Located at the geographic center of Europe, Lithuania is ideally situated to become a regional transportation hub. Two strategic transportation lines cross Lithuania: the North-South highway and railway line connecting Scandinavia with Central Europe, and the East-West Transport Corridor between enormous eastern markets and the European Union. The latter is considered among the ten most important corridors in Europe (www.baltictransportjournal.com, November 23, 2011).
Since their independence, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have developed and improved their transport services and railway system, creating a very effective logistical sector specializing in long-distance transportation. For instance, Lithuania belongs to the Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), an international transit network that enables cargo containers from Lithuania to travel all the way to Central Asia and China (Author’s interview with advisor of public relations to the Minister of Defense of Lithuania, December 2012). Another example is the Sun Train, which began operating in October 2011 and connects Western Europe with China. It passes through Lithuania’s seaport, Klaipeda, before continuing through Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan (www.lithuaniatribune.com, November 21, 2011).
Due to such well-established transportation corridors and its advantageous geographic position, Lithuania together with Latvia and Estonia play an important role in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). Established in 2008, the NDN is a strategic transportation corridor consisting of a 3,100-mile network of sea, road, and rail routes going through the Baltic States, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and terminating in northern Afghanistan. Created as an alternative to the overloaded Pakistan Ground Line of Communication, the NDN’s main goals are to support international operations in Afghanistan by maintaining reliable and safe supply lines, decreasing cost and delivery time, and establishing road-based two-way cargo flow (Author’s interview with advisor of public relations to the Minister of Defense of Lithuania, December 2012).
NDN routes originate in three of the major Baltic ports: Tallinn in Estonia, Riga in Latvia, and Klaipeda in Lithuania. Klaipeda seaport is the only non-freezing port in the eastern portion of the Baltic Sea coast. Klaipeda has thus gained international importance, playing an increasingly pivotal role in international transport of cargo moving to the East and the West (www.balticroads.lt, January 30, 2013). Klaipeda seaport has an annual capacity of 60 million tons; the cargo handling turnover—32.24 million tons—achieved in 2012 was the second best cargo handling result in the history of Klaipeda Seaport (www.portofklaipeda.lt, January 30, 2013).
The NDN and Lithuania’s role in transit to and from Afghanistan is a high priority for Lithuania’s government. As a case in point, Lithuanian authorities have created a special interdisciplinary group of officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, defense and transportation; leaders of private logistics companies are also involved (Author’s interview with advisor of public relations to the Minister of Defense of Lithuania, December 2012).
The logistics of ISAF freight shipments through the Baltic States are based on bilateral agreements between the partner countries. The first International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) shipments through Lithuania’s seaport were transported to Afghanistan in 2010, and the volume has grown significantly with every passing year (Author’s interview with advisor of public relations to the Minister of Defense of Lithuania, December 2012). In the first quarter of 2012, the volume of the containers was equal to that of all containers transported through Klaipeda during 2011.
The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France are the main partner countries using Lithuania’s seaport as a logistical hub for transportation to and from Afghanistan (Author’s interview with advisor of public relations to the Minister of Defense of Lithuania, December 2012). Since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its other ISAF partners will soon begin withdrawing from Afghanistan and will completely leave the country by the end of 2014, Lithuania is negotiating with NATO partners to play a major role in the logistics of the departure. Each month during the withdrawal period, ISAF will transport around 2,200 machines and 3,800 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of cargo. Highlighting Lithuania’s importance to the withdrawal process, it takes only 30 minutes to cross the Lithuanian-Belarusian border—quicker than crossing any other border between the Schengen Area and the Commonwealth of Independent States (Author’s interview with advisor of public relations to the Minister of Defense of Lithuania, December 2012). Depending on the size of the shipment, freight from Afghanistan reaches Klaipeda seaport in 9–17 days. The first shipments from Afghanistan successfully arrived in Lithuania in May 2012.
As previously mentioned, the private sector is actively involved in the NDN. Non-military shipments from the United States are transported through Klaipeda seaport as a result of effective collaboration between Lithuanian logistics companies, Maersk, and the United States Transportation Command (TRANSCOM). The amount of containers transported through Lithuania’s seaport increased dramatically after the opening of a regular Maersk line between Riga, Klaipeda and Bremerhaven in 2011 (www.rop.lv, January 30, 2013).
All in all, Klaipeda seaport, together with the two other Baltic ports, plays a crucial role in the NDN (Thomas P. Kelly, Remarks at the Commonwealth Club, Washington, DC, January 20, 2012). However, there remain many more opportunities to further service ISAF’s needs to transport materiel out of Afghanistan. Towards this end, Klaipeda seaport is rapidly developing, and there are ambitious plans for further expansion. Most importantly, the corridors that were created to service shipments to and from Afghanistan are of strategic value and will remain so even after ISAF’s drawdown from Afghanistan is complete. The established corridors, if properly maintained and further developed can be used to help integrate Afghanistan and the Central Asia region into the global economy.