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!

Tracks, drugs and rolling stock

An article at The Bug Pit, UN: NDN An Express Train For Afghan Drug Traffickers, draws attention to an October 2012 report from the UN Office on Drugs & Crime, Misuse of Licit Trade for Opiate Trafficking in Western and Central Asia: A Threat Assessment. This report contains information about rail transport in Central Asia, as well as lots of details of the movements of undesirable substances.

As Bug Pit author Joshua Kucera points out, “it stands to reason that making transportation easier would make illicit trafficking easier – especially in countries where border officials are notoriously corrupt.”

The UN report says:

Uzbek officials stationed at the [Hairatan] border are generally well trained and receive relatively high salaries. The risk of concealed drugs crossing the border undetected is therefore lower at the Hairatan BCP than it is in Naibabad.

This issue has been raised at a couple of railway conferences I’ve been to in Turkey and the UAE, where it was suggested that providing decent jobs – particularly wages – for border officials in places like Central Asia can easily pay for itself in smoother regional trade, and also help to ensure that legitimate fees are charged and go where they should be going, rather than unofficial fees which disappear into black holes.

It was even suggested that dealing with these matters might offer better benefits for the cost than funding fancy new transport infrastructure.

The report also offers some information about trains:

The Hairatan [Border Control Point] primarily receives cargo arriving on the Termez-Hairatan railway from Uzbekistan. On average, 100-120 containers are sent to and from Hairatan BCP each day.26 Interview with Customs Officials at Dry Ports in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, March 2012. At the Hairatan BCP and Naibabad dry port, cargo is trans-shipped from trains onto trucks, which then travel along the assigned transit routes to Pakistan.

and about boats:

The large river port at Termez ships approximately 1,000 tons of cargo daily to a location only 500 metres away from the Hairatan BCP in Afghanistan.

The road and railway link from Termez to Hairatan runs along the northern trade route and is part of
the Northern Distribution Network.137 The railway line was only completed in 2010. The railway line has the capacity to transport 4,000 tons of cargo per month and can cater for eight trains travelling in each direction per day. On average, 100-120 containers travel the route every day.138 US Department of State, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5380.htm Although the road leading from Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif has recently been improved, it is not capable of handling high levels of traffic. Therefore, cargo continues to be delivered to and from Afghanistan primarily along the railway route.

The railway dates from 1982, and “4,000 tons of cargo per month” sounds rather low; perhaps that should be per day, meaning 500 tons on each of those eight trains – or 250 tonnes if both directions are included?

In 2007, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan signed a transport and transit agreement. […] Both countries also agreed to extend the Turkmen railroad network from Serkhetabad to Torghundi in the Afghan Herat province and to construct a trans-Afghan gas pipeline.

The line is originally older than 2007, which was when Turkmenistan funded rebuilding and reopening it.

There are two main trade and transit trade routes leading from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan. The first is a direct road and railroad link from Torghundi in Afghanistan to Serkhetabad in Turkmenistan. On average, the rail services at Torghundi transport around 50 wagons per day, while Torghundi dry port trans-ships containers delivered by approximately 300-350 trucks per day. From Torghundi dry port, Afghan goods can be delivered via Turkmenistan to the Russian Federation or the Islamic Republic of Iran. From the Islamic Republic of Iran, they are shipped to countries in the Persian Gulf, or through Turkey to European markets.

The report continues:

The second transit route is a railroad that runs from Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the Islamic Republic of Iran. It begins at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan and terminates at the Iranian Bandar Abbas seaport:

  • Mazar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan) – Andkhoy – Chardzhou (Turkmenistan) – Serahs (Turkmenistan) – Mashhad (Islamic Republic of Iran) – Kerman – Bandar Abbas


A Mazar-i-Sharif – Andkhoy – Turkmenstan railway is still only at the planning stage.

On a daily basis, approximately 50 vehicles cross the Imamnazar border in each direction180 Asian Development Bank, 2010, while a further 20-30 trucks cross at Serkhetabad.

Northern Distribution Network corruption

This is a fascinating if somewhat depressing read: The New Silk Road and the Northern Distribution Network: A Golden Road to Central Asian Trade Reform?

The New Silk Road and the Northern Distribution Network is a constructive assessment of the conditions and challenges facing this effort that asks and answers the following questions:

  1. Is the Northern Distribution network incentivizing regional cooperation and border reforms?
  2. Is the Northern Distribution Network helping to fight corruption in Central Asia?
  3. Has the Northern Distribution Network made transhipment through Central Asia more efficient?
  4. Are ordinary Central Asian citizens benefitting from Northern Distribution Network trade?

I suspect you can guess the answers… you know what they say about the answer to a headline phrased as a question always being “no”?

The New Silk Road: Where Will It Lead is an interview with the author, Graham Lee. The report itself has lots of numbers for freight transport volumes and costs, which might be of interest to some readers.

In summary, the money being spend on the Northern Distribution Network is all disappearing into a pit of corruption, with lots of people on the take.

The report suggests that the various state railways are doing nicely out of the NDN traffic. I guess that if the freight needs to be moved, railways are more efficient in technical terms. But where is all the money they are getting going – funding strategic infrastructure investments and shiny new trains, disappearing off into general government funds, or into someone’s back pocket?

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

Hayratan port

DVIDS has three articles about the Hayratan port by Michael Vanpool.

Photo of riverside quay at Hayratan port

… more than half of everything arriving into country is from the trains in Hairatan.

“[International Security Assistance Force] cargo comes through trains, and also fuel comes through here as well,” said Maj. Jason Cole, tactical command post officer in charge, 101st Sus. Bde. Joint Combat Outpost Hairatan.

“Basically the train is a great mover. Take a look at the U.S. History; the train did a lot for the growth of our nation. Trains, it’s the way to go for the future of Afghanistan, and they have a lot of plans for trains.”

Railroads in Afghanistan are starting to be embraced more by the country, after decades of war halted the expansion of trains into the country. Now the rails are planned to grow from the north down to the other provinces.

Source: New line for coalition forces, new life for Afghanistan, Michael Vanpool, DVIDS, 2011-09-17

Inter-continental route via Riga

The 2010-11 brochure of the Freeport of Riga Authority (“Your Reliable Partner on the Shores of the Baltic Sea”) has a page entitled The Fastest Way to Link the EU to the CIS and Asia, showing connections between the Latvian port and central Asia.

This includes a map of the route taken by trains carrying (non-lethal) supplies to Afghanistan.

Freeport of Riga Authority map showing rail freight route between Riga and Afghanistan
A dedicated block train service between
Riga and Hairaton (Afghanistan) for the
delivery of non-military goods to US troops
in Afghanistan. The train is operated by the
TransContainer company in Russia, and the
transit time is 10-11 days.

The map shows a route via Moscow, Samara, western Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, back into Uzbekistan to what appears to be Termez, and then to Dushanbe in Tajikistan. From Dushanbe the route runs south to Afghanistan, then via Kabul to somewhere in the middle of Afghanistan, and terminates at a place which is labelled “Hairaton” but is actually about where Herat is.

Presumably if the map is correct then transport onwards from Dushanbe is by road, although I might expect that traffic for central Afghanistan would actually be transshipped at Hayratan, while that for Herat would actually go by rail to Towraghondi; maybe there are political problems with going through Turkmenistan, and these can be avoided by using the route along the Uzbek/Turkmen border on a “corridor” basis?

According to the Port Authority’s website, the Afghan traffic was due to begin in 2009:

Regular cargo transit from Riga to Afganistan to be launched

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs consignment goods for international forces involved into peace maintenance mission will be sent from Riga to Afghanistan in the nearest two weeks. The agreement was concluded after General Duncan McNab, the commander of the US Armed Forces Transportation Command, has visited Latvia this week. Both American and Latvian representatives specify that these cargoes will not be military ones.

It was necessary to seek for other cargo transit routes due to security situation deterioration in Pakistan. That is why certain part of goods is delivered to Afghanistan through Georgia. Riga port will be the only port in the European region. From Latvia cargo will be delivered by rail through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

At present there are 500 containers at Riga port. “In the framework of his visit General McNab has visited Riga port, assessed Latvia’s participation in the process and said that everything is all right,” said high-ranking US Embassy diplomat that did not want to mention his name. The speed of transshipment of cargoes that are now in Riga will mostly depend on freight forwarding companies and countries involved into transportation chain. It is planned that several cargo trains will be sent from Riga to Afghanistan every week.

Source: Freeport of Riga Authority, 2009-05-08

A train seems to have run in February 2009,1 although NATO only announced a first trial shipment from Riga on 14 May 2010, arriving in Afghanistan on 9 June.2 There seem to various subtleties about NATO or individual countries making shipments, and lethal and non-lethal cargoes.

As well as the USA, other NATO members have sent supplies by rail via Riga. The first trains with cargos of the Great Britain, Belgium and Spain arrived already in May 14 [2010]. The cargos comprise construction materials, food. To a certain extent it is connected with safety of the cargos which is difficult to guarantee, for example, in Pakistan where a train of NATO cargos has already been attacked. 3

Why Hairatan Gate matters


The rail line at the Hairatan Gate Border Crossing provides residents in Northern Afghanistan not only a chance for economic stability, but a means for helping troops get cargo and equipment back home during the future drawdown.

[Photo: Peter Mayes/DVIDS, 2011-04-26]

Why Hairatan Gate matters


[Hayratan] is the first and only border crossing with a functioning rail line which currently runs from Hairatan all the way to Mazar-E-Sharif. The intent is to re-establish the distribution network in the north through Europe and Central Asia, and tie that line into its infrastructure.


Finally, while promoting economic stability in the region, establishing a rail line at the Hairatan gate border crossing fits firmly into the intent laid out by International Security Assistance Forces Commander Gen. David Petraeus to create a means of a future withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“We’re trying to think two to three steps ahead of where we’re at. A safe, reliable route from Afghanistan is a plus,” Wentworth said. “But we also need to ensure that we’re meeting [President Obama’s] intent and conditions that are being laid out.

The rail line was funded by the Central Asian banks and the Uzbekistan government built it.

“It’s just one step in the development of this region,” Wentworth said. “It’s been tested and shown to be functional. All that needs to be agreed upon is the day-to-day operation of it. That’s something that has to be figured out between the two governments.”

Source: Why Hairatan Gate matters, Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mayes, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (AA) Public Affairs, 2011-05-13

DVIDS also has a video:

Hairaton Gate rail port

Gate could open doors to something much bigger” is a 29 April 2011 report on the Hayratan border facilities by Philip Grey, military affairs reporter of The Leaf-Chronicle, who is embedded with the US 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan.

Some highlights:

  • “The Hairaton Gate Border Crossing rail facility, after years of post-Soviet invasion neglect, is beginning to garner renewed attention and resources as an important piece of the economic effort in Afghanistan.”
  • “Commerce and freight is moving through here – a lot of it. The majority of fuel coming into Afghanistan, for example, moves through this point”
  • “the Afghans are also getting some help from Uzbek railway contractors, whom Maj. Wentworth calls some of the best in the world”

There also photos of the Hayratan facilties, and a Colin Kelly/Military Times video dated 27 April 2011 which suggest the “about 72 km” railway to Mazar-i-Sharif is operational.

There seems to be a rebranding of the Friendship Bridge as the Freedom Bridge, which I have also seen in reports elsewhere. Different name, or different translation?

A linked 30 April 2011 article (the Leaf Chronicle website’s dates seem a bit broken, changing depending where you click – I’ve found an article which apparently isn’t going to be written for another two years!), ‘Most Diverse Force’ keeps train rolling in Afghanistan, gives some more details of what is happening at the Afghan-Uzbek border:

For example, there is the mission to develop the Northern Distribution Network in Afghanistan, of which the centerpiece is the rail yard at Hairaton Gate. The 101st SB team on the ground has been tasked with teaching the Afghans how to handle the complex issues of cross-border commerce and the utilization of road and rail assets to restore the economy of the region for the long term, a mission that will greatly improve the U.S. military’s logistical situation in the near term if it is successful.

The effort requires more than logistical skills. It requires a genuine, full-fledged effort at partnering with the Afghans as equals, requiring a flexible mindset and reams of patience.


And a 29 April 2011 story about a visit to the Friendship (or Freedom) Bridge: Afghan officials bristle at bridge photos:

Frankly, the bridge itself is no great shakes to look at, being a completely utilitarian piece of Soviet construction totally absent of any aesthetic value. In other words, it’s kind of ugly, gray and dull, which describes about 90 percent (being charitable) of everything built by the Russians during the Soviet era.

However, the bridge is a big deal to the Afghans – not because the Soviets built it, but because they used it to leave. As a matter of fact, the Afghans just celebrated that event a few days ago, on April 27.


“A logistical game changer”

A logistical game changer

101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (AA) Public Affairs

Story by Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mayes

BALKH PROVINCE, Afghanistan – An ambitious railroad project could see an increase in cargo supply movements and potentially create strong economic development and stability for the northern Afghanistan community.

The 101st Sustainment Brigade Commander Col. Michael Peterman and members of his staff spent several days visiting with key government officials in the Hairaton district to discuss plans to re-establish a distribution network in the north from Europe.

Most of the ground freight in that region comes through Pakistan.

“To say that it’s problematic is an understatement,” Peterman said. “For all the interruptions, attacks, theft, corruption …it has a negative effect on combat power. It can be a game-changer logistically if we get it right.”

The Hairaton Gate crossing is the only border crossing point with a rail line, according to Peterman. The Lifeliner’s role in the project would be to tie the infrastructure in northern Afghanistan to that network, he said.

The brigade sent a team to Hairaton Gate to help build container yards for the project. Peterman referred to Gen. David Petraeus’ initiative on helping get the Northern Distribution Network – a network of trains, ports and airplanes coming directly from Central Europe into Afghanistan- run efficiently.

It would also mean the brigade would coach, mentor and teach Afghan commerce, business and military leaders on how to conduct cross-border logistics in Hairaton, he said.

“The truth is, that freight is going to come. We have to figure out how to educate the Afghans to make sure it moves efficiently down to rest of the battle space. We’ll be critical to have in terms of coaching and monitoring, along with our Afghan partners,” Peterman said.

The commander said while the focus in Regional Command East has been counterinsurgency and security (with the intent to gain a space for economics to grow), the northern region has a strong governor and security.

“We have an opportunity, with that rail line and commercial trucking, to move that portion of the country forward economically and also reinforce governance for tens of millions of dollars that’s going to come across that port in the next year that’s going to go directly to Afghan taxpayers,” he said.

Peterman said he has spent time with the Hairaton District Gov. Atta and other key officials trying to understand, “Afghanistan’s human terrain.”

“We had a great dialogue with Gov. Atta, as well as daily meetings with the port authority … to let him know what this means to him economically. He’s a very smart man, and he understands developmentally what this means to his country,” he said.

Peterman said conversations with the district sub-governor raised concerns about the negative impact the projects would have on the community, such as children being struck by trucks

“Those concerns are no different than a small town in America that’s right next to a rail hub, if you can picture it,” he said. “If we put Afghans to work, it will have less negative effects on his community,” he said.

Peterman said engagements by USAID, the European Union and others are also coming into play regarding Afghanistan’s economic future.

He also said the project fits in with President Obama’s intent of having combat troops leave Afghanistan by 2014.

“The trains are going to have to get that combat power out some way,” he said.
Source: DVIDS, 2011-01-11