It took seven months of tough bargaining with Islamabad for the United States to get Pakistan to reopen its border with Afghanistan to NATO supply trucks. Until the border closed last year, about 5,000 trucks a month had plowed their way from the Pakistani port city of Karachi, through dusty Baluchistan, around the Taliban-infested switchbacks of the Khyber Pass, and on to Bagram, Kandahar, and other NATO logistical hubs in Afghanistan. That came to a halt in November, after a U.S. air raid mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and Islamabad retaliated by suspending NATO traffic. It would reopen the border, it said, only if the United States both apologized and agreed to pay much higher transport fees for the NATO trucks traversing its territory. Islamabad eventually dropped the fee demand, but it did induce U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to say sorry.

After the November shutdown of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, NATO reoriented its supply routes to northern Afghanistan through a series of roads in Central Asia, which make up what is known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The seven-month total dependence on the northern transportation routes, which are circuitous and treacherous, cost the United States hundreds of millions of dollars and much heartache. Far from being a thing of the past, the troubles associated with the NDN are here to stay: even after the reopening of the border with Pakistan, use of the NDN will remain crucial as NATO starts to ship home equipment as part of the drawdown this summer. 

By the end of 2014, NATO needs to remove about 100,000 shipping containers full of equipment and 50,000 wheeled vehicles from Afghanistan; it will leave behind any unused fuel. NATO officials point out that in order for all International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military equipment to be removed from Afghanistan in time, a container would have to leave the country every seven minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, starting now -- a tough order. Many of those containers and vehicles will have to travel along the northern route. For its part, ISAF is still counting on removing at least a third of its cargo in Afghanistan through Central Asia.

The spine of the NDN is a jagged, potholed road that leaves Kabul for Kunduz, the capital city of Kunduz province, which borders Tajikistan, and then continues on to Central Asia. The privilege of using the route does not come cheap: the United States and ISAF recently renegotiated their transshipment agreements with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan to permit two-way transit of non-lethal supplies (i.e., not armored vehicles or guns) through their territories. In addition, all three now allow transport planes carrying NATO soldiers to enter their airspace. Negotiations still continue, however, on a host of unresolved issues, such as expanded access to airspace and airports, fees, alternate routes, and the removal of restrictions on what type of military cargo can be transported. Meanwhile, the United States is also locked in talks with Russia about similar issues, such as the establishment of an air hub for Europe-bound cargo planes. Like its Central Asian neighbors, Russia has agreed to allow non-lethal equipment to be transported through its territory into Afghanistan, but NATO would like to see the agreement expanded.

In return for permitting tens of thousands of vehicles carrying ISAF military equipment to transverse their territory, the Central Asian countries have demanded, and received, huge payoffs. ISAF has not released details of its most recent accords with them, from June 2012. But, previously, each truck traveling through their territory had cost around $1,250 -- about five times what Pakistan had charged. And Uzbekistan, for example, has sought a 50 percent surcharge on the use of its major rail link to Afghanistan. 

In congressional testimony in June, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated that, all in all, routing supplies through the northern pass adds about $100 million a month to the United States' Afghanistan war tab. Perhaps that is why, before Clinton said the magic words in July, the Pentagon had requested that Congress reallocate an additional $2.1 billion to cover the costs of the greater reliance on the NDN. And, despite Pakistan's reopening of its border, the Pentagon, as of mid-July 2012, did not anticipate reducing the requested reallocation. 

The NDN is not only expensive, it is precarious. Much of the asphalt that the Turkish government paid to lay down in 2005 has crumbled away. For long stretches, the road is little more than an obstacle course of enormous puddles, mud traps, and dirt gorges, many too big for an unlucky car to drive out of. Although the road was constructed with one lane of traffic moving in each direction, drivers use it as if it were a four-lane freeway. They pass each other on all sides and joust for the right of way on the cliffs of the Hindu Kush. A breakdown or collision paralyzes the path for days. Not surprisingly, the ravines beside the road are littered with the skeletons of trucks and cars. In certain parts, remnants of vehicles that toppled over the edge appear every hundred meters or so. Many of them are fresh; others date back to the 1980s, when the mujahideen made sport of blowing up Soviet oil tankers as they crawled along the very same path. 

About halfway between Kabul and Kunduz lies the Salang Pass. NATO trucks have no option but to drive through this tunnel, but, at an elevation of over 12,000 feet, it is a deathtrap. Built in 1964 by the Soviets, it was designed to handle 1,000 vehicles a day. During the recent closure of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, some 10,000 tried to jostle their way through every 24 hours. Some get stalled for days. Carbon monoxide, and gas fumes, fill the air; if one of the fuel trucks were to blow, the others would all go with it. Exactly that happened in 1982, and, reportedly, some 900 Russians and Afghans were killed.

As if fumes and fire weren't enough, the tunnel is also plagued by water and ice. The ceiling and walls were never completed, so they leak. As winter snows come, the tunnel becomes one gigantic mud bath, opening onto a cliff-side ice rink on the other side. Given the extreme weather conditions and the fact that the road carries about four times the weight that a highway is supposed to withstand, it is unlikely that any pavement that Turkey or the United States or any of its allies could lay would last. The patching that ISAF did in 2010 is already long gone. Even so, ISAF is discussing repaving at least part of the road, at the cost of more than $60 million.

When trucks do finally emerge from the Salang Pass, they hit the winding, bumpy road leading them through Afghanistan's north. What the path lacks in comfort it makes up in stunning scenery. Below wintry peaks lie fertile valleys filled with wheat and vegetable fields. Men on donkeys and women wearing burqas lumber past. Long neglected by ISAF and the Afghan National Security Forces and left to the tender mercies of former Northern Alliance commanders, these areas are far from serene. Ethnic groups angle for power, and the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami have gained traction. In Baghlan, another northern province the road transverses, and Kunduz, the Taliban have managed to recruit not just minority Pashtuns but also Uzbeks and some Tajiks, who feel disenfranchised by the turn Afghanistan has taken since 2002. 

So, although security has improved over the past two years, calm can be fleeting. In 2010 and 2011, insurgents staged daily attacks along the supply roads in Baghlan and Kunduz. NATO has repeatedly tried to clear some of the neighborhoods in the area, but ethnic tensions frequently plunge them right back into insecurity. Most Afghans I interviewed in the north believe that, as the United States draws down in Afghanistan, the violence and ethnic infighting will intensify, and the country could plunge into civil war.

All this is to say that the Salang Pass highway is not ideal for supplying U.S. troops or, more important at this point, drawing the U.S. presence down. One might may be tempted to argue for leaving the military equipment behind. But that would be expensive -- and it could intensify a civil war, if it comes. Alternatively, the supplies could be airlifted out. But that would cost about ten times as much as going through Pakistan, and about three times as much as going through the north. Thus, even with the Pakistani border reopened and the southern route again in operation, the northern route will necessarily remain in heavy use for some time; there are simply too many supplies and too few options for transporting them to avoid it. 

Keeping the route and the Salang Pass in some form of working order will also provide insurance in case Pakistan again decides to close its border. Since tensions between the United States and Pakistan are still high, and points of contention between the two -- including U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan and Pakistan's hands-off approach to the Haqqani network -- aren't going away anytime soon, another incident could easily lead to standoff. Particularly because the negotiations to get the southern route back open were so difficult, ISAF should not get too comfortable now.

The two main stumbling blocks that prevented a deal for seven months have been overcome, but the tensions that created them remain, and the path is not yet entirely clear. First, Pakistan had raised its price per truck, from $250 to a whopping $5,000, and it demanded legal absolution for any damage that may happen to NATO trucks that pass through Pakistan's territory -- everything from looting and theft by Karachi's many mafias to torching by the Pakistani Taliban. Second, Pakistan insisted on the formal apology for the November 2011 air raid, which it ultimately got. It backed down on the fee, settling for the original price of $250 per truck, and even agreed to beef up security at the most frequently used crossing. But presumably to make its continuing displeasure known, Pakistan also insists that it will x-ray every ISAF container to make certain that, as per the deal, it does not contain any lethal equipment. Before November 2011, the Pakistani guards usually verified only a few random containers. The check will of course delay the transport and increase non-fee costs. 

Even before the July agreement, a deal had seemed within reach several times. Through the winter and spring, the United States had stood firm on freezing the $1.1 billion in the U.S. Coalition Support Fund, which had been earmarked to reimburse Pakistan for its cooperation in counterinsurgency operations. Pressure not being enough, in April, Washington was on the verge of issuing a formal apology when the Haqqani network, which the Pakistani military sponsors -- or, at least, tolerates -- launched a major attack in Kabul. Then, in May, believing that Pakistan had dropped its transit fee to a more reasonable $1,250, President Barack Obama issued a last-minute invitation to Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari to attend the Chicago NATO summit. NATO, in addition, offered to sweeten the pot by paving some of the 1,000-mile roads that NATO trucks would transverse between Karachi and the Afghan border. That deal, too, fell through when Pakistan refused to back down from any of its demands.

Although the border showdown has been resolved, Pakistan's persistence in providing safe havens to Afghan militants continues to anger and frustrate Washington. But Pakistan's trump card -- its own internal fragility -- remains in hand. Its government is weak, its economy is in shambles, the country suffers from massive electricity blackouts, and severe poverty and unemployment are widespread. Although NATO traffic across the border provides Pakistan with strong leverage, shutting the border puts Pakistan's own strategic interests in Afghanistan in peril. Pakistan does not want to be sidelined as the United States and NATO revise their roles in Afghanistan after 2014. It fears being left out of any potential deal between the Taliban, the United States, and Kabul. (Ironically, Kabul is equally terrified of being left out of a Taliban-U.S. deal.) And if NATO is not able to remove all its military equipment from Afghanistan, Rawalpindi would be deeply worried about it falling into the hands of the Northern Alliance. 

The pace and shape of the U.S. and ISAF drawdown in Afghanistan, which are yet to be fully determined, will produce far greater pressures than simply logistical ones. How many U.S. troops are left behind in Afghanistan after 2014 and what roles they retain will influence whether civil war will, in fact, materialize. Ultimately, although Pakistan is likely to continue cultivating vicious allies like the Haqqanis, an unstable Afghanistan will destabilize Pakistan, too. Resolving the logistics to get out of Afghanistan on schedule is important. But staying in Afghanistan in a sufficiently robust and wisely structured presence so that security can be strengthened and Afghan governance improved is even more crucial. The worst possible outcome would be to be rushing out of Afghanistan and then lacking even the logistical routes to do so.

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  • VANDA FELBAB-BROWN is a fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. This article draws on research conducted during her travels across the Salang Pass and through other parts of Afghanistan, including her most recent trip, in April 2012.
  • More By Vanda Felbab-Brown