Perilous roads to Kabul
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Issue Vol 24.3 Jul-Sep2009 | Date : 28 Jan , 2011


The line across China also looks implausible. Yet ahead of the NATO Foreign minister’s meeting in Brussels in Mar ’09, a senior US official did acknowledge that NATO may ask China to help out by opening up a supply link for alliance forces.2

Chinese have a well established East–West railroad link from the Chinese seaboard, stretching all the way West to Xinxiang’s border with Central Asia. From Western China, presently there is just one rail connection from Urmqi into Kazakhstan which feeds into the network leading to the Afghan border. Chinese are also working on two more connectors – one each into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – which would enhance connectivity further.

Also read: India’s Foreign Policy: A Muddle for Sixty Two Years

 The long overland transit from a Chinese port on the East China Sea to Kazakhstan and limited system capacity particularly on the Central Asian leg severely limits this route’s usefulness. Besides, even though China would like to see Afghanistan stabilize, it remains wary of US intentions in the region. Therefore, contribution of the Chinese route can only be a token – more noteworthy for its political significance than the actual tonnage hauled.

The Northern Routes

Given the difficulties of Southern and Eastern approaches, the remaining options begin at a Baltic or Black Sea port and follow some version of the following broad route outlines:-

China is investing large sums in the regions infrastructure to bring it more tightly in its orbit.

  • Route 1A. Black Sea Georgian port of Poti – Baku (Azerbaijan) – transhipment across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenbashi (Turkmenistan) – Mary (Turkmenistan) – South to Afghan border North of Herat in NW Afghanistan.3 Americans are also exploring the possibility of extending this rail road link to Termez in Uzbekistan from where the cargo would be transhipped in trucks across the Amu Darya through the Salang tunnel into Afghanistan4.
  • Route 1B. If transit agreements with the reclusive Turkmen regime prove problematic, Americans have an alternative across Caspian from Baku to Aktau and Beyneu in Kazakhstan – and then South East all the way to Termez through Uzbekistan.
  • Route B – through Russia. To access Afghanistan from one of the Central Asian Republics to its North without costly transhipment across the Caspian Sea, traversing Russian territory is inevitable. For France and Germany a supply line along the route Germany – Moscow – Tchimkent (Southern Kazakhstan) – Tashkent (Uzbekistan) Termez (Uzbekistan) is already running. A trial run with first shipment of US military non-lethal cargo is also reportedly underway on this link.

Afghanistan has no rail system. Therefore irrespective of which Northern route is chosen, supplies will have to be switched to trucks at the Afghan-Uzbek or Afghan-Turkmen border. Facilities will have to be created to handle the anticipated traffic flow.

Quality of Infrastructure

The Northern route is planned to handle about 20 percent of the ground cargo destined for the US military in Afghanistan. This amounts to about 100 x 20-foot containers a week, compared with about 500 a week which transit through Pakistan.

During the last few years, sky rocketing oil prices had brightened Russias economics considerably. However the global downturn which has cast its shadows on all major economies of the world has not left Russia untouched. Russia needs foreign investment desperately to upgrade its decrepit infrastructure.

The state of Russian railroad system serves to highlight the typical difficulties that may be faced in utilizing the Northern routes. It is estimated that some 60 percent of Russian Railways’ fixed assets and 80 percent of cargo wagons and diesel locomotives are old and worn out. Since the Soviet days, output of freight cars has plummeted drastically. According to the Russian Railway Company’s own estimates, in lieu of 30,000 new wagons needed every year, only 5 to 8 thousand are being procured. Refurbishing the railroads infrastructure requires investment to the tune of some $380bn over the next 20 years or so.5

Similarly, robustness of the Central Asian leg of the rail network to accommodate the increase in traffic is not clear and considerable investments may be necessary to make it work.

Politics of the Northern Route

Russia has long been peeved by US (and in particular the Bush Administration) riding roughshod over its sensitivities. Eastward push of NATO, dismemberment of Serbia, recognition of Kosovo, planned deployment of ABM defences in Central Europe, engineering color revolutions in the erstwhile Soviet Republics had brought such chill in US–Russian relations as to fan speculation that the world could be on the threshold of another Cold War. With change of guard at the White House, there is a sense of thaw and it looks as if the US will pay some heed to Russian concerns.

Russia of 2009 is far more confident and appears determined to protect her vital interests. Reclaiming influence in the Central Asian region that it considers as its backyard, figures amongst its top priorities. To that end it is co-opting regimes bordering Afghanistan in the North, to limit US footprint in the region. Expulsion of American forces first from Uzbekistan and now Kyrgyzstan’s closure of the American air base at Manas are signs of Russia regaining its position of pre-eminence in the region.

During the last few years, sky rocketing oil prices had brightened Russia’s economics considerably. However the global downturn which has cast its shadows on all major economies of the world has not left Russia untouched. Russia needs foreign investment desperately to upgrade its decrepit infrastructure. With President Obama in the White House there is a change in the tenor of US foreign policy. Russia is unlikely to go so far as to shut the door on America. Therefore, while it would allow the transit of non-lethal military cargo through its territory, it will calibrate its responses carefully to leverage maximum possible mileage out of the circumstances – the extent being dependent on the degree of US need


Increasing vulnerability of US supply line through Pakistan is forcing the US to look for alternative routes to Afghanistan. Iran appears to be an attractive choice. However US–Iranian relations have been at such a low ebb and for such a long time that this option is unlikely in the near future. But with Americans feeling more secure in Iraq, a new administration in the White House, the situation could change.

Also read: Strategic relevance of Gilgit and Baltistan

In the absence of a Southern alternative, the US is forced to seek access from the North. One possible option could be across the Chinese Western province of Xinxiang to Kazakhstan and then to Afghanistan. China is investing large sums in the region’s infrastructure to bring it more tightly in its orbit. However as of now the long surface transit, the very difficult terrain and the attached political costs severely limit usefulness of this approach.

The other alternative is through Europe or the Black Sea. Access to Afghanistan would then entail either transhipment of cargo across the Caspian into Turkmenistan/Kazakhstan or traversing Russian territory before cutting across the Central Asian Republics. Americans appear to be exploring both approaches. Transhipment across the Caspian would incur penalty of both time and cost. Attached to the Russian route is the political cost of dependence, which the Americans viscerally abhor. The state of Russian infrastructure also doesn’t inspire confidence. However US needs a supplementary route and Russia is well aware of the American compulsions. Tempered by its need for foreign investment to repair and upgrade its decrepit infrastructure, it would try to leverage its position of advantage to extract concessions over the many thorny issues lying between itself and the Americans.

Americans could use some or several routes from the North depending on the deals that they can strike with the various states en route. However these can at best be secondary sources of supply. If the US is to persist with its Afghan mission until achievement of its objectives, it can not do without an approach from the sea – which explains the crucial centrality of Pakistan in the Afghan affair in more ways than one. This also explains why keeping Pakistan in good humour is so vital for America.


  1. Interview to German magazine ‘Spiegel’ reported by APP from Islamabad – Jun 01, 2008.
  2. NATO may ask China for support in Afghanistan – =60793.
  3. Washington Post, Mar 06, 2009.
  5. /russiancompanies/rzd.wbp.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal AK Trikha

Former AOC-in-C Southern Air Command.

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