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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. President-elect Barack Obama has said Afghanistan, not Iraq, should be the central front in the war on terror. And before Mr. Obama takes office, a military buildup is already under way. Thousands more combat troops are heading to Afghanistan, and so are air forces - helicopters and drones. On Wednesday and Thursday, NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reported on the buildup of ground and air forces. Today, we're going to hear about a more mundane, but critical side of war. How do you get all those troops and all their supplies safely to the right place at the right time? In his final story, Tom Bowman reports the military has found a new route to get equipment into Afghanistan.

TOM BOWMAN: Just last week in Pakistan, there was another attack on convoys heading to Afghanistan. Here's how it was reported on Al Jazeera.

(Soundbite of Al Jazeera news report)

Unidentified Woman: Hundreds of NATO vehicles torched to the ground in Peshawar in an overnight attack on a key transport troop for military equipment into Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: It was a third time a convoy was hit in the past four weeks along the road leading to the Khyber Pass. That ancient route for invading armies is now a chokehold for American supplies.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): I've had a concern about this for months.

BOWMAN: That's Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Adm. MULLEN: In that concern, we've worked pretty hard to develop options so that we're not tied to single-point failure.

BOWMAN: Single-point failure, that's military-speak for the fact that Americans rely on that Pakistan route for 85 to 90 percent of supplies - that's food, fuel and building materials. The more sensitive military equipment - everything from guns and ammunition, armored Humvees and radios - travels into Afghanistan by cargo plane. So people like Rear Admiral Mark Harnitchek have been looking for other supply routes.

Rear Admiral MARK HARNITCHEK (Director of Plans and Policy, United States Transportation Command): That is my job. Yes, sir. Absolutely.

BOWMAN: Harnitchek works at the Pentagon's Transportation Command. They're the ones who move supplies by land, sea or air. And the admiral has come up with two new supply routes. Both come from the north into Afghanistan, not through Pakistan. We'll let the admiral describe that proposed new route. It's a regular geography lesson.

Rear Adm. HARNITCHEK: So what we are looking at is a route through the Caucuses, which would be Eastern Europe, across the Black Sea, through Georgia, Azerbaijan. From the port of Baku, either to the port of Turkmenbashi…

BOWMAN: Hold on. He's not quite there yet.

Rear Adm. HARNITCHEK: Or a port a little to the north in Kazakhstan called Aqtau, through either of those countries into Uzbekistan, southeast through Uzbekistan, and across the border at a place called Termiz.

BOWMAN: That's almost 3,000 miles. Already, Harnitchek says, NATO has received approval from all the countries along the way.

Rear Adm. HARNITCHEK: I'm looking to start moving stuff here, probably around the first of the year or so.

BOWMAN: That northern land route to Afghanistan, and a neighboring one he hopes will be approved by Christmas, is almost twice as long as the trip from Pakistan. But it's also safer, he says. It essentially follows part of the ancient Silk Road.

Rear Adm. HARNITCHEK: These are all commercial routes. It is our intention to have our cargo fall in with the normal flow of commercial commerce that already moves along these routes.

BOWMAN: For veteran logistics officers, additional supply corridors make sense.

Retired Lieutenant General GUS PAGONIS (U.S. Army; In Charge of Supplies, 1991 Persian Gulf War): Well, first of all, you strategically plan to have alternate routes.

BOWMAN: Retired Lieutenant General Gus Pagonis was in charge of supplies for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He says, you don't want to put alternate routes in place before you need them. Now, the U.S. does need them and not only because of the attacks on supply lines in Pakistan. There are another 20,000 American troops heading into Afghanistan. They'll need a lot more food and fuel and two-by-fours. Major General Michael Tucker is deputy commander in Afghanistan. He says all those building materials will go for things like housing and dining halls.

Major General MICHAEL TUCKER (Deputy Commander, U.S. Forces in Afghanistan): There's a very huge building campaign that has already begun. We're pushing dirt as we speak to prepare for the arrival of these forces.

BOWMAN: In preparing for a new, longer, and what officials say is a safer supply route into that fight. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: And you can see a map of the military's new route into Afghanistan at npr.org.

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