Doublethink Online | 1.27.09
By Alan W. Dowd

On the eve of what might be called “The Afghan Surge,” NATO is preparing to open new supply routes to support its increasingly precarious mission in Afghanistan. With the U.S. deploying up to 30,000 more troops into the war-torn country this year—and routes through Pakistan under attack—clearing these new supply arteries couldn’t come at a better time. But the new routes carry plenty of risks of their own.

The decision to explore and use other corridors comes after months of unnerving and costly attacks against NATO’s main supply route to Afghanistan, which runs from the ports at Karachi to holding terminals in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan, then to the Khyber Pass and into landlocked Afghanistan. This long, tortuous route, which carries 80 percent of NATO’s equipment, has come under attack dozens of times in recent months.

Last March, as The Times of London reported, attackers in northwest Pakistan destroyed 36 NATO tanker trucks. In April, a shipment of replacement helicopter engines was stolen en route to Afghanistan. In December, guerilla fighters in the laughably misnamed “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” of northern Pakistan attacked six depots in Peshawar, burning 160 Humvees and 140 trucks bound for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. 

The situation is only getting worse. In fact, the Pakistani military recently shut down the crucial corridor in hopes of clearing it of insurgent activity. Then, just this month, a mob of angry tribesmen blockaded the road for three days to protest the military operation. A spokesman for truckers in the region tells The International Herald Tribune, “Attacks have become a daily affair.”

In response, NATO has crafted a backup plan that makes the Karachi-Peshawar-Khyber gauntlet look comparatively simple.

Showcasing an exquisite example of military understatement, NATO Commander James Craddock says he and his troops “always want flexibility.” Thus, he has worked out details for a “Northern Corridor”—call it Plan B—to carry equipment by rail and/or air into Afghanistan via Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

However, the once-burned-twice-shy NATO is hammering out yet another backup deal—a Plan C with the ultra-reclusive regime in Turkmenistan. The Times of London reports that this “Central Corridor” would carry supplies by ship across the Black Sea to Georgia, then by truck to Azerbaijan, then by ship across the Caspian to Turkmenistan, then into Afghanistan.

If Plan C’s shortcomings are merely logistical, Plan B’s are political.

It pays to recall that Uzbekistan abruptly ended a base-leasing deal with the U.S. in 2005. Likewise, Vladimir Putin’s Russia turns off European gas supplies at will, bullies some neighbors with threats, and launches cyber-wars and even real wars against others.

In other words, NATO’s supply partners aren’t models of dependability.

In fact, during the war in Georgia, Moscow threatened to suspend an earlier agreement with NATO allowing certain supplies to move through Russian territory. Angered by NATO’s reaction to the invasion, Moscow sent an unmistakable message through its Afghanistan ambassador, Zamir Kabulov, who declared that the deal to allow non-military supplies for ISAF to travel through Russia was off because, mockingly quoting NATO, “there is a suspension of military cooperation.”

That was anything but an empty threat. Most of the food and fuel destined for NATO’s Afghanistan mission that doesn’t travel through Pakistan actually goes through Russian airspace. In fact, Russia is NATO’s main fuel supplier in Afghanistan.

In the months since the Georgia crisis, Moscow has continued its gamesmanship, allowing France and Germany—but not the rest of NATO—to re-supply their ISAF troops via Russian air corridors. Moscow is so happy with Germany’s behavior of late that it allows Germany to use Russian rail lines.

Even so, NATO is doing what it has to do. Its future may depend on its success in Afghanistan, and its success in Afghanistan depends on Russian cooperation.

Doubtless, Russia enjoys the irony and is not shedding any tears over NATO’s troubles—in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But it’s obvious that Russia doesn’t want NATO to fail. “It’s not in Russia’s interests for NATO to be defeated and leave behind all these problems,” Kabulov conceded to The Times of London.

In fact, as a NATO spokesman told The International Herald Tribune, Russia and NATO are even negotiating the use of Russian airspace to deliver military goods “not specified as non-lethal”—in other words, the armaments, ammunition and assets that NATO needs to fight, in addition to the food and fuel that keep its forces alive.

This strange diplomatic dance between Russia and NATO reflects the essence of the West’s relationship with Moscow: They will work together, albeit grudgingly, when their interests intersect—and hope for the best when they don’t.

That’s not exactly a great strategy. Perhaps the only thing riskier is counting on the supply routes (and government) in Pakistan.