By David Pugliese, Ottawa Citizen, Jan 5, 2012
Hundreds of cargo containers of Canadian war supplies are stranded in volatile southern Afghanistan, thanks to an ongoing Pakistani blockade of routes exiting the landlocked country. And with Pakistani officials preparing to impose steep tariffs on all NATO shipments transiting the country, the cost of Canada’s withdrawal from Afghanistan could increase by more than a half million dollars. The Canadian Forces are trying to bring home thousands of tonnes of war equipment used during the nearly 10-year combat mission.
Packed into some 446 sea containers, most of this cargo is currently stored at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. High priority items — such as all armoured vehicles and ammunition — have already been flown out of Afghanistan on Canada’s giant CC-177 Globemaster transport aircraft. Nevertheless, much of the army’s gear remains stuck in Afghanistan, Lt.-Col. John Nethercott told Postmedia News. He said the remaining items are “low priority in nature,” and include tools, tents, forklifts, barbed wire and engineering equipment. The Department of National Defence has granted a contract to move the containers from Afghanistan to Pakistan to A.J. Maritime, a Montreal-based freight forwarding firm. It is believed the remaining 446 containers were supposed to exit Afghanistan’s southeastern border post at Spin Boldak, then cross the deserts of Balochistan to the port of Karachi. Once at the port, the containers would be loaded onto ships for the sail home to Canada. But Imran Ali, Pakistan’s deputy consul general in Toronto, told Postmedia News Wednesday that the Afghan-Pakistan border is shut tight for now. “No containers are passing as of today,” he said. “There is a total sealing of the border.” Ali said this problem began when United States forces bombed two Pakistani border posts in late November, leaving 24 soldiers dead and 13 wounded. After a day of frenzied meetings about the “unprovoked attack,” Pakistani officials announced they would take steps to disrupt NATO supply lines in and out of the Afghan theatre. “The (Defence Committee of Cabinet) has decided to close with immediate effect the NATO/ISAF logistics supply lines,” said a Nov. 26 statement by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. Following the closure of the border, Pakistan began a comprehensive policy review of its relations with NATO. Ali said the national security committee of the Pakistani parliament is “in the final stages of drawing out a policy” that will be published within three to four days. Ali said Pakistan is considering levying a tax on all NATO containers passing through the country, and that officials have discussed a $1,500 U.S. charge per shipping container. “Customs officials, along with foreign policy officials in Pakistan, are discussing the amount of levy to enforce,” Ali said. Such a tariff, applied to 446 containers, would cost Canada some $660,000 U.S.. With Iran to the west, China to the east and the volatile and landlocked Central Asian republics to the north, there are few safe exit routes from Afghanistan. If Pakistan keeps the border closed for long, Nethercott said, Canada could start shopping around for alternative routes. “Significant delays will potentially require re-evaluation of how the (Canadian Forces) will repatriate the remaining materiel back to Canada in an effective and cost-efficient manner,” he wrote in an email. An undisclosed number of Canada’s low-priority containers completed the journey to Karachi before the border was closed. There have been reports of severe congestion at the port there, and that more than 3,600 military vehicles and 1,700 sea containers are stranded at dockside.