100 000th container on the NDN

Celebration of the 100,000th Container along the NDN

June 11, 2013

On June 11th, Ambassador McCarthy visited Riga Free Port to participate in a celebration of the 100,000th container to pass through the Northern Distribution Network, which includes Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to Afganistan, organized U.S. Embassy in Riga, in cooperation with the Latvian MFA and Ministry of Transport.

Among the senior diplomats present at the event were U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Lynne Tracy, the U.S. Ambassadors to Latvia Mark Pekala, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics,Latvian Minister of Transportation Anrijs Matiss as well as other U.S. military officials.

Initially activated in 2009, the route has brought more than 2 million tons of nonlethal equipment through ports in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and then overland into Afghanistan to support operations. The route traverses the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, the Black Sea, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan before reaching Afghanistan.

The route was created as an alternate way to move supplies into Afghanistan instead of depending on a single route through Pakistan. It is one of the longest lines of military supply lines ever created, according to U.S. Army Col. Matthew Redding, commander of the 598th Transportation Brigade in Sembach, Germany. His unit coordinates the logistical effort through U.S. Transportation Command’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command.

“The 100,000th container is not the story, that is simply a number,” said Col. Redding. “What is really important is the Baltic cooperation and the ability to link it to our foreign policy as it relates to the entire region.”

The route requires close cooperation between not only nations but U.S. Transportation Command, U.S. Army Europe, the U.S. State Department and its embassies, as well as the commercial entities that contract for the transport.

“It represents cooperation amongst our agencies in the U.S,” said Ambassador McCarthy. “The DoD and Department of State cooperation has been vital in the last few years. It’s also a celebration of our ability to work with foreign governments thinking about not only a common cause in Afghanistan, but about the future of Central Asia.”

The ceremony also set the stage for a conference June 12 in Riga discussing the future of the network as a means for withdrawing equipment from Afghanistan as 2014 approaches, and the expansion of the route for commercial purposes.

“We are trying to create, on the basis of the Northern Distribution Network, a whole new way of thinking about transportation and logistics in this region,” said Ambassador Pekala. “Latvia and the other Baltic states could be the center of what they call a new Silk Road … a 21st-century logistics and transportation hub. This represents how that can be achieved working together on the basis of free enterprise, democracy and cooperation.”
Source: Embassy of the United States, Lithuania

Not like the WWII Persian Corridor, where the volume of traffic was censored!

On the slow train

Call it the ultimate in military logistics. As land routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan are cut, sabotaged or otherwise interrupted, the U.S. military has developed alternative railroad routes that make the Orient Express look like a branch line.

They are called — rather prosaically — the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN. The main route begins at the port of Riga in Latvia, from where freight trains roll across Russia, and continues along the edge of the Caspian Sea. It crosses the deserts of Kazakhstan and into Uzbekistan. About 10 days after beginning their odyssey, the containers cross into Afghanistan, carrying everything from computers and socks to toilet paper and bottled water.


Source: To Afghanistan, on the slow train, Tim Lister, CNN, 29 November 2011

Increase in Uzbek rail tariffs

FMN Logistics Responds to Increased Uzbek Rail Tariffs

Rising tariffs will affect wide range of NDN operations

(Tashkent, Uzbekistan, February 3, 2011) – FMN Logistics, Inc., a provider of freight forwarding and logistics services, today responds to the recent significant tariff increase imposed on Northern Distribution Network (NDN) rail cargo by Uzbekistan Temir Yullari (UTI), the national railroad of Uzbekistan. UTI levied a tariff increase effective on February 1st on consigned shipments for United States and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) non-lethal rail cargo into and out of Afghanistan.

“FMN Logistics is following these developments very closely,” said Harry Eustace, Jr. CEO of FMN Logistics. “We are communicating with our customers and all of our partners in Central Asia to ensure that everyone fully understands how this tariff hike will impact shipping operations into and out of Afghanistan. Our goal is to assure that there is no disruption to important deliveries of food and other non-lethal cargo movements.”

About FMN Logistics

FMN Logistics is a specialist freight forwarding and logistics service provider with headquarters in Washington, DC and operations throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. In 2010, FMN delivered over 2,500 cargo containers to Afghanistan for US and ISAF forces. FMN is the largest volume logistics service provider in Central Asia for Operation Enduring Freedom.
Source: Fifth Millennium Networks, Inc, 2011-02-03

Northern Distribution Network in action

Northern route eases supplies to US forces in Afghanistan at The International Institute For Strategic Studies. With a map, and a graph of container traffic.

Some interesting snippets:

  • Moving supplies via the northern rail route costs approximately 10% of the cost of movement by air.
  • NATO has also begun using the NDN. The first trial shipment of NATO cargo, consisting of 27 containers of construction materials and food supplies, departed from Riga, Latvia, in May 2010. Russia had offered transit to NATO at the Alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit, but it was not until 2009 that NATO began negotiating transit rights with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and these talks took almost a year to complete.
  • [The Termez to Hairatan railway] has reached its handling capacity of 4,000 tonnes of cargo per month. Until upgrades are completed, this border crossing is likely to remain a choke point. Meanwhile, railway experts have questioned whether the existing rail route through Uzbekistan is capable of handling the amount of traffic envisioned by the US military and its allies.

Military logistics in Afghanistan

Rerouting Logistics in Afghanistan

Recent events highlight both the possibilities and fragility of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in Afghanistan nine years after Operation Enduring Freedom began, John CK Daly writes for ISN Security Watch.

By John CK Daly for ISN Security Watch

There were a number of items on the agenda for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s four-day visit to Washington last week, from ongoing US support for NATO’s mission in Afghanistan to the political crisis in regional neighbor Kyrgyzstan, home to a major US airbase instrumental in supporting ISAF’s campaign.

Nine years into Operation Enduring Freedom, solidifying logistical support for the ISAF Afghan mission remains an issue of some concern in Washington. If the mantra of the preceding Bush administration toward developing the post-Soviet Caspian’s energy reserves was “happiness is multiple pipelines,” then a legacy of its Afghan campaign is an implicit “happiness is multiple logistical resupply routes.” Given the massive presence of ISAF forces, the value of these logistical transportation networks will only increase with time.

The scale of the problem

The logistical scope of resupplying western forces in Afghanistan is immense. According to ISAF spokesman Colonel Wayne Shanks, there are currently nearly 400 US and coalition bases in Afghanistan, ranging from the massive Bagram airbase down to camps, forward operating bases and combat outposts. According to the Pentagon, there are now 87,000 US troops in Afghanistan alongside 47,000 ISAF troops from 44 other countries. When the Obama administration surge is complete, by 2011 Afghanistan will host a total of 102,000 US troops.

Nor are these the only US personnel considerations: According to the Pentagon’s Central Command (CENTCOM), the number of contractors for the US military in Afghanistan is now 107,000. These forces are immensely costly; by the end of the 2010 fiscal year, Afghanistan will cost nearly $105 billion, which includes most of $33 billion in additional spending requested by the Obama administration and currently pending before Congress.

Logistical support

Virtually everything needed for these forces is brought into Afghanistan primarily through Pakistan. But the rising level of violence against the ‘traditional’ resupply routes through Pakistan has left the Pentagon seeking alternatives, most notably through Central Asia.

Currently, the Pentagon’s main logistical pipeline for supplying ISAF forces in Afghanistan remains Pakistan, where roughly three-quarters of supplies are shipped either through or via overflights. Ground supplies are shipped into Pakistan’s Karachi port on the Arabain Sea and offloaded onto trucks before being sent to one of five crossing points on the Afghan border, the most important being Torkham at the Khyber Pass and Baluchistan’s Chaman, both of which have been subjected to increasing militant attacks. Torkham is the shortest route for ISAF supplies to both Kabul and its adjacent Bagram Air Base, the largest US facility in Afghanistan, with about 4,000 Pakistani drivers delivering about 150 truckloads of supplies to Afghanistan each day.

The persistent vulnerability of the Pakistani logistical conduit and the attendant problems of supplying nearly a quarter of a million troops and ancillary personnel has led the Pentagon to develop options, most notably the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a railway link running from Latvia’s Riga Baltic port through Russia and Kazakhstan terminating in Uzbekistan’s Termez on the Afghan border.

The Northern Distribution Network

The NDN is a joint initiative of multiple Department of Defense agencies, including the US Transportation Command, CENTCOM, the US European Command, the Defense Logistics Agency and the Department of State.

The NDN’s first shipment was sent on 20 February 2009 from Riga 3,212 miles to Termez, with US commanders stating that 100 containers daily would be transported via the NDN, nearly two-thirds of the 140 containers shipped through the Khyber Pass each day.

While CENTCOM, the US and Russian governments maintain that the NDN is designed to transit only ‘non-lethal’ cargoes, when last year ISN Security Watch asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the NDN he replied, “It’s only one year ago that we signed an agreement with NATO as an organization for non-lethal transit, but for many years lethal transit had been operating through Russia on the basis of our bilateral agreements with France, Germany, and recently the similar agreement with Spain was signed. They can move equipment, troops.” Despite the presence of major US and Russian media representatives, Lavrov’s comment was overlooked.

As Lavrov made his comments farther east, Uzbek President Islam Karimov announced that the airport in Navoi, Uzbekistan, was being used to transport non-lethal cargo into Afghanistan via South Korea’s Korean Air, officially handling Navoi’s logistics. Two months later, shortly before a visit by President Barack Obama to Moscow, Russian authorities announced that US troops and weapons could use the country’s airspace to reach Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan as a transit hub

Given the volatility of Pakistan, Pentagon logisticians are increasingly favoring Central Asian alternatives. Shifting from the high cost of airlifting cargo, several railway projects from Uzbekistan into northern Afghanistan are now underway. On 7 May, Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhelwal, while attending a meeting of the Asian Development Bank in Tashkent, announced that Japan had pledged $1 billion for railway building in Afghanistan for a line from Balkh to western Herat province.

The scope of the Japanese commitment is immense, as according to Zakhelwal, his Ministry’s revenue in 2009 was $1.3 billion. The Japanese commitment builds on earlier Uzbek efforts to assist its southern neighbor. Uzbekistan is helping upgrade Afghanistan’s only functioning railroad, the Termez-Hairatan line, linking Afghanistan’s northern provinces with the world and extending the Termez-Hairatan line to Mazar-e-Sharif.

Dr Fred Starr, chairman of Washington’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, told ISN Security Watch, “Afghanistan is the missing link in Eurasia’s rail network and Uzbekistan has taken a lead role in filling the gap. Everyone gains from this. No one loses.”

While the western military commitment in Afghanistan has led to infrastructure projects that languished for decades, roads, airports and railways are ‘dual-use’ technologies that will assist the post-war development of Afghanistan’s economy, decimated by decades of strife. An improved Afghan road and rail infrastructure will benefit all of Central Asia as well as provide cost-effective transport alternatives to aerial shipments. For all of the Taliban’s militancy, the rail and road upgrades are a Karzai administration economic ‘hearts and minds’ incentive for improving life in the countryside that the Taliban cannot counter, only attack.

Dr John CK Daly is a non-resident Fellow at John Hopkins Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, DC.
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Source: International Relations & Security Network, 2010-05-17

Elephants carrying locomotives through the Bolan Pass

Posted by Robert Grauman at Practical Machinist is an article about railway construction during the Great Game which appeared in 15 August 1885, issue of Scientific American, having originally appeared in French magazine L’Ilustration. I guess it is now out of copyright, so I’ll post it here too.

The Bolan pass is now in Pakistan.

An English military railway

Sketch of elephants carrying dismantled railway locomotives in the Bolan Pass
“The English army has succeeded in establishing a portable railway on several points of the Bolan Pass. This railroad is of the Decauville system, formed in sections of small steel rails, which can be put down or taken up very quickly. This ingenious railway – which has been used considerably for work on the Panama Canal and for the transportation of sugar cane in Australia and Java – has become the indispensable means of transport in all wars. It is at present being used in Tonquin and Madagascar by the French army, and is also being used on the Red Sea by the Italian army. When the Russian government commenced the war in Turkestan, in 1882, it bought one hundred versts, or about 66 miles, of the Decauville railroad, which Gen. Skobeleff used with great success for the transportation of potable water and for all the provisions for his army. This railroad was taken up as the army marched forward, and when the Russians advanced recently, in Afghanistan, the little railway appeared at the advance posts, and was described to the English army by the officers who watched the operations for the Afghans. An order for a similar apparatus was given by the English government to M. Decauville, directions being given that the road should be of the same type as that furnished to the Russians. The object of this was, probably, that any sections of road which might be captured from the Russians during the war could be used by the English. In this last order there was one problem which was very difficult to solve; all the material had to be carried by elephants, and they wanted a locomotive. M. Decauville had the locomotive made in two parts, the larger of which weighed on 3,978 pounds, the greatest weight that an elephant can carry.”

“This episode of the Anglo-Russian conflict, illustrated in the annexed cut, is a great conquest for our national industry, for the works of M. Decauville are at Petit-Bourg, that is, in France, and only an hour from Paris. They cover about 20 acres on the bank of the Seine, and adjoin the P.L.M. The great hall is 525 feet long by 525 feet deep. The material is brought in at both ends (at one end the rails and steel for the road, and at the other end the sheet metal and iron for the cars), and the manufactured products are taken out at the middle, loaded in the cars of the P.L.M Co. In July, 1884, the works of Petit-Bourg attained their greatest development, with a thousand workmen, and 350 machines, which do the work of 3,000 men. Among others, there are four painting machines, which do the work of 60 painters. Three thousand cars and 93 miles of road are produced each month.”
Source: Scientific American, 15 August 1885, quoted at Practical Machinist‘s Antique Machinery and History forum 2010-02-26

Uzbek bottleneck on the Northern Distribution Network


Deirdre Tynan 2/02/10

On land, the NDN also appears to be experiencing some problems. Although the US Department of Defense insists the NDN is running at top capacity, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s mischievous envoy to NATO, told the Russian news paper Izvestia on January 26 that “there are some technical problems associated with an overload on one of the railway routes.”

Experts caution that additional land routes, whether routed through China or eastern Russia, could ultimately face the same problem — a bottleneck in Uzbekistan. “The problem isn’t the route to Central Asia, it is getting across Uzbekistan [to Afghanistan]. So you can have 10 ways to get to Termez, but what’s the difference?” a well-placed source told EurasiaNet.

Until major upgrades are completed at the Termez-Hairaton border crossing, and action taken to contain corruption and red tape, Uzbekistan is likely to continue to act as a choke point for US and NATO supplies bound for Afghanistan, the source added.
Source: Eurasianet , 2010-02-20

Russia allows lethal goods transit to Afghanistan

Among the agreements announced by Presidents Obama and Medvedev on 6 July is one for the transit through Russia of “lethal” military supplies bound for the armed forces in Afghanistan.

Could this be a breakthough in rail transport? “Non lethal” military freight has reportedly been sent by train via Russia and Uzbekistan to Hayratan this year. Germany already has an agreement to ship lethal materials by rail through Russia – though Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were less keen on allowing transit, and it is unclear if any has actually been transported.


…we intend to make active use of the transit route through the territory of the Russian Federation for deliveries of property and equipment for the needs of the international forces operating in Afghanistan

We express our willingness to explore issues related to Russian-U.S. interaction and cooperation in restoring the transportation, energy, and industrial infrastructure of Afghanistan.
Source: Whitehouse.gov press release 2009-07-06


PRESIDENT MEDVEDEV: The subject of U.S.-Russian cooperation in Afghanistan is extremely important. It is for this reason we paid so much attention to the discussion of this problem, and we have just signed an agreement that concerns transit. It’s an important subject and we will of course continue cooperation with our American counterparts.

As concerns the current situation, it is — really is not simple. I am not trying to say that it is being worsens, but in many aspects the progress is not available or is insignificant. But we value the efforts that are being made by the United States together with the other countries in order to prevent the terrorist threat that was emanating and still coming from the Afghan soil.

We are prepared in this sense to a full-scale cooperation with our U.S. and other partners, including in transit areas. We are prepared to help in the various aspects. I don’t know to what extent — how quickly the situation will improve. It depends to a large extent to the development of the political system in Afghanistan, to what extent the Afghan government will achieve successes in the economy — and it’s not a simple task.


And we’re going to have to think regionally in terms of how we approach these problems. Obviously there are countries along the border of Afghanistan and Central Asia that are of deep strategic importance, and it’s very important that we also include them in these conversations about how we can move forward.

But I just want to thank again the Russian government for the agreement for military transit. That will save U.S. troops both time and money. And it’s I think a gesture that indicates the degree to which, in the future, Russian-U.S. cooperation can be extraordinarily important in solving a whole host of these very important international issues.
Source: Whitehouse.gov press conference transcript 2009-07-06

NATO to Afghanistan through Kazakhstan

Following on from the recent Russian agreement to let Germany ship military equipment to Afghanistan by rail, other countries are reported to be getting in on the act.

Kazakhstan: US continues to probe rail route via central Asia to Afghanistan

American military officials are continuing to press for alternative transport routes to Afghanistan, with senior commanders exploring the feasibility of a rail route through the Caucasus and Central Asia.

According to a press release issued by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense [here], Deputy Defense Minister Bulat Sembinov met with the commander of the US Transportation Command, Duncan McNabb, to look into “opportunities for organizing transit and providing material and technical assistance to the process of reconstruction and backing forces in Afghanistan.” Earlier in November, McNabb met with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.

Separately, Kazakhstan’s transport minister, Serik Akhmetov, met Richard Hoagland, the US envoy in Astana, to discuss various transit ideas involving Afghanistan. The high level meetings in Astana follow on Russian permission to Germany to use the country’s extensive railway network to transit military goods bound for Afghanistan. It is the first time Russia has permitted a NATO ally to transit military supplies via an overland route.

A spokeswoman for NATO said the alliance was now actively pursuing agreements with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to gain access to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to expand trade and economic opportunities through railway transport. Zhao Xiaoyu, ADB Vice-President, said the agreement “will be taking a major step toward realizing the dream of expanded trade and economic opportunities for larger Central Asia.”

Source: Eurasianet, posted 27 November 2008
© Open Society Institute.

The Kazak Ministry of Defense’s website says:

Developing military cooperation

Today deputy minister of defense of the Republic of Kazakhstan general–lieutenant Bulat Sembinov met commander of Transport Command Staff of the USA (TRANSCOM USA) general Dunkan McNab in the defense office. During the meeting there were discussed perspectives of bilateral cooperation possibilities of transit organization, rendering material and technical assistance to the process of reconstruction and support of forces and means in Afghanistan in particularly.

USA TRANSCOM – is the one detachment which manages all the aviation, land and sea transport of the Ministry of defense of the USA. And Kazakhstan is the one state in the region which has 5 year cooperation Plan with the USA between defense offices which includes such important directions of cooperation as development f peacekeeping potential of the Armed Forces RK, improvement of Kazakhstan military education system and mutual participation in exercises.

Source: Ministry of Defense, Kazakhstan, 21 November 2008