Cargo transportation through Latvia to Afghanistan – from a unique opportunity to development
Cargo transportation through Latvia to Afghanistan, as a part of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), started in 2009. Necessity and availability of this route and the choice to use this route was a unique opportunity. Cargo transportation that started as a single container train, since then has developed as a multimodal transportation corridor bringing financial and political benefits for Latvia.
Logistical support is essential component of any military operation, as it provides resources on which the operation relies. Effective logistical support is of special value to military operations in distant and hardly accessible areas, and Afghanistan certainly can be considered as such. This country is landlocked and as additional considerable accessibility restrictions can be considered the mountainous climate and limitations by some of the neighboring countries (Afghanistan is bordering with Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan).
Logistical services are one of services which have considerable potential for positive interaction between the military and the civil sector, also because agents from the civil sector often can offer their services on the basis of already established supply lines or to build new ones on their basis. In supplying the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, involvement of agents from the civil sector is almost indispensable, not only because of the mission’s geographical location and other limitations, but also because of the number of ISAF troops – approximately 129 thousands from 50 troop contributing nations (as of May 10, 2012).
Considering the geographical location of Afghanistan and Latvia, initially linkage between the two countries could not seem clear. To reach Afghanistan, at least territories of Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have to be crossed. And although before 2009 there was already established cargo transportation chain between Latvia and Central Asia, for example, the container train “Baltika Tranzit”, and theoretically it could have been extended to regular cargo transportation to Afghanistan, also other aspects had to be taken into account. First, necessity to use this route – before 2009 the main supply line to Afghanistan was Pakistan (sea way to Pakistan continued by inland surface transportation to Afghanistan) and air transportation. Air transportation naturally is considerably less cost-effective than inland surface transportation. But the inland surface route through Pakistan became increasingly dangerous – cargo suffered not only from pilferage but it was also stolen and destroyed. It could be then concluded that the ISAF mission depended on limited and fragile supply lines and alternative routes had to be sought. Furthermore, in the end of 2011 Pakistan entirely closed the ISAF supply line through its territory.
As alternative inland surface transit countries to Afghanistan could have been considered Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. Although from geographical perspective, use of the Iranian ports and inland surface infrastructure could be feasible, use of this option is considerably limited by the political relations among Iran and the ISAF troops contributing nations, especially the USA. The border between Afghanistan and China offers only a very hardly accessible and usable inland surface infrastructure, which makes use of this route unfeasible, even before looking at broader context of this option.
Rest of the countries bordering with Afghanistan are part of the region which has historically had regular cargo transportation with the Baltic Sea ports, largely because of the completely interoperable 1520 mm railroad system. Among the ports with direct access to the 1520 mm railroad system (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, and Finland with its nominal rail gauge of 1524 mm), Latvian ports were in a favorable situation as there was already established transportation chain with Central Asia, and Latvian companies had wide cooperation experience with the Central Asian countries. As additional favorable factors were Latvian membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and well established political relations with the USA. Without one of the factors mentioned above, establishment of the NDN through Latvia would be less likely.
Last but not least, were efforts by different institutions and companies to enable the NDN. Crucial factor for establishment of the NDN was permission of the transit countries to use their territory for cargo transportation to supply the ISAF mission. Although non-lethal cargo has been transported, de facto owner of cargo is foreign armed forces, and this factor has potential of unfavorable domestic political effects in the transit countries. If, for example, Russia or Kazakhstan, would have denied transit permission, transportation over the NDN probably would not be possible. Also other organizational and technical efforts were essential for opening the route, and efficiency of institutions and companies from different countries might have had significant impact on the choice of the ports that have been selected for the beginning of inland surface transportation in the NDN.
Cargo transportation to Afghanistan through Latvia started in February 2009 when the first container train was formed. Most of the cargo arrives in the Riga Port and afterwards most of it is transported by trains and trucks through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (or using an alternative route – through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan instead of Uzbekistan), before entering Afghanistan. In April 2012 also cargo air transportation from the Riga Airport to Afghanistan started. Different kinds of commodities have been transported so far, including food, detergents, hygiene commodities, construction materials, camouflage materials, oil products.
Even though initially reported prognosis of maximal amount of cargo to be transported to Afghanistan through Latvia have not materialized (according to some expectations up to 700 TEU per one week), since 2009 more than 45 thousands TEU of cargo has been transported to Afghanistan through Latvia. Furthermore, not only the USA but also at least seven other nations have transported their cargo to Afghanistan through Latvia. Income from transporting one TEU through Latvia can be estimated up to approximately 900 USD. Additionally to cargo transit, also commodities have been procured in Latvia for transportation to Afghanistan; value of the commodities procured in Latvia in 2012 (first quarter) alone has been estimated of 4.1 millions USD. Although amount of the cargo transported to Afghanistan does not form a substantive part of the overall cargo that is transported through Latvian transport infrastructure, it still can be considered as significant to the local economy.
As an additional development is the beginning of retrograde transportation – in May 2012 the first flight with cargo from Afghanistan arrived in the Riga Airport. Probably this is the beginning of cargo transportation from Afghanistan, marking the prelude of transformation of the ISAF mission. It not only promises additional cargo to be transported through Latvia and other NDN countries, but also fosters prospects of possible commercialization of this route. If commercialization of the NDN would come true, it would offer the landlocked Afghanistan and its neighboring countries new routes for transportation of their export goods in the future. And then the NDN, initially established for supplying armed forces, would develop as a new transportation corridor for civilian purposes.
Cargo transportation to Afghanistan can also be considered as a Latvian contribution to the ISAF mission, as it provides NATO allies and partners with an alternative transportation route to supply the mission. For Latvia, which is not a major troop contributor of the mission, any additional way to support the mission is significant, and Latvian contribution has been noticed also by the Secretary General of NATO, who has expressed his appreciation of the Latvian efforts in this field.
In addition to what was already mentioned, cargo transportation to Afghanistan has also served as a promoter of Latvia internationally. It has not only been widely covered in Latvian mass media, but has also been noticed in international mass media and has been reported in different contexts. As usually Latvian affairs are not widely covered in international mass media, any positive report can turn attention to the country and can bring other positive contributions, for example, raise potential for attracting other kinds of cargo. Although it would be hard to estimate if cargo transportation to Afghanistan has already attracted additional cargo, this transportation chain has been emphasized by Latvian transportation sector agents, which indicates their expectations of its aid to attract other kinds of cargo.
 NATO. International Security Assistance Force (ISAF): Key Facts and Figures // http://www.nato.int/isaf/docu/epub/pdf/placemat.pdf
 Radovics V. Sāk apgādāt NATO spēkus Afganistānā no Rīgas // Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze Latvijai (12.05.2009). Pp.7; Kondrāts Ģ. NATO kravas no Latvijas ceļos uz Afganistānu // Latvijas Avīze (12.02.2009). Pp.4.; Radovics V. ASV armijas apgāde caur Latviju nesīs peļņu uzņēmējiem // Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze Latvijai (19.02.2009). Pp.4.; Rinkēvičs: Latvijas Republikas Ārlietu ministrija. Rinkēvičs: Sarunās par ES daudzgadu budžetu jābūt reālistiem (LETA) (05.06.2012) // http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/Jaunumi/Raksti/2012/06-05/
 Ефимов А. Афганский путь вот-вот откроется // Бизнес&Балтия (11.05.2009). Pp.2.; Radovics V. Sāk apgādāt NATO spēkus Afganistānā no Rīgas // Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze Latvijai (12.05.2009). Pp.7
 Delfi.lv. Caur Latviju uz Afganistānu sūta mazāk kravu; notiek sarunas par jaunu piesaisti (05.12.2011) // http://bizness.delfi.lv/biznesa_vide/caur-latviju-uz-afganistanu-suta-mazak-kravu-notiek-sarunas-par-jaunu-piesaisti.d?id=41958676
 Latvijas Republikas Ārlietu ministrija. Rinkēvičs: Sarunās par ES daudzgadu budžetu jābūt reālistiem (LETA) (05.06.2012) // http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/Jaunumi/Raksti/2012/06-05/
 Perspectives of commercialization of the NDN were discussed at a special international workshop in May 2012 in Riga
 Delfi.lv. NATO ģenerālsekretārs pateicas Latvijai par NATO kravu tranzītu uz Afganistānu (12.11.2010). http://www.delfi.lv/news/national/politics/nato-generalsekretars-pateicas-latvijai-par-nato-kravu-tranzitu-uz-afganistanu.d?id=35139407
 Cargo transportation to Afghanistan at different intensity has been relatively widely covered in Latvian written media, internet media, radio and television since the beginning of 2009. Most of the reports can be considered as positive
 For example, “CBS News” report “How an American in Latvia aided U.S. troops” (01.03.2012, available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57388393/how-an-american-in-latvia-aided-u.s-troops/) or “BBC News” animation “How will Nato exit from Afghanistan?” (18.05.2012, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17999603)
 For example, brochure by the Freeport of Riga Authority – “Port of Riga: Reducing Distances (2012)”, drawing a transportation line between Latvia and Afghanistan on a map, or video presentation by the Freeport of Riga Authority – “Freeport of Riga – More than 800 years of experience” (available at: http://vimeo.com/23666216)
Published 27 June 2012