As the Obama Administration ponders how to produce something resembling victory from the Afghan quagmire, it faces a number of foreign policy choices, few of them palatable.
Despite the earnest entreaties of the first Bush Administration and now those of America's 44th president, the rest of the world and NATO in particular have turned a deaf ear to the myriad pleadings, blandishments and veiled threats to increase their troop presence in Afghanistan, a pattern that is likely only to intensify over time.
As of this month the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has 67,700 personnel from 42 different countries including the US, European countries, Australia, Jordan and New Zealand. In addition, there are about 36,000 U.S. troops who are not part of ISAF serving in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistani border under Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).
ISAF's largest contributing nations are the U.S. and Britain, providing around 31,855 and 9,000 troops respectively. Germany has the third largest presence in ISAF of 4,245 troops. Other nations whose contingents number over 1,000 include Australia (1,200) Canada (2,830), France (3,070), Italy (2,795), the Netherlands (2,160), Poland (2,025) and Spain. At the lower end of the spectrum commitment are Austria (4), Bosnia and Herzegovina (2), Georgia (1), Iceland (8), Ireland (7), Jordan (7), Luxembourg (8) and Singapore (2).
Perhaps most notable is the fact that out of the 15 new nations that composed the USSR, besides Georgia's lonely infantryman only Azerbaijan (90), Estonia (150), Latvia (165), Lithuania (250) and Ukraine (10) have seen fit to contribute military personnel to ISAF, despite the fact that former Soviet republics Turkmenistan (462 miles), Uzbekistan (85 miles) and Tajikistan (750 miles) all sharing common borders with Afghanistan, along with those obsessed over by the Pentagon as perceived prime resupply sources for the Taliban - Iran (582 miles) and Pakistan (1,509 miles.) At
the eastern end of the Wakkan Corridor, even China (47 miles) shares a border with Afghanistan.
What emerges from this picture are two facts - first, America has been carrying the lion's share of the combat in Afghanistan and, given rising European opposition to further operations there, will continue to do so.
Secondly, neighboring countries, while not wishing to see Afghanistan slide further into chaos, are equally unwilling to invest boots on the ground to resolve the conflict there.
The end result is that President Obama is under increasing pressure from "Beltwayistan" hawks both inside and outside the Pentagon to commit further troops, in the belief that a military solution exists. According to British press reports Obama is about to announce that a further 44,000 troops will shortly be dispatched to the "graveyard of empires," pushing the total of U.S. troops well over 100,000.
The logistical resupply of such a massive force will provide Washington policymakers with a new round of headaches, especially as Pakistan descends further into anarchy, partly because of U.S. Predator drone strikes in the country's restive western tribal borderlands.
A solution to the Pentagon's resupply woes exists, however, but only if Washington's mandarins are willing to abandon one of its most cherished ambitions, that of "containing" Russia.
While approximately 75-80 percent of all NATO and U.S. supplies bound for Afghanistan, including fuel, food, construction materiel, and unit equipment currently move overland through Pakistan with the remaining 20-25 percent flying into airfields at Bagram, Kabul, and
Kandahar, as Pakistan continues to unravel the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a 3,200-mile railway link beginning in Latvia and terminating in Uzbekistan, will increasingly provide a literal lifeline for U.S. troops needing their cherished supplies of everything from ammunition to Doritos.
In Pakistan supplies are shipped into Karachi and offloaded onto trucks for their 850-mile journey, with transit times averaging 5 to 14 days, to one of five crossing points on the Afghan border, the most important being Torkham at the Khyber Pass and Chaman in Baluchistan, both of which have seen rising militant attacks in the past year.
The Torkham crossing is the shortest route to Kabul and Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan. Pakistani subcontractors engage approximately 4,000 drivers, who daily ferry about 150 truckloads of supplies to Afghanistan.
Late last year, the Taliban and other insurgent groups stepped up attacks on supply depots and convoys. In one week in December alone, militants torched and destroyed 300 supply-laden trucks and military vehicles parked in a Torkham depot. The upsurge in violence coincided with the militant Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami announcing that it would not allow NATO to use the Karachi-Khyber Pass route after mid-December, while Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud simultaneously vowed that ISAF military convoys would no longer be allowed to travel unhindered to Afghanistan.
On 20 February, the first NDN shipment of 100 20-foot containers destined for ISAF forces departed Riga on its month-long journey to Termez, Uzbekistan on the Afghan border. The Pentagon plans to raise transits rising eventually to 20-30 trainloads per week.
Speaking to a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing on 17 March, US Transportation Command head General Duncan McNabb said that 738 containers shipped through Latvia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan had reached Afghanistan, with 90 containers delivered to Kabul, adding that the Pentagon planned to ship about 100 containers per day to Afghanistan via the NDN.
Nor is transit all that Central Asia contributes to ISAF's logistics - approximately 60 percent of the U.S. military's daily fuel requirements come from Central-Asian refineries.
While the U.S. and other involved governments have been consistently allowing that the NDN only ships non-lethal military support material, during a 7 May presentation at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explicitly stated that the NDN in fact has been used to move military supplies for some time.
In response to the question about whether use of the NDN might reach "the level of types of supplies currently being transited through Pakistan to include armaments, or will it be only restricted to non-lethal materials" Lavrov replied, "The transit through Russia for the . ISAF through Russia has started long ago. It's only one year ago that we signed an agreement with NATO as an organization for non-lethal transit, but for many years lethal transit had been operating through Russia on the basis of our bilateral agreements with France, Germany, and recently the similar agreement with Spain was signed. .And by those very agreements it has provided for this transit - German, French or Spanish transit - not to be limited to their national contingents but the contingent of any other country participating in ISAF under the Security Council mandate." (Emphasis added.)
The importance of the NDN will only grow along with the U.S. troops' presence in Afghanistan, and despite the fondest wishes of necon hawks wishing to reignite the Cold War, force a major readjustment of Washington's attitudes towards Moscow if NDN convoys are not to get "stuck," to use Minister Lavrov's word. These will include Washington ceasing its relentless expansion of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia, serious negotiations to reduce nuclear arms and last but hardly least, the U.S.
abandoning its attempts to exclude Russia from pipelines designed to export Caspian oil.
While these all remain at the core of Washington's diplomatic relations with Russia, the day for treating the Russian Federation as having "lost' the Cold War is long gone, and the sooner that Washington begins to regard it as a potential partner, the better. Clinton can also leave her hectoring lectures to the Russians about human rights at home, as a country that continues to operate rendition flights, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and waterboard its prisoners has little to no moral authority.
Of course, if Washington wanted to exclude Russia from its Afghan effort and solve its Afghan resupply efforts it could open diplomatic relations with Iran and utilize its well-developed ports, roads and rail lines, but perhaps the Obama administration doesn't want to defeat the Taliban that much.
By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com