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US and NATO sinking in the Afghan trap

How the threat to US and NATO military supplies routes to Afghanistan is the sign of a failed policy.

The Khyber Pass supply route for international forces stationed in Afghanistan was briefly closed by Pakistan, again. DAWN reports, “supplies to Western forces in Afghanistan through Khyber Pass were briefly suspended on Monday after militants attacked an army camp, killing a paramilitary soldier and wounding 10, an official said.” I’m not certain how all of these disruptions are affecting supplies to international forces in Afghanistan. Most of the US-NATO supplies go through the Khyber Pass. I’ve been reading rumbles of already eroded supplies in Afghanistan. With a planned US troop increase and the growing instability of Pakistan along the Khyber Pass, the Western military operation may become even more vulnerable. Protecting the pass with more troops will probably greatly increase international troop casualties since insurgents are well entrenched in the region.

The US and NATO are still trying to negotiate alternate routes, mainly through the countries on Afghanistan’s northern border. The most logical route other than Pakistan is through Iran. However, after a brief period of cooperation following 9/11, the US closed the door on Iran working with them in Afghanistan once President Bush identified Iran as a leading member of the “Axis of Evil”.

Kyrgyztan is one of the countries north of Afghanistan. The country’s government, however, has recently warned that it may any day demand a withdrawal of US presence from the base. This has come after Russian pressure. The US has also voiced interest in basing in Kazakhstan, immediately south of Russia. Kazakhstan has closer ties to Russian than Kyrgyztan and to reach a base there would essentially require passage through Russian territory, then a hop through the air space of another Central Asian state which will also under significant Russian influence and pressure. Furthermore, all but one of the Central Asian states – the exception being Turkmenistan – are facing their own very real Islamist insurgency. After seeing the US-NATO alliance’s abysmal failure to deal with the Taliban, these countries will undoubtedly have little trust in direct Western assistance or presence on their soil, worried that this may well destabalise their own constituencies.

So, in order to solve the supply problem, the US and NATO forces have these options:

(1) Pakistan is itself able to rapidly bring peace to its border area, thus securing supply routes into Afghanistan. This seems impossible in the immediate future. Pakistan has been engaged in a hot war with insurgents since the end of Summer 2008 and the conflict has only expanded. Furthermore, Pakistan’s ruling factions are divided, some even providing barely secret support to the insurgents.

(2) Western forces expand the war into northwestern Pakistan. The plan here would be to formally cooperate with Pakistan in fighting an insurgency that is active both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The goal would likely be to focus a major assault in Pakistan in order to deny Taliban bases and resources there as well as to safeguard what is currently the only supply line of importance to Western forces. There would be need for a predominantly political dimension to this strategy. Pakistan cannot be distracted by possible conflict with India, so this matter would need to be settled between them. Furthermore, there would need to be clear, and commanding leadership from within Pakistan’s political elite in defiance to the powerful factions that resist the defeat of that country’s homegrown armed Islamists. These requirements would allow Pakistan to engage the full force of its army and intelligence services, both of which are currently riddled with dissenting power blocs. Also, the West would have to be prepared for an expansion of the war into Pakistan when war weariness is exhausting the patience of its citizens, commit more money, commit more troops, and commit to much larger loss of life among its soldiers. On top of everything, there would be no guarantee of success; insurgencies are notoriously difficult to quell especially when the local central authority is weak and divided.

(3) Iran is used an alternate route for military supplies. On the surface this seems the most reasonable. Iran has the ports that could handle the marine convoys, it has a relatively secure border with Afghanistan, and has suitable roads into the north and south of Afghanistan. Also, Iran sees the Taliban as an enemy and has for years worked to defeat them, even convincing its allies in the Northern Alliance to work with the US in the 2001 invasion. Relations between the US and Iran, however, are terrible. The US in 2001 rejected attempts at Iranian rapprochement, making it very difficult to quickly reverse the situation of mutual animosity. The US is likely concerned that its key regional allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, would react in hostile manner to any American cooperation with Iran on Afghanistan. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are weary of Iranian influence, each wanting to be a regional hegemon and concerned that any Iranian gain would deny them this victory and perhaps allow Iran to instead become the preeminent power. So, this solution will almost certainly be rejected by the US.

(4) The US would need to cooperate with Russia for a northern supply route into Afghanistan. Russia currently has no incentive to accept this. The US, through its NATO alliance, has placed new missile defence military installations on Russia’s western border. The US has also, for the most part, led NATO through massive expansion into former Soviet states, encircling a significant portion of Russia and adding new bases to an already impressive chain that spans from northern Europe to the Middle East and Afghanistan. This cordon is seen as a serious military threat by Russia and after years of signaling its concern at the pursuit of this expanded iron curtain, Russia has regained its confidence and some of its (still fragile) strength to react politically (with new pacts in Central Asia, and the Middle East), militarily (in the short war in Georgia), and economically (mainly through its energy export policy). Russia would not want to help the US and NATO establish stable bases in Central Asia since the US will likely try to turn these into long term bases and succeed in a near complete encirclement of Russia. On some level Russia may actually encourage further US-NATO engagement in Afghanistan’s war, only so that more of its opponent’s resources are sunk there. Following this, it would likely seek, without any outwardly hostile act, to maintain or promote an environment in which US-led forces suffer great military, economic, and symbolic losses.

(5) US-NATO can also seek to pursue the current political and military strategy with minor adjustments here and there. This is unlikely to result in a clear and discernible Western victory in the region especially since the focus remains military with a clear disregard of the political solutions required to face the underlying causes of insurgency, instability, and civil war. Nor will an unchanged strategy bring Afghanistan’s regionally significant neighbours on-side with US goals: many in Pakistan’s ruling elite will resist US policy, India and Pakistan will see Afghanistan as a ground to pursue a proxy war between them, Iran will seek to thwart both the Taliban and the US, and Russia will cheer for a US-NATO disaster.

(6) The US and NATO may try to wash their hands of their own creation and leave after a symbolic show of force potentially in the guise of a ‘surge’. The plan of departure may include at least preliminary negotiations with some elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Western military alliance may then claim to have established a framework of local cooperation superficially facilitated by a military surge. The US and NATO, once withdrawal is complete, would then likely cease any significant direct commitment to Afghanistan. Factional fighting would probably continue in Afghanistan, effectively another civil war. Afghanistan would at this point be even more impoverished and war-torn after the 2001 invasion. In this case the US would likely seek to outsource its Afghanistan policy to a regional ally, as it did prior to 2001. Back then, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services had this role. Things may be different this time around. The US is showing increased interest in having India join a military pact (mainly through a Nuclear deal), while India has shown greater interest in expanding its influence within Afghanistan and Central Asia, partially to counter Pakistan. The US may well support Indian influence in Afghanistan, backing an anti-Taliban government in Kabul. In return for legitimating and subsidising Indian regional influence in this regard, the US could demand greater Indian military and foreign policy compliance, locking India into an Asia-Pacific alliance that would include Japan and Australia.

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