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Getting 23,000 troops out of Afghanistan later this year will be a major challenge unless the Pakistani government reopens the ground-based supply lines that were shut down more than three months ago.
"The withdrawal out of Afghanistan, we do need the ground line of communications through Pakistan," Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.
Mattis said he will fly to Pakistan next week to talk to top officials there about reopening the two key supply lines, which once served as the conduit for about 90 percent of all non-lethal supplies for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
The Pakistanis shut down two major border crossings in late November after NATO aircraft attacked two military outposts in northwest Pakistan, killing as many as 28 troops. U.S. officials say the incident stemmed from miscommunication between the NATO and Pakistani forces.
In recent months, the U.S. has shifted the majority of its non-lethal supplies to run through the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a far longer and costlier set of routes that run from the north of Afghanistan through central Asia and into Europe.
Logistics troops in Afghanistan have begun preparing for the drawdown by packing every plane that leaves the country, Air Force Gen. William Fraser, chief of the U.S. Transportation Command, told the Senate committee last week.
"As every aircraft goes in, if it has pallet positions; it has capacity on it, then we are making sure that we put something on that aircraft and bring it back out, in order to maximize that lift and try to get ahead as best we can," Fraser told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 28.
The U.S. only recently obtained permission to ship supplies out of Afghanistan using the Northern Distribution Network. For years, the countries involved — including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan —allowed gear to travel only one-way into Afghanistan.
"We now have two-way approval to move equipment back out of Afghanistan," Fraser told the lawmakers.
President Obama ordered 10,000 troops home from Afghanistan at the end of last year, bringing troop levels down to the current force of about 90,000. An additional 23,000 are slated to leave later this year.
Mattis said he will finalize plans for that drawdown in April.