New routes to conduct a long term military campaign in a distant country, such as Afghanistan, it's not enough to send in troops, weapons, munitions, tanks and aircraft. None of these can function without a massive and continuous stream of supplies: special fuels for military vehicles, jets and helicopters; cement and equipment for constructing bases and outposts; anti-explosive barriers for fortification, cesspit systems for troop bases... the list is infinite.
Until recently, 80 percent of these ‘non-lethal' supplies for American and allied forces in Afghanistan arrived by sea in the Pakistan port of Karachi, where the containers are loaded on trucks, trailers and tankers which take about ten days to reach the two major passes on the Afghan border - the Khyber Pass, north of Peshawar, and the Chaman Pass, north of Quetta - from where they continue to the huge bases in Bagram and Kandahar. The remaining 20 percent reach Afghanistan by air, costing at least ten times as much.
The route through Pakistan, however, is becoming increasingly unreliable, not only due to the attacks carried out by Taleban forces against the convoys of trucks and tankers but also on account of the growing tensions between Washington and the government in Islamabad, which in September went so far as to shut down the supply route for eleven days, in protest against the continuous American air strikes against Pakistan's tribal regions.
This situation caused the Pentagon to take a decision which brings with it considerable risks for stability throughout Central Asia, namely to switch most of the supply traffic to two routes - until now secondary routes - belonging to the so-called "Northern Supply Network". One of these starts in the Latvian port of Riga and then crosses Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the Afghan border pass of Termez-Hairatan (where the new national railway network begins), while the other route connects the Georgian port of Poti, on the Black sea, with the Azerbaijani port of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, from where it continues by ship to the port of Aktau in Kazakhstan, finally joining with the other route in Uzbekistan. A third route is planned, through Kyrgyzstan and Tagikistan.
The first supplies began travelling these routes, mostly by rail, last March. In the following months the amount of traffic was gradually increased and in recent weeks has reached around one hundred containers per day, managing to transport 60 percent of diesel needs and 30 percent of building materials, sanitary supplies and security equipment.
The Pentagon, together with NATO Command, plans to further reinforce the northern route in coming months - since it is safer, quicker and cheaper - until it becomes the principal source of supplies in Afghanistan.
The risk is that this massive shift of military supply routes from Pakistan to the Central Asian Republics will attract the destabilising attentions of the Jihadist movements already active in these regions.
The most concrete threat is posed by the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement, an armed pan-Islamic group founded in the late 1990s in the Fergana Valley (between Uzbekistan, Tagikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and then transferred to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its recent reappearance, firstly in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz and then in the Rasht Valley, in Tagikistan, has already set the alarm bells ringing in all the Central Asian palaces of power.