- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The United States is relying increasingly on three transit routes snaking through Central Asia, Russia and the Caucuses to ship nonmilitary supplies and fuel into Afghanistan as the deteriorating relationship between Washington and Pakistan closes off border crossings, according to a Senate report obtained by the Associated Press.

Use of the Northern Distribution Network to supply U.S. and coalition forces has been crucial in the war against terrorism, and its role underscores the political and strategic importance of the Central Asian nations on the front lines of the conflict.

In broader security terms, the U.S. has invested millions of dollars in the former Soviet states - compared with billions spent on Afghanistan. But even that limited U.S. assistance could serve as a bulwark against the region’s major players, Russia and China, the report suggested.

The study found that just three years ago, about 90 percent of nonmilitary supplies to Afghanistan went through Karachi, Pakistan.

Today, close to 75 percent of cargo is shipped through the northern network.

About 40 percent of cargo goes through the ground network, 31 percent is shipped by air and 29 percent heads through Pakistan, the study said, citing figures from the military’s U.S. Transportation Command.

A supply route other than through Pakistan has become imperative for the U.S.

Pakistan closed its two Afghanistan crossings in Chaman and Torkham, in the northwestern Khyber tribal area, almost immediately after NATO aircraft attacked two army posts along the border on Nov. 26. The strikes killed 24 Pakistani troops.

Last year, after U.S. helicopters accidentally killed two Pakistani troops, Islamabad closed Torkham for 11 days. It reopened the route after Washington formally apologized.

“Everybody’s hopeful we can get something back on track with Pakistan,” Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview.

“Pakistanis make money off that route. … That may interest them at some point … but on the other hand, we can’t be prisoners of one relationship with something as vital to our national security interests,” Mr. Kerry said.

The 25-page report by the Democratic staff of the committee was to have been released Monday. Congressional aides made a field visit to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in October.

The network involves three routes to ship items including fuel, clothes, vehicles and other “nonlethal” supplies.

One route begins in Poti, Georgia, a port on the Black Sea, goes through Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea and into Central Asia.

A second route begins in Riga, Latvia, and extends through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

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