February 23, 2015:
At the end of 2014 NATO managed to get its troops and equipment out of Afghanistan on schedule. This left only about 10,000 American troops behind to provide support for Afghan forces. For the Americans alone that was down from 33,000 troops in 2013, 60,000 in 2012 and 100,000 in 2011. This gradual reduction was necessary to get all the gear being taken out to do so given the limited transportation options in Afghanistan. This is a country with few roads or navigable rivers and no railroads or access to the ocean.
Serious planning for the withdrawal began in 2011 and ended up costing nearly $30 billion. The United States had the biggest job because they had most of the bases (500), vehicles (nearly 25,000) and shipping containers (over 60,000) to deal with. Many of the bases were turned over to the Afghans although facilities the Afghans could not use had to be destroyed, especially bases, lest the Taliban or drug gangs take them over. Some heavy equipment that the Afghans did not need (or could not use), like the older MRAPs, were destroyed (disassembled) in Afghanistan.
Originally the plan was to move 60 percent of the cargo containers out via roads through Pakistan to the port of Karachi where it would move by sea back to the United States and other NATO countries. That proved more difficult than expected because Afghans and Pakistanis saw this as a splendid opportunity to make money. Rather than pay more bribes to get the trucks to Karachi, a lot more of the stuff was moved out via air freight. Some was flown to the Persian Gulf where it was transferred to ships for the long voyage home. That was more expensive than paying more bribes but was seen as a better way to go as the cash goes to Western air freight companies and not some tribal outlaws.
This nasty situation is nothing new and has been around for a long time. For centuries tribes along the roads into landlocked Afghanistan, especially those going through key mountain passes, got rich by demanding a bribe from travelers. This money was for “protection” from the tribe in question and, in theory, from any other tribesmen or stray bandits along the route. The tribes making the most money were the ones that could keep others from attacking the travelers that had paid for protection.
These days the trade routes are usually paved roads and the travelers are trucks operated by Pakistani and Afghan transportation companies. These companies pay governments and powerful tribes to ensure that their trucks are unmolested. That doesn’t always work, especially when there’s a lot more traffic. That has been the case since 2002, when the Taliban were out of power in Afghanistan and Western troops, and foreign aid money, was flooding in. This meant a lot more traffic because the Afghan economy was revived and those rich foreigners needed a lot of imported stuff. The demands for bribes just kept getting bigger.
In response, the United States overcame obstacles (mainly diplomatic) to moving its Afghanistan supply lines from the Pakistani port of Karachi to rail lines running through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. NATO and the U.S. negotiated with Russia to allow supplies to move to Afghanistan via Russian rail lines and those of Central Asian nations. These only go as far as the Afghan border. There are no railroads in Afghanistan. Thus, from the Uzbek border, the freight containers are trucked south to where most of the U.S. and NATO troops are stationed. By 2011, about 40 percent of supplies were arriving via the "Northern Distribution Network." The U.S. wanted to eventually move all truck cargo via the northern route but the roads going north, especially the one through the Salang tunnel, were not able to handle it. Moreover, the Russians and other nations controlling parts of the rail network got greedy and kept demanding higher transit fees.
Nevertheless, all this shift amounted to a large loss of business for Pakistani transportation firms. For a long time Pakistan used that income as an incentive to protect the traffic going through the Khyber Pass. But the Pakistanis always had a hard time controlling all the bandits and tribal gangs who frequently plundered the truck traffic from Pakistan to Afghanistan or demanded a share of the protection (bribes) money. Tribal leaders received gifts and promises of more if things remained peaceful and threats if their men were found to be attacking trucks. That did not always work either. This is an unpredictable part of the world.
The Taliban have long threatened (and failed) to cut the U.S./NATO supply line from Pakistan to Afghanistan. To do this they had to halt the truck traffic going through the Khyber Pass, which is the main road from Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan. At one time, some 90 percent of the supplies for foreign troops came via this road (and another one in southwest Pakistan). The rest were flown in. Typically the truck traffic was attacked several times a year, with vehicles destroyed, stolen, or looted. These attacks could halt traffic for as long as a week. This has not hurt U.S. or NATO troops, who, as is the military custom, maintain reserves of all supplies. The Taliban took responsibility for some of the attacks but most of it was just greedy tribesmen and bandits out to make more money before the Western traffic disappeared.
Moving goods across the border is vital to the economy of Afghanistan as well. So in the past few years, both Pakistan and Afghanistan responded to the threat against the truck traffic by moving more troops and police in to guard the routes. Local tribes have also sent more armed men along the route, as they have long done, to go after anyone who threatened the vital trade and the money they got out of it. Most of the interruptions to Khyber Pass traffic are more about money than about the Taliban. NATO and the U.S. are seen as rich foreigners, who can pay more than the Afghan and Pakistani merchants who own most of the goods going up the road into Afghanistan. Squeezing some extra cash out of rich foreigners is an ancient and honored custom in this part of the world. But the Pakistani government was rightly worried that the U.S. and NATO would take their trucking business elsewhere if the interruptions persisted. Pakistani leaders did the math and concluded that it the NATO supply line moving to Central Asia, the Port of Karachi and the trucking companies stood to lose over $100 million worth of business a year. The tribal militias in Pakistan proved difficult negotiate with until the very end and they are one aspect of the local culture that Western logistics officials will not miss at all.