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Pentagon Making Contingency Plans If Russia Blocks Afghan Transit

A cake commemorating the Northern Distribution Network at a 2013 ceremony in Riga, Latvia. Might the Russian flag be removed from future cakes? (photo: The Bug Pit)

The U.S. is already making plans to redirect cargo to Afghanistan if Russia no longer allows the Pentagon to use its territory, a top U.S. military official has said. And it appears that Georgia and Azerbaijan may be poised to benefit if that happens.

U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva is currently the head of Air Mobility Command and the nominee to be the new chief of U.S. Transportation Command, which operates the Northern Distribution Network of supply lines through Russia and other former Soviet states. General Selva had his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and among the issues he was asked about was contingency plans for the NDN.

"In light of what's happening in the Ukraine, we are -- the president, many of us -- are pushing us for further economic sanctions, other types of sanctions against Russia for their invasion of Crimea," said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire. "And if the Russians were to take retaliatory action as a result of that to shut down the Northern Distribution Network... what impact would that have to us and how would we address it?"

"That is a priority," Selva said. "If the Russians were to take action to constrain our access to the Russian segments of the Northern Distribution Network, we have other options to move that cargo in and out of Afghanistan," he said. "I'm told about 20 percent of the subsistence cargoes [e.g. food] move through that network, so we'd have to use another option to get it in. We do have several options in the Northern Distribution Network that do not include transiting Russia."

The only NDN routes that don't pass through Russia are the ones using the so-called southern spur, that is through Georgia and Azerbaijan, across the Caspian into Kazakhstan and onward into Afghanistan. Conversely, the Baltic states, especially Latvia, would stand to lose, since they are the starting node of the most common route that passes through Russia.

General Selva also addressed this issue in his written answers (pdf) to committee questions ahead of the hearing: "The NDN accessed through the Mediterranean and the Caspian remain open and reliable as the countries involved are deeply interested in maintaining routes which will help them build the 'New Silk Road' initiative."

The committee also asked about questions of human rights and the NDN: "To what extent, if any, should concerns about the human rights and corruption records of authoritarian regimes, particularly in Central Asia, be taken into account in using access to supply routes along the NDN?" To which Selva replied, basically, it's not my problem: "The DOD agencies, Department of State (DoS), and geographic combatant commands coordinate closely to develop and maintain NDN routes to ensure an efficient and effective means of moving warfighter cargo into and out of Afghanistan. Human rights violations as determined by the DoS, and corruption records, should be considered for participation on the NDN."

Pentagon Making Contingency Plans If Russia Blocks Afghan Transit

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