With relations with Pakistan so volatile, the United States is not going to trust the transportation of weapons and other military equipment to the traditional supply route from landlocked Afghanistan through Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the Taliban can help itself. Instead, a large-scale airlift of personnel and lethal cargo will cross Russian airspace, homeward bound.
Since 2009, the Pentagon has used Russia’s air corridors extensively under what it calls the US-Russian Lethal Transit Agreement, and will continue to do so as the withdrawal steps up in 2014.
According to the US Transportation Command, between July 2009 and August 2011, US military and civilian transports flew 1,373 flights over Russian territory carrying 211,000 personnel in and out of Afghanistan, along with 80,000 tons of equipment. Since then, the number of flights has remained at a steady annual average of just over 1,000. The total number of flights from September 2011 through October 2013 was actually around 2,327, carrying a total of 469,000 passengers.
Meanwhile, a land route for non-lethal supplies, called the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), continues to deliver supplies to Afghanistan for troops still on the ground. Congress only relatively recently authorized the Pentagon to purchase vegetables from Afghan suppliers; everything else, including bottled water and toothpaste, is shipped in.
The NDN follows part of the ancient Silk Road from the east—and more recently, the Russian supply route for its own troops in Afghanistan. It starts at one of three main seaports on the Baltic coast—Riga in Latvia, Klaipeda in Lithuania, or Tallinn in Estonia—where container ships are offloaded onto Russian trains to be carried across Russia and into Central Asia. The final rail destination is usually in Uzbekistan. Because Afghanistan has no railroad network to speak of, the goods are then transferred to trucks for the last leg of the journey.
Why would the Kremlin be so obliging at a time when US- Russian relations are in such poor shape over issues like Syria, Snowden, and the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the whistle-blowing lawyer who died in a Moscow prison?
Well, for one thing it puts the administration in Vladimir Putin’s debt. But if the Kremlin hopes that Russia’s role in the withdrawal will result in a more muted US approach on human rights, it is reckoning without a belligerent Congress.
In December, the State Department—on instructions from Congress—is due to publish an updated list of Russians who are known to be serious human rights abusers, including some of those involved in Magnitsky’s nightmare, with the intent of seizing any US-based assets and denying them US entry visas.
But there’s also the money. It costs $1.2 million a year to maintain an American soldier on the ground in Afghanistan, compared to $650,000 in Iraq. High transportation costs, including customs fees, account for a lot of the difference, with the Russians reaping a lot of the benefit.
By Jennifer Birich