Strategy as Vacuum-Sealed Abstraction

NATO logistics may be the Achilles heel of the operation in Afghanistan, with overtures by the alliance to Russia and Iran, for alternatives to the current supply routes in Pakistan, potentially giving these outside powers a veto over our objectives and strategy.

An interesting situation is developing with the prosaic matter of supplying NATO operations in Afghanistan.  This evolving situation has the potential to present America with a decision point, sooner rather than later, about how important Afghanistan is to us, and what we really want to accomplish there.  It is not clear, however, how many in the US recognize the implications of the developments in question.

National Review Online, on 9 February, posted a superb article by justly-renowned historian Frederick Kagan, in which he outlines a set of nine principles he proposes the US adhere to in pursuing our Afghanistan policy.  This piece is well worth reading on its own merits, and contains useful advice.  But it is also worth reading for what it does not address – because what is left out is emblematic of America’s signature approach to policy: what we might call a geographically-disembodied “boresightedness.”

With all that is going on inside of Afghanistan, what is rapidly becoming the Achilles heel of the NATO operation there is logistics outside.  Last year 75% of NATO’s non-weapon supplies were brought in through Pakistan, and the supply route there has offered both the Taliban and fellow insurgents in Pakistan’s northwest territories frequent opportunities to attack NATO convoys.  NATO has been seeking alternate routes for some time, and obtained an agreement from Russia to allow some non-military aid to transit Russian territory in May 2008.  That permission was withdrawn, however, following the NATO response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008.  Permission for use of the Central Asian Kyrgyz air base at Manas, by US forces, has also been withdrawn this month by the Kyrgyz government – within hours of a $2 billion Russian aid agreement.

The US is negotiating under the new Obama administration for renewed access to a land route, across Russia and Central Asia, to supply the NATO operation in Afghanistan.  The meeting this week, of US State Department envoy Patrick Moon with Russian diplomats in Moscow, comes on the heels of last week’s closure of a NATO supply route across northwest Pakistan, when militants blew up a bridge in the Khyber pass.  Attacks of this kind have been increasingly frequent in recent months.  Pakistani engineers had a serviceable path across the Khyber pass open again within a day, but the road is open to convoys only from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM locally, with the other nineteen hours a day spent in operations against the militants.

Not surprisingly, NATO’s European planners have looked at a map, and concluded that Iran might offer a better path to Afghanistan, from her port of Chah Bahar outside (on the eastern side of) the Strait of Hormuz.  NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on 26 January suggested the alliance engage Iran’s assistance for its Afghanistan operation, and SACEUR commander General John Craddock (US Army) affirmed last week that it is up to our European allies whether they negotiate with Iran to move their supplies into Pakistan across Iranian territory.  India, notably, is eager to help Iran develop the infrastructure of precisely the route NATO supplies would take through eastern Iran: a commercial effort that would at one stroke represent a flanking move on long-time rival Pakistan, block incipient Chinese overtures to Iran for the same project, and position India as a key participant in a logistic project of importance to European NATO.

I have seen little commentary from US analysts on this emerging situation, and its potential to turn the Afghanistan campaign into something very different from what it started out to be.  It has already put the US in the position of asking Russia for permission to use land routes in Central Asia that, as we saw last year with the Georgia invasion, can be swiftly closed to us when Russia objects to our policies.  Russia will assuredly pose a decision point for us in the not-too-distant future, involving which we want more:  a land route through Central Asia into Afghanistan, or some aspect of US policy on, perhaps, Georgia, Ukraine, or the Ceyhan-Baku pipeline.

The force protection problems with the supply route through Pakistan also have Europeans considering whether it would be preferable to deal with Iran.  The supply route question is only part of a larger sense in which the Europeans suggest Iran may be useful, and it is no surprise that the most insightful treatment I have seen of this issue is from an Asian (a Pakistani, in fact) here.  America’s own Gordon Chang immediately recognized the dangers in Europe’s proposal, and, having observed US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s swath through the Balkans in 1995, from the perspective of a participant in the US/NATO operations in that fateful summer, I anticipate he will apply a useful acuity to these dangers as well.  But it is unlikely to be possible, in the coming days, to pacify northwest Pakistan so effectively that European NATO will lose interest in an alternate route.  The alliance leader – the US – is addressing the problem by making requests to Russia:  the same Russia that prompted Kyrgyzstan to close an air base to our forces, strong-armed Ukraine and held Europe’s natural gas flow hostage last month during an epic cold spell, and is busy assuming de facto control of the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhaziya – all against the interests and express wishes of NATO.  The Europeans cannot regard the US negotiations as a fruitful course for the long term, and are more likely to see any agreement as an opportunity for Russia to hold her permissions over US and European heads.

Iran, for her part, will have to balance competing interests.  Tacit European acceptance of her nuclear weapons program would no doubt be the price of offering her territory and good offices to members of the coalition in Afghanistan.  Iran and the Taliban, although long-term rivals, have a common objective of getting Western (especially US) military forces to leave; Iran, with the leverage of her support to European NATO, would have bargaining chips with which to bring both to the table.  But with the modernization of a major commercial artery from Chah Bahar in prospect, Iran will not want NATO customers to depart too quickly.  Just as Iran made a great deal of money off the UN sanctions on Saddam (by extracting a cut from sanctions-violators who used her territorial waters to evade maritime sanctions enforcement), so she would foresee making a great deal from hosting a NATO supply route into Afghanistan.

There is yet another consideration in play, in that a southern route into Afghanistan for NATO supplies is no sovereign remedy for force protection.  Establishing this route would require not only concluding agreements with Iran, but securing routes through Afghanistan’s southwestern region – like virtually all of Afghanistan, mountainous and difficult to police and pacify.  Iran could even expect to be asked, like Pakistan, to assist NATO in its security efforts at the border:  a small opening, perhaps, but one Iran could drive a truck through, under the aegis of NATO.

A pair of bad ideas is on the table for rectifying the NATO supply situation into Afghanistan.  One or the other, or perhaps both, is likely to begin making the Afghanistan campaign metastasize before our eyes, into something well beyond squeezing out the Taliban inside the Afghan borders.  We are preparing to give Russia, Iran, or both a veto over NATO’s objectives and strategy there, and a means by which they can force us to decide between different alliance priorities, and different national ones.  It may be that the US will be able to work with Pakistan to better secure NATO’s current land routes into Afghanistan, and defuse the present enthusiasm for pursuing alternatives.  But it equally well may be that we and the Europeans will regard logistic arrangements, in General Craddock’s formulation, as “up to each of us” – and unfortunately for Frederick Kagan’s excellent advice on the campaign inside Afghanistan, that may produce a situation in which the main thing that is NOT up to us is the political outcome for Kabul.

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