This route mirrors one pioneered by Belgium, which started its drawdown in 2012. The Belgian mission secured a base at Kabul International Airport, through which 54 vehicles and 39 containers were airlifted by 10 Antonov An-124 flights via Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, to Trabzon, and then shipped to Zeebrugge, Belgium.
Much talk has revolved around the opening of the Northern Line of Communication, a route from Uzbekistan through Russia to the Baltic states and beyond. This route, with the Trans-Siberian Railway, is an alternative to the land route through Pakistan to Karachi. However, there are limitations to the route. Russia says it will not allow “warlike equipment” to be transported through its territory, which could prevent movements. There have also been queries raised by other states in the area about customs clearance.
But most countries would like to use land/rail/sea routes as much as possible to lower cost. It is also feasible to use land/sea routes as opposed to air routes as there is generally far less urgency in the process. There are exceptions: Equipment France needs to deploy to Mali, such as Tiger attack helicopters, will be airlifted.
France, however, is largely unaffected by some of the friction points worrying logistics planners. The French drawdown was ordered in late 2011. By 2012, it was determined that there were slightly more than 10,000 metric tons of equipment, vehicles and other assets to be moved—called “units to transport” (UAT) in French logistics parlance—and the process started.
In January, there were 900 UATs left to transport, and by mid-May there will be a little less than half that, says de Robien. He explains that not everything will be brought back because France is leaving 500 military personnel behind to complete training of the Afghan National Army and the police.
The Royal Dutch Task Force (RDTF) completed its drawdown in 2012, after a process lasting just over a year. The RDTF had to move 450 vehicles and 2,300 containers of weapons, ammunition, office equipment and other materiel to the Netherlands by air and sea from Karachi, when that route was an option. C-17s of NATO's Strategic Airlift Capability transported sensitive equipment, along with Russian An-124s and Ilyushin Il-76s.
One big worry for NATO logistics planners in Afghanistan is that as the drawdown date nears, remaining forces will start to commit “commercial fratricide,” the unintentional competition for scarce resources.
There are only so many C-17 aircraft available, and even fewer An-124s, for which there are also commercial pressures. If everyone wants to start major movements of equipment in 2013, with 80-90% moved by mid-2014, there is a high likelihood that there will be common calls for these assets. Countries without heavy-lift capabilities are anxious about whether the U.S. Air Force will have spare C-5s or C-17s, particularly given that the NATO C-17 fleet will be working near capacity.
The same is true for local ground transportation assets inside Afghanistan. There are only so many reliable transport companies, and their services will be at a premium. The end of ISAF's mission means this will be one last income opportunity for many Afghan contractors.