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.
The third route also starts in Latvia and goes through Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and heads into Afghanistan via Tajikistan.
The United States has increased its reliance on the Northern Distribution Network, the report said, but it "is not a perfect substitute for the current supply routes in Pakistan.
For example, the Northern Distribution Network allows for only one-way transit of goods to Afghanistan, though discussions reportedly are under way to expand the network to support two-way transit of cargo leaving Afghanistan via the northern routes.
Shipping through the network is also costly - an additional $10,000 per 20-foot container - compared with going through Pakistan.
Separate from the network, the U.S. relies on the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan to transport American and coalition forces. Manas also serves as an air refueling site for aircraft heading to Afghanistan.
In highlighting the role of the five former Soviet states - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - the report said modest U.S. investments in the region could produce a significant payoff, especially as the United States looks to stabilize Afghanistan for the planned U.S. drawdown through 2014.
The prospect of U.S. troops leaving unnerves the region, the report said.
"Afghanistan's neighbors fear the 2014 security transition and withdrawal of coalition forces could mean abandonment," the report said.
It said government officials told the Senate aides in meetings that they fear the transition will increase drug trafficking and create a security vacuum that extremist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Islamic Jihad Union, would fill.
"Transitioning security and governance to the Afghans does not mean America's departure, and I want Pakistan to hear that loud and clear," said Mr. Kerry, who has made several trips to Pakistan.
"And I want Afghans and the neighbors to hear that loud and clear. America is not retreating from its interests. We're really trying to be more effective about the way in which we're going to support them."
The report recommends economic assistance for some of the Central Asian nations and investments in English-language training and public-private projects on cross-border electricity, especially as China, Russia, Iran, South Korea, India, Japan and Turkey play bigger roles.
The report says Russia is expanding its influence through military bases and commercial agreements, and may redeploy troops to the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. China is making financial investments and spending money on infrastructure.
Total U.S. assistance to the Central Asian nations, including security and economic aid, was about $436 million last year, compared with about $15 billion for Afghanistan.
"You look at things like flood control or seeds for crops, or cattle for a community, or things like that, that are not that expensive," Mr. Kerry said. "Boy, does that make a difference."