Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Afghanistan: Strategic Options before the US

In my last blog entry, I had outlined how Russia is playing a high-stakes, long-term, strategic poker to regain its former dominance and glory. Today, I examine a few history lessons relating to war; and in the light of Russia's game, and also because of lack of a coherent long term US foreign policy, now that US involvement in Iraq and Libya has ended, I attempt to explain how America is painting itself into a strategic corner, as far as the major remaining theatre of war, Afghanistan, is concerned.
History has always shown that supply lines are at the root of war strategy. If supply lines are closed, the army that has advanced becomes isolated and vulnerable. For this same reason, access to sea ports that make possible cheap logistics via sea have always been considered strategically important. Also, physical features like lakes, seas, rivers and mountain ranges often form national borders that act as natural fortifications or buffer zones.
History is replete with instances where supply lines, ports and geographic features like narrow straits that control access, have played a big role. Control of the narrow Strait of Istanbul (aka Bosphorus Strait), connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea has been the prize at stake in more than one war (including WW-1's Battle of Gallipoli), as the Suez Canal has been in the 1960s. At Dunkirk in WW-2, breaking the isolation and seige was at the heart of the evacuation by Allied forces. Again, the German army was repulsed in Russia towards the end of WW-2 by the “scorched earth” strategy–the retreating Russians left behind nothing that the enemy could use–no buildings (burnt/ razed), no crops (burnt), and no food or water (poisoned wells). The long, thin supply line was constantly broken by Russian guerillas, and to make matters worse, the winter of '41-42 was the severest in a long time. Soldiers froze to death in their sleep; diesel froze in fuel tanks; there were severe food shortages due to the scorched earth policy. This put such a severe strain on the logistics of supporting an advancing army that the Nazis eventually capitulated.

The above references to supply lines brings us to why Russia's strategic gameplan has attained even more serious geo-political overtones: supply lines to Afghanistan, an important theatre of war, where the US and NATO forces are deeply involved, have become vulnerable. Pakistan, in anger over killing of 24 of its soldiers at an Afghan border checkpost, has closed two US supply lines to Afghanistan: via Torkham (Khyber Pass) in the north, and via Chaman in the south. These were the cheapest and easiest supply lines, though risky because of risks of ambushes to the convoys. A few years back, to reduce dependence on the route through Pakistan, the US developed the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN) project. It was hoped that the NDN would be less subject to armed attacks, delays, and pilferage that have hampered movement of goods along the Karachi-Peshawar route. In setting up the NDN, the US must have expended considerable diplomatic capital in nudging and getting co-operation from several CIS states involved, and above all, from Russia. An attempt to get China and India to partly fund the NDN because of potential benefits to their economies was a non-starter. This eventually allowed multiple alternative supply lines to be established, albeit a bit costlier (about 250% of the Karachi-Peshawar route), into Afghanistan from the North. Why multiple? Because the sole customer of these routes was the US/NATO, and having multiple options was thought to offer better bargaining leverge to the US. But as we will see in detail below, each NDN route is an uneasy option for the US, especially after Pakistan has shut its doors to NATO and US.

  • The best route for NATO/ US forces to send supplies to Afghanistan is the route from the Arabian Sea (Karachi, Pakistan) to Afghanistan via Peshawar, Chaman and Torkham on the Af-Pak border. This is short, relatively easily motorable, and access to Pakistan via Arabian Sea is relatively easy for the US and its allies, thanks to its military bases in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Even this route has pushed the cost of gasoline from $3 per gallon in the US to $400 per gallon delivered at the forward positions in Afghanistan. When convoys are ambushed, the costs are said to go up to $800 per gallon!
  • The second route (called NDN North), is the next most viable route (because a large portion uses Soviet-era railway lines), starts in Riga, Latvia along the Baltic Sea, and goes through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan before entering Afghanistan. While Latvia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan may sympathise with the US rather than with Russia, it is of no avail, because Russia can shut that route overnight. Moreover, Latvia is 100% dependent on Russia for gas; and the other two have signed long term gas exploration and supply treaties with Russia. Hence, if Russia is angered, this route will close.
  • The third route (bypassing Russia, called NDN South) is from Poti, Georgia, along the Black Sea via Baku, Azerbaijan, crossing the Caspian Sea by ferries, to Aqtau in Kazakhstan and thereafter, through Uzbekistan, on to Afghanistan. Turkmenistan is not yet an option as its Government has not granted overland transit permission for non-lethal supplies, but only for humanitarian aid supplies headed for Afghanistan. This too is uncomfortable strategically, because Russia, if angered, can easily block access to Poti, Georgia in a war-like scenario. It can also lean on Kazakhstan and create trouble for its Government through multiple levers (not discussed here). So this route too, like the second route, is feasible only when Russia is in good humour, though it bypasses Russia entirely. It is uncomfortable logistically, because it means that consignments change over from ship to road to ferries and back to road transport. Plus, it goes through two CIS countries (Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan) where the overhang of Russian influence is still heavy. We cannot also ignore the frequent water-sharing disputes between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan resulting in Uzbek blockades of traffic into Tajikistan lasting for weeks on end, sometimes.

  • The fourth route (called the KKT route), bypasses Georgia, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan but goes through Russia, ( :-) Russia keeps popping up like a bad coin!), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
  • The final route, and the most expensive, to be utilised only if other routes are not sufficient, or in case of life and death, is by air costing approximately $7 per pound of supplies – either over Russian and multiple CIS countries' airspace from Europe over the Black Sea or through Pakistani airspace. Now, any of these countries could deny access to US supply airplanes. Cheapest would be over Pakistani airspace, but this route is currently closed. The US's air base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan is also subject to Russian influence.  

So the conclusion is that the US has very few options in Afghanistan, and a great deal of hope that Pakistan will eventually be prevailed upon to swallow their anger against the US. Just a few days after Pakistan closed US and NATO supply lines to Afghanistan, Russia also threatened to close the NDN North in partial retaliation of the US's attempts to place ballistic missiles in Poland and other countries bordering Russia. They have also threatened to place short range missiles in Kaliningrad, aimed at specific targets in Europe. This is aimed at the most vulnerable spot in the US's Afghan strategy, at the worst possible time for the US. It is thus clear that Russia is more than willing to use the NDN as a diplomatic bargaining chip. Putin has signalled this loud and clear by lowering the diplomatic temper with the US several notches by accusing them of meddling in Russia's internal politics, in the context of post-election anti-Putin protests in Russia (some papers have called this Russia's “Tahrir” moment). If the US is actually doing what Putin is alleging, they are playing dangerous, high-stakes diplomatic poker. Russia, however, knows that if Pakistan changes its mind, or if the US retreats from Afghanistan, the NDN card will no longer work.
While it is some more time before things turn dire, if Pakistan does not make a U-turn from its current diplomatic position vis-à-vis the US and NATO, the options before the US are basically two; and both are “lame-duck” options that can diminish the US standing in the world considerably:
  • Eat diplomatic crow dished out by Russia to keep the most viable NDN routes open as long as they remain involved in Afghanistan; or
  • Completely retreat from Afghanistan well before the US Presidential election in Dec, 2012, like they have done recently in Iraq under cover of darkness and surprise. This is the most likely scenario. While the Obama administration spin doctors may project it politically as a decision to withdraw voluntarily (like they are projecting the Iraqi withdrawal), this will actually be projected by Pakistan and the Taliban, and seen and believed by much of the Arab/ Muslim world as a humiliating forced retreat arising out of defeat.
Currently no one in the US administration is talking about what happens if Pakistan sticks to its guns long enough. Everyone is cynical enough to believe that Pakistan will change its tune. But to understand the probability of this happening, note that for the first time, in Pakistan, the fundamentalists, the army and the politicians (even the opposition) are on one side. It will take great courage for any of these groupings to change their tune vis-a-vis the US radically. Expecting this to happen in some time is the equivalent of running a war and putting the lives of 140,000 armed forces personnel plus those of countless contract employees working in Afghanistan, to support the US and NATO fight against the Taliban, at stake on the basis of blind hope and faith, not hard-headed strategy and tactics. Putin's recent uncharacteristically belligerent diatribe against Hillary Clinton, John McCain and the US's meddling in internal politics of Russia (meaning the protests about the recent elections being unfair etc.) is as clear an indication as any that Russia is gearing up to extract a heavy diplomatic and political price from the US for keeping the NDN open. Come winter, and Russia dons its hardest negotiating hat in Ukraine; now they will do it with the US too. 
(Maps are from Google Earth (TM))

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