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Military Supply Routes to Afghanistan Reflect US and Russian Regional Competition

Jim Lobe has written the following regarding the Obama administration’s Afghan policy divisions (Inter Press Services):

…US strategy in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon and Obama appear prepared to nearly double the existing US deployment of more than 30,000 troops over the next six months, could provoke a serious source of contention.

Realists, led by the chief of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus, favor co-opting those elements of the Taliban that are willing to break with al-Qaeda and its allies in the broader interest of stabilizing the country. But how will liberals like Clinton, who stressed her commitment to women’s rights during her confirmation hearings last week, react to a scheme that may effectively empower, at least at the local level, ultra-conservative militants opposed to the education of females?

Similarly, concerns about the security of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s principal supply route to Afghanistan via Pakistan will likely result in strong pressure from the Pentagon to renew once-strong ties with the extremely repressive regime of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. This, too, will pose a major problem for liberal policy-makers in the administration.

The US has moved one step closer to diversifying its military supply routes into Afghanistan. General David Petraeus on Tuesday announced that the US had received permission to transit supplies through Russia and Central Asia. Prior to this there were rumours as well as anonymous official pronouncements that the US air base in Kyrgyztan would be closed under Russian pressure. It therefore appears that a deal has been struck between the US and Russia allowing US supplies to pass through that country and also through its zone of influence in Central Asia. I’m not yet sure which countries in Central Asia are a part of this deal, though I assume Kyrgyztan is and that Kazakhstan has at least given permission for ground or air passage from Russia south.

Also, I don’t know what portion of supplies the agreement allows to pass through Russia nor what type of military supplies. Russia had previously permitted some nonlethal supply shipments through its territory.

The agreement is not surprising; Russia is playing a delicate game in this regard. It likely wants the US to, for now, remain in Afghanistan and even commit more resources there. Russia does not expect US victory and hopes that further US commitment to Afghanistan will deliver a greater blow to US prestige, military power, and to US economy after an expected defeat. Russia will, however, want to be careful how it handles support for US basing rights in Central Asian countries. Russian apprehension is that the US will seek to keep its bases in Central Asia for a long time, and gain political influence and partnerships in these same countries. Russia will likely hope that a US defeat in Afghanistan will erode chances of this possibility since it may show the US up as incapable of effectively projecting its power into that region and Central Asian countries will then more likely accept the influence of their Russian neighbour.

Current US failure to bring security to Afghanistan has in fact destabilized neighbouring Central Asian countries, a situation that has pushed them closer to Russia in order to ensure their internal security. Russian troops commonly guard the borders of these countries. Also, Russia will likely continue its current policy of every once in a while pressuring Central Asian states to limit or threaten to remove US basing rights, just so that no one gets comfortable with the idea.

Meanwhile, Indian involvement in Afghanistan is still modest but increasing. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan fell within Pakistan’s sphere of influence. Today, there is competition between the two regional rivals in order to see who will take a lead in south and central Asia. The Indian Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, was on a visit to Kabul on Wednesday. This follows an earlier visit by Afghan President Karzai to Delhi. Xinhua reports that during Karzai’s visit, “the Indian government announced a contribution of 250,000 tons wheat to Afghanistan to overcome food shortage in winter;” and that “India has contributed 1.250 billion U.S. dollars for the reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan since 2002.”

French Defence Minister Herve Morin on Wednesday stated that his country would not send any more troops to Afghanistan.

Reuters reports:

Asked in a radio interview how France would react if Obama were to call for more contributions to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, Morin pointed out that his country already sent additional troops in 2007 and 2008.

…France has about 2,800 troops in Afghanistan, making it the fourth-largest contributor to foreign forces…

On Tuesday, a Harris poll for the Financial Times showed most voters in Britain, France, Germany and Italy believed their governments should resist any call for more troops by Obama.

Tensions mount between the Afghan people, the Afghan government, and international troops stationed in the country on account of civilian death resulting from US and NATO air strikes. Talk of civilian deaths has become more prominent as Afghanistan’s Presidential elections approach (likely to be held in Fall 2009), as Western attention refocuses on the region due to US President Obama’s foreign policy shift, and as mounting deaths further entrench anger and resentment among Afghans.

Two Afghan soldiers dead, three injured from suicide bomb in Herat province.

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