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One of the most famous American generals of the Second World War, Omar Bradley, had a saying.
GREENE: He said that in wartime, amateur soldiers talk strategy, while the professionals talk logistics. The most brilliant plan can fall apart if you can't move your troops quickly and supply them efficiently.
INSKEEP: Consider Afghanistan. For all the attention given to counterinsurgency operations, one of the most important developments over the past two years has been the establishment of new supply routes. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: Tribal divisions and the violent Taliban movement make it hard enough for U.S. and allied troops to fight in Afghanistan. At the Pentagon, Derek Mitchell has had to worry about getting them their tanks, their Humvees, their food, their fuel. It's not easy.
DEREK MITCHELL: Look at the geography of getting things into Afghanistan, the countries that surround it and the nature of their relationships, the distance from the United States.
GJELTEN: A landlocked country, no ports. To the west, a hostile Iran. To the south and east, an unstable Pakistan. Bad roads through dangerous territory. Talk about resupply headaches.
VICE ADMIRAL MARK HARNITCHEK: This is the logistics challenge of our generation.
GJELTEN: Vice Admiral Mark Harnitchek is the deputy commander at the U.S. military's Transportation Command. And he knows logistics.
ADMIRAL MARK HARNITCHEK: The logistics challenge of my father's generation was escorting convoys across the North Atlantic when we didn't know how to do that very well. Convoys in 1943 would lose 16 of their 32 ships.
GJELTEN: Now, Harnitchek and his fellow logisticians deal with Afghanistan. For the first seven years of the war, almost all the supplies and equipment were shipped by sea to the Pakistani port of Karachi. From there, they were trucked overland to Afghanistan, through parts of Pakistan effectively controlled by the Taliban.
In 2008, the U.S. military lost as much as 15 percent of its supplies in those areas due to ambushes and theft. When President Obama decided to surge 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan, alternative supply routes became all the more critical. Derek Mitchell at the time was a deputy assistant secretary at the Pentagon.
MITCHELL: Given that President Obama was looking to move things even more rapidly in the surge, we needed more routes, more redundancy, more flexibility.
GJELTEN: Thus was born the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a variety of routes from Europe across Central Asia and into Afghanistan from the north, thus avoiding Pakistan.
MITCHELL: Since then, we've added these routes through Turkey. We've added these routes through Iraq.
GJELTEN: Vice Admiral Harnitchek.
ADMIRAL MARK HARNITCHEK: We've established routes through all three of the Baltic ports. We've added Belarus to the network, as well.
GJELTEN: There's even a route from Vladivostok in Russia, down through Siberia to Afghanistan.
Of all the non-lethal supplies coming over land into Afghanistan now, almost half comes via these northern routes. But U.S. military commanders want to be able to bring 75 percent in from the north. They still worry that anything coming through Pakistan could be cut off.
Andrew Kuchins from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says anti-U.S. feelings in Pakistan following the bin Laden raid have only heightened interest in that northern route.
ANDREW KUCHINS: Given what happened in our relations with Pakistan over the past year and how unstable that is, I mean, having that as a contingency is, I think, a relief for U.S. military.
GJELTEN: The surge into Afghanistan has mostly ended, but before long, troops and equipment will be coming out of Afghanistan. The Northern Distribution Network was established as a one-way route into Afghanistan. Derek Mitchell says U.S. officials are now negotiating for permission to use it in reverse.
MITCHELL: As we start to move forces out over time, we also need multiple places to pull forces out, and that means that the Northern Distribution Network became more and more important to our operation.
GJELTEN: There is one downside. Bringing supplies overland on trucks and railroads all the way from Europe and across Central Asia costs two or three times as much as shipping them by sea and moving them up through Pakistan. With the Pentagon under pressure to reduce spending, that is a consideration, but officials say security and reliability are still paramount, so the shift to the northern routes will continue.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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