Afghan supply routes face setbacks in Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan

February 3, 2009

U.S. efforts to improve supplies for its troops in Afghanistan just had a double setback after militants in northwest Pakistan severed the main supply route for western forces and Kyrgyzstan’s president said the United States must close its military base there.

Militants blew up a bridge on the Khyber Pass, cutting the supply route to western forces in Afghanistan and underscoring the need for the United States to seek alternative supply lines. The U.S. military sends 75 percent of supplies for the Afghan war through Pakistan but has been looking at using other transit routes through Central Asia. Although Washington has been sketchy on the details of its plans, its Manas military airbase near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek has so far provided important logistical support for its operations in Afghanistan.  During a visit to Moscow, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the closure of the base, opened after the 9/11 attacks.  Bakiyev made the announcement after securing a $2 billion loan and a further $150 million in aid from Russia.

So what is going on here? Is Russia taking advantage of U.S. vulnerability in Afghanistan to flex its muscles in Central Asia? Or responding to a perceived threat of U.S. expansionism in the region?

Former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar has suggested that the United States can win Moscow’s support in Afghanistan only if it dispels suspicions that it has exploited its post 9/11 operations there as an excuse to build its presence in Central Asia as part of a containment strategy targeting not just Russia but also Iran and China.  That may sound a little bit like Cold War thinking, harking back to those simpler days when containment was one of the buzzwords of superpower rivalry. These days the scramble for Central Asia seems to be more about the competition for resources — especially oil and gas – as discussed in this post. But he does make a lot of interesting points, particularly if you remember the Soviet Union’s own justification for its disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which was partly to stop the United States from setting up bases there following the Iranian Islamic revolution.In an article for Eurasia, Stephen Blank, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, took a different view of U.S. motives, but reached the same conclusion: the United States will have to make concessions to win Russia’s cooperation on Afghanistan. 

“Russia has the capability to exact a steep price for its cooperation, and it seems fairly certain that the Kremlin will strive to do just that,” he wrote. “One area in which it will likely try to exact that price is in the Caucasus and Black Sea regions, specifically in seeking NATO assurances that Georgia and Ukraine will not be offered membership in the alliance for the foreseeable future, if ever. It is a mark of the strategic malpractice of past U.S. policymakers in Central Asia and Afghanistan that Moscow now finds itself in position to potentially dictate conditions for participation in an endeavor that is clearly in Russia’s best interests.”

There are still lots of stray threads in this struggle for influence in Central Asia. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon just reversed an earlier decision to cancel a trip to Moscow, in what was seen as an attempt to put pressure on Russia to increase financial support for Tajikistan. Meanwhile the United States is quietly rebuilding ties with Uzbekistan, despite its human rights record, according to this article in the Christian Science Monitor. Uzbekistan evicted the U.S. military in 2005 after Washington and other Western governments called for an inquiry into the reported massacre of hundreds of civilians during a protest in the city of Andizhan.

And if you don’t want to go through Central Asia, NATO says it would not oppose member nations making deals with Iran to use it as a transit route to supply their forces in Afghanistan, according to this AP story. That would probably require compromises of its own, not least over Iran’s nuclear programme. The alternative, of course, is to keep relying on Pakistan as the easiest entry point into Afghanistan – bringing us full circle back to the early days post 9/11 when the Bush administration turned to Islamabad for help in overturning the Taliban.

Can, or will, the new administration of President Barack Obama chart a different course?






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