. The average cost to ship out a container via Pakistan is $7,200 and it doesn't take as long, while shipping it via the Northern Distribution Network costs $17,500. As the deadline of 2014 looms, costs will go through the roof. Already deals for bases in the “stans” are being renegotiated-- upwards, way up.

Lots of Stuff

NATO find themselves in a bind. Not only do they not want to arm the Taliban-- sorry, the Afghan Army-- more than is necessary, hard times are upon us all-- even the military. Chump change like a billion here or a billion there is suddenly needed elsewhere, so the military forces of the various countries are watching their pennies. It is estimated that 130,000 soldiers, 70,000 vehicles and 120,000 containers must be moved out by 2014. They are quite aware of Afghanistan's history with invaders. When Britain withdrew in 1842, almost none of the 17,000 troops made it out alive. The Soviets had to fight their way out in places-- and their exit was a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

US and Pakistani Generals

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, meets with Pakistani army Lt. Gen. Khalid Wynne, commander of Southern Command, at the Friendship Gate border crossing, in Spin Boldak, Afghanistan.
U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, meets with Pakistani army Lt. Gen. Khalid Wynne, commander of Southern Command, at the Friendship Gate border crossing, in Spin Boldak, Afghanistan. | Source

All of a Sudden Some of These Guys Don't Look So Bad

The actual exit for NATO is being carefully studied and it includes one of the most effective weapons in their arsenal: public praise for former bad-guys, selective amnesia and mega-lucrative contracts. Kyrgyzstan is threatening to not renew the lease of its airbase to the US in its capital, Bishkek. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited there in March, 2012, to tell them how important they are. No one yet knows how much the lease will increase. Uzbekistan's dictator, whom the US cut off relations with in 2005 when he brutally suppressed an uprising, has had conversations with President Obama and visits from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others. Clinton recently announced Uzbekistan has made progress on human rights issues and trade barriers will be lifted. If all is well in Uzbekistan, they may also find that some of the transported equipment may “fall off the trucks” including armored vehicles, small arms and other equipment and perhaps even drones.

Russian City of Ulyanovsk

View of Ulyanovsk
View of Ulyanovsk | Source

Russia: About Face

That doesn't sit well with Russia, whose leadership, up to the recent elections, had been beating the drum about the evils of NATO, how NATO was encircling Russia and how NATO wanted to set up bases inside Russia. But now that elections are over and there's real money to be had, they are telling the aroused public to cool it a little-- NATO just wants to pass through, not set up camp, for crying out loud. The missile defense shield NATO wants to deploy in Eastern Europe? The way the West treats Iran and Syria? Different subjects. Pay attention people. Negotiations are even underway to include the airport at Ulyanovsk, Russia in the Northern Distribution Network. Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Lenin, is a depressed area and it sure would appreciate the business.

Let Bygones Be Bygones?

Apparently Pakistan is reconsidering its stance. In May, 2012, it offered to allow NATO passage through its territory-- for only $5,000 a truck. NATO declined this offer. Presumably the price of outrage and indignation continues to be negotiated.

Negotiations Continue

In the meantime, discussions continue in all the various capitals, meaning the price has not been decided. The individual countries have to carefully negotiate the most they can get without driving NATO to competing routes. The one thing in their favor is that there aren't that many routes-- and Russia is the biggest player since nearly all routes traverse their land or air space. Of course, sooner or later the dollar amount for safe passage may very well prompt the Pakistani's to say, “Oh, well now, let us let bygones be bygones”. Then we'll see who our friends really are.

Pakistani Supply Trucks

Happier days. A Pakistani rests between two supply trucks at a makeshift helicopter in Pakistan, Oct. 28, 2005. The Defense Department is delivering disaster relief to Pakistan, parts of India and Afghanistan following a devastating earthquake.
Happier days. A Pakistani rests between two supply trucks at a makeshift helicopter in Pakistan, Oct. 28, 2005. The Defense Department is delivering disaster relief to Pakistan, parts of India and Afghanistan following a devastating earthquake. | Source

Update: U.S: “We're sorry.” Pakistan: “Okay.” The Trucks Roll in Pakistan

In May, 2012, Pakistan reconsidered its stance and offered to allow NATO passage through its territory-- for only $5,000 a truck. An estimated 200 trucks crossed the border daily before it was closed. NATO declined this offer.

In July 2012, both sides “relented”. The U.S. apologized for killing the 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011 and the trucks started moving. The U.S. will not stop drone attacks and will not pay any more than the $250 transit fee per truck it was paying before the closure. News accounts therefore indicate Pakistan got its apology and that's all.

On an “unrelated” note it appears $1.1 billion in military aid to Pakistan may soon be freed up. Also, no word on any additional “fees” or monies that may find their way into Pakistani pockets, but don't expect the Northern Distribution Network to go away. For now, though, the NDN may have to look into lowering their prices, because, after all, business is business.

Update: Russia Expands NATO Transit Options

In June, 2012, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree that allows NATO to use 'combined transit' routes for moving weapons and military hardware into and out of Afghanistan, instead of just 'ground transit'. Combined transit allows rail, road and air routes. The use of Ulyanovsk Air Base has still not been decided, due to fears that it might become a defacto NATO military base on Russian soil.

2015 Update

NYET! | Source

Update: 2015 Russia Cancels NATO Transit Options

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a resolution on May 18, 2015 revoking the agreement which allowed NATO shipments, including military cargo, from passing between Afghanistan and Russia.

Although the military mission in Afghanistan “ended” in 2014, some 13,000 coalition troops remain in the country, still needing supplies and with plenty of equipment still to be removed.

The Russian resolution cited the fact that the original agreement had expired in December 2014. Could the fact that tensions between the West and Russia over Eastern Europe have been a factor? More surprising is that, despite Russian support of Ukrainian rebels, Russian threats to the Baltic countries and NATO's threatening response, the Russian corridor wasn't closed off long ago. Could the real reason be that, with NATO winding down the mission in Afghanistan, transit fees had dwindled enough to warrant poking the West in the eye?

And would it be so surprising to see Pakistani transit fees mysteriously soar?

© 2012 David Hunt


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      The way out is the way we should have went in. We should have joined Pakistan and invaded and turned Afghanistan into Pakistani Territory. The place is Pakistani any way only they are to weak to paranoid of India to bring it under control. Afghanistan will never be anything until Pakistan brings it into its trade zone and so it will remain a backwards country full of people killing one another when we leave. Half of Afghanistan's population currently lives in Pakistan after 3 decades of war already.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      7 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks much for commenting, stirringtrouble. The US and Pakistan are still negotiating. Right now it looks like the US has three choices $$$ for Pakistan, $$$$$ for the northern route or $$$$$$$ to fly stuff out. And probably $$$$$$$$$$$$$ of stuff left behind. There will probably be a combination of all four. Meanwhile, we're trying to get our crumbling streets patched here in Cedar Rapids. If only there was a route out of Afghanistan through Iowa.

    • stirringtrouble profile image

      Jm Bob 

      7 years ago from London, United Kingdom

      These routes are all very useful sources, thanks for sharing such a comprehensive hub here on HubPages. Well done everyone for commenting. My hope is that NATO will come to some agreement with everyone so these passages and journey's can continue.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      7 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks much for the comment, alikhan3. I heard in the news lately that the U.S. is considering flying much of its stuff out at 10 times the cost of going through Pakistan. Apparently, negotiations aren't going well. Nothing much was said about the Northern route, whose costs lie somewhere in the middle, so I'm assuming the current tensions between Russia and the U.S. might have something to do with flying more stuff out. I'll be doing some more digging on this.

    • alikhan3 profile image


      7 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan

      Awesome Topic chosen Boy............. well written.......

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I enjoyed your comment, pramodgokhale, especially from an Indian perspective. I also am pessimistic as to Afghanistan's fate. It has absorbed many efforts by world empires to tame it. I'm afraid the best we can hope for is if a non-fundamentalist warlord to take over-- or pay the Afghan government enough to fight the Taliban and have them actually do it. Not looking good.

    • pramodgokhale profile image


      8 years ago from Pune( India)


      It would be largest military material handling. Afghanistan is an hot issue and will keep boiling after troops pullout.I am an Indian much worried of war torn nation, we help to rebuild this nation but future government will be formed Islamic fundamentalists and radicals and anarchic situation will close all opportunities to build the nation and will make it to theocratic state and export of terrorism to other countries will be the plausibility.

      thank you sir,

      pramod gokhale

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the comment, ackman1465.I fear we squandered a lot of goodwill after our initial success. I'd compare it to Vietnam-- but the public knows a lot less about Afghanistan than Vietnam.

    • ackman1465 profile image


      8 years ago from Cape Coral, Florida

      Ahhhh Afghanistan..... The Russians sent their army there, in the 1980s..... for about 10 years. And they, finally, learned that they were wasting their time, money and people.... so they left...

      Now, the USofA is doing the same. Spent about the same amount of time reaching the same conclusion.... BUT lots more MONEY.... and we - unlike those Godless Commies - claim that we've accomplished oh-so much.... tho' I'm still not sure just what that is....

      Seems to me that we're back to 2002, or 1980.... and the place is still the same.... and the same warlords... or their sons or other followers and deciples are still keeping charge in the place....

      Is it possible that we "world powers" will ever figure out that we're wasting our time, money, people and resources trying to change these places in the world????

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks very much for your comment, Kathleen. I agree about getting out being harder than getting in-- in addition, we had nearly the whole world supporting us going in. Don't know about keeping stuff working-- some of those guys can make their own rifles and machine guns out of scrap using blacksmith tools. Then again, it may not be worth the effort to them.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Insightful information. After Desert Storm a lot of equipment just got buried in the sand and we were only there a year. Wonder if Afghanistan's terrain is as convenient?

      One factor that might make this situation easier is the fact that we've been there for ten years, and an awful lot of our equipment has been used beyond repair. Replacement parts have been a huge problem all along. I suspect the Afghanis will have less luck at keeping this stuff working than we did.

      The military would tell you getting out is always harder than going in. Good subject to consider.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, phdast. Yeah, there's a whole ton of logistics involved that I certainly wouldn't ever think of-- even to having to inspect vehicles/equipment in theater to even decide whether they are worth transporting in the first place. Thanks for sharing, too.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hey, thoughtsandwiches, thanks for the vote up and comment. The route you describe is the only non-Russian path but I believe its capacity is diminished-- plus there's a lot of off-loading and loading to be done on and off ships twice, etc. I believe Turkmenistan is out of the loop because it and that part of Afghanistan have almost no infrastructure capable of handling much traffic. Great question!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good Hub-

      Aside from the top brass and a handful of govt officials I imagine very few people have thought about the logistical nightmare involved in certain retreats. I grew up an Air force brat and never gave this a second thought, even though I know Afghanistan is landlocked and access is problematic to say the least. The costs are just unbelievable. Thanks for drawing our attention to this. SHARING

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, rlbert00. Yeah, this isn't very sexy stuff like Lohan's latest court appearance. I was barely aware of some of this. And all those "stans" get confusing.

    • rlbert00 profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      Thoughtful insight in a part of the conflict in Afghanistan that very few people have given any consideration to, I know I hadn't. Nicely done.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      8 years ago from Reno, Nevada


      As I began reading this, the predominate image in my head was the one of them pushing helicopters from carriers, into the sea, off the coast of Saigon in 1975. It was unseemly then and it would be unseemly now.

      You are absolutely correct...the negotiations MUST be going fast and furious throughout the various Stans. In terms of removing Russia I wonder why they don't go Poland-Ukraine-Black Sea-Georgia-(whichever) Stan-Afghanistan?

      I noticed on your map that Turkmenistan is conspicuously untraveled in terms of that northern route. Is there a particular reason that you know of?

      Great Job! Voting Up and Sharing.



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