Pakistan, which President George W. Bush elevated to the rank of "major non-NATO ally,” is now deemed too dangerous for the hundreds of U.S. and NATO supply trucks that keep allied forces fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In the latest attack against the NATO lifeline, 11 trucks and 13 containers were demolished outside Peshawar, near the northern end of the 600-mile route from the port of Karachi to the Khyber Pass. This followed the attack and collapse of a key bridge near the Khyber Pass, which backed up about 1,000 trucks all the way to Karachi. Normally, about 600 supply trucks a day cross the border into Afghanistan.
Kifayatullah Jan, the manager of Port World Logistics, a major North Atlantic Treaty Organization contractor, said his drivers were ready to pack it in when Pakistani insurgents torched 106 containers.
"No protection, no business," Jan said.
NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan require 70,000 containers of supplies a year, or about 75 percent of their total needs in fuel, food, equipment, and construction materials. On any given day, 3 million gallons of fuel are on Pakistani roads destined for allied forces in Afghanistan. In some cases, the Taliban extracted payments of $1,000 a vehicle at the point of a gun. Helicopter engines valued at $13 million also were hijacked. Taliban fighters gave Pakistani drivers certificates guaranteeing their trucks were requisitioned, not stolen.
The southern route through Pakistan was kept open while negotiations proceeded with Russia and the former Soviet Muslim republics — known as the "Stans" — for an alternate northern route. Supplies would be unloaded onto trains in German ports and taken by rail through Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and then by truck into Afghanistan, a distance five times longer than the 1,000-kilometer journey from Karachi to Kabul. Hardly an incentive for NATO and U.S. staying power against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
It doesn't require an overwhelming effort of geopolitical imagination to see the potential for Russian troublemaking along the northern supply route. For the time being, the Medvedev-Putin tandem has made clear that the U.S.-NATO operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan is also in Russia's interest.
The men in the Kremlin are anxious to prevent Islamist extremism spreading from Afghanistan into the Stans. They also like the idea of America's military machine pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, the Soviets spent 10 years fighting the mujahedin guerrillas — and were forced into a humiliating withdrawal six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
They wouldn't mind seeing superpower America suffer the same fate. When they want to express displeasure, they can turn NATO's northern route into a Pakistan-like nightmare; all they have to do is invoke a railroad strike or a major railroad accident to cause difficult breathing on NATO's Afghan supply lung.
The five- to 10-year commitment in Afghanistan, as seen by some members of the Obama administration, loses much of its allure as the United States switches supply lines from the southern route through Pakistan to the northern route through Russia. Top Pentagon planners say we no longer can afford the luxury of democratic nation-building in Afghanistan. Instead, says a recommendation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all resources should be thrown against the Taliban's privileged sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas while at the same time de-emphasizing longer-term goals for bolstering democracy.
Moscow's primacy in its "near abroad" is back in business. After taking $150 million a year from the United States for base rights at Manas, Kyrgyzstan changed its mind and asked the United States to leave. Russian pressure came in the form of $2 billion in credits and $150 million in aid. But the United States said no deal, we're staying. About 1,000 Americans are based there, and 15,000 U.S. personnel are rotated in and out of Afghanistan via Manas every month.
Local Kyrgyz newspapers, in disinformation operations presumably paid for by Russian operatives, have accused the United States of using Manas for everything from drug trafficking to storing nuclear weapons to planning to attack Iran. The Russians also have enlisted local intellectuals to advocate an accelerated U.S. exit.
Some NATO allies have pointed out that a shorter and more efficient route would be through Turkey and Iran into Afghanistan. Besides diplomatic engagement, the Obama administration has yet to decide on a new Iranian policy. Meanwhile, the mullahs, pumped up by their successful launching of a tennis ball-sized satellite into orbit, have no intention of quitting their quest for a nuclear weapon.
Both the Iranian regime and Russia aided the original U.S. invasion of Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, to overthrow the Taliban and destroy al-Qaida's bases and training camps. Some Europeans say, albeit sotto voce, that Iran's hatred of the Taliban could be harnessed again, but with more carrots than sticks in the diplomatic mix.
Obama's yet-to-be-announced senior hand to handle Iran is Dennis Ross, longtime Middle Eastern negotiator, who favors more sticks and fewer carrots. And Ross still believes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his father superior, Supreme Religious Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the holy city of Qom, can be talked out of their nuclear ambitions.
Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by national security adviser James L. Jones; CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus; and Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, flew to Germany this weekend for the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy. Top-tier Russian and Iranian delegations also attended. Offline topside conversations provided an opportunity to defuse the return of East-West tensions. Stay tuned.
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