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Backlog of Nato cargo

March 18, 2013

IT has been more than eight months since Pakistan reopened its ground supply routes to the US-led allied forces in Afghanistan, but nearly a thousand cargo containers are still stranded at Karachi port, awaiting clearance.

Meanwhile, Nato goods containers arriving at the Karachi port city are a tickle of the previous traffic for transport to Afghanistan since last November.

Pakistan had blocked all goods supply to foreign forces in Afghanistan since November 2011, after around two dozen soldiers had been killed in a US air strike at the Salala border check post. The routes were reopened in July 2012, after then- US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had offered an apology for the incident.

However, while the blockade was in place, US and European governments scouted alternative routes for transporting fighting gear as well as food and other items to their forces in Afghanistan.

Those systems seem to have endured, as nearly half of all Nato and 40 per cent of the US cargo is reportedly transported to Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), as well as the Iranian port of Chabahar, by contractors who are working for the US and Nato forces.

Yet, those routes continue to cost the US and Nato countries dearly. The New York Times had claimed that using alternative routes for the seven months, when the blockade had been in place, had caused the US over $1 billion in excess shipping fees.

Meanwhile, Chaman in Balochistan, and the Torkham gate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had been used for transporting the goods before the Pakistani blockade went into effect.

Yet, eight months after the supply routes had been reopened, around 879 containers with 1,007 vehicles are still awaiting clearance from the port. That compares with 5,824 pieces, with 3,852 military vehicles (mostly Humvees), and 1,972 containers had been stuck in the port since November 2011, say port authorities.

And so critics focus on the loss of business activity that was experienced due to the closure of these supply routes, and wonder if such an extended period of closure was necessary.  According to one estimate, the size of the economy generated due to the transport of cargo to Nato forces in Afghanistan at a whopping $5 billion. Toll taxes, additional petroleum taxes, and port charges contributed their share in the economy, as did the booming local trucking, food and services sectors.

Asad Gill, a leading freight forwarder, observed that the movement of transit cargo at such a large scale did not only generate economic activity, but also provided jobs to millions of people.

He also complained that other countries had eagerly come to pick up the business. The United Kingdom has already struck a deal with Uzbekistan to bring back £4 billion worth of its equipment from Afghanistan, as foreign troops are withdrawn. Under the arrangement, around £450,000 of surplus equipment would be gifted to Uzbekistan, claimed Gill.

Meanwhile, Babar Bidaat, former chairman of the freight forwarders’ body, said that it was high time that the government concentrated on developing infrastructure, which was a must for promoting regional and transit trade. .

On the other hand, in order to promote an efficient transport system, the private sector should be allowed to openly compete with the National Logistic Cell, which, claimed Bidaat, was monopolising the local trucking industry.

The country can then focus on laying down a massive regional transport network, he added.