The U.S. military's top transport commander says overland cargo routes through Pakistan must be reopened to NATO for the United States to complete its pullout from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Pakistan closed overland cargo routes for NATO supplies in November amid deteriorating relations with the United States and the NATO alliance.
U.S. General William Fraser told the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 28 that the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which passes through Central Asia, was unable to handle the large number of shipments or all of the types of cargo that need to be moved out of Afghanistan to keep the withdrawal on schedule.
Fraser said existing agreements with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan allowed equipment that is now in Afghanistan to pass through their territory as the war draws down -- but not any weapons.
He said the U.S. military was exploring routes to move nonlethal supplies and some types of armored vehicles through those countries.
His remarks suggest that lightly armored U.S. Humvee vehicles relied upon by U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- and possibly Bradley armored personnel carriers -- could pass through Central Asia without violating existing agreements if they are stripped of their guns.
But an alternative solution likely would be needed to bring out the heavily armored M1A1 Abrams tanks deployed in Helmand Province in early 2011.
Fraser also said Russia and Uzbekistan had endorsed transit routes for withdrawing equipment.
In Tajikistan, Defense Ministry spokesman Farhod Ibodulloev told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on February 29 that Fraser visited Dushanbe last week for talks with Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloev.
Ibodulloev said the two agreed that their existing agreement on transit of cargo allowed transport both to and from Afghanistan, and that no new treaty would be needed for the withdrawal of nonlethal equipment or some types of armored vehicles.
Tajik specialists note that the United States in 2007 completed a $37 million bridge across the River Panj linking northern Afghanistan to Tajikistan.
They say that bridge makes it possible to transport NATO cargo overland out of Afghanistan to French aircraft based in Dushanbe, to a German air base in Uzbekistan, or to Kyrgyzstan where the U.S. military leases part of Manas International Airport for its transport hub on the Northern Distribution Network.
Equipment also could be loaded onto railcars in Tajikistan for shipment across Russia to seaports in the Baltics.
At the February 28 hearing, Fraser also said every U.S. flight that delivered supplies into Afghanistan was now being fully loaded with nonlethal cargo as part of the withdrawal, which aims to reduce U.S. troop levels from a surge peak of 110,000 to 70,000 by the end of 2012.
Nevertheless, he said, the closure of overland routes through Pakistan that were used to ship much of the U.S. military equipment into landlocked Afghanistan had already slowed the schedule for the drawdown.
Defense officials from the United Kingdom are also trying to develop new exit routes for bringing British troops and military cargo out of Afghanistan.
British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond was in Uzbekistan on February 29 for talks after signing an agreement with Kazakhstan's government on February 28 for the air transit of military supplies and troops.
The British Defense Ministry says Hammond and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev also agreed to start negotiations on a land-transit agreement.
In Astana, Hammond said Britain faced a "major logistical operation" to take some 11,000 cargo containers and about 3,000 armored vehicles out of Afghanistan -- and that Britain must "work with our partners in the region to do so."
Kazakh Defense Minister Adibek Dzhaksybekov said after his talks with Hammond on February 28 that "international military cooperation" was one of the most important and crucial components for "ensuring regional security"
British Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey plans to follow up Hammond's negotiations with visits this week to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Written by Ron Synovitz, with reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Iskandar Aliev