A dangerous new Afghan road opens

Posted in Afghanistan | 18-Sep-09 | Author: Derek Flood| Source: Asia Times

Afghan policemen block a road leading to the site of a blast outside a NATO military base in Kabul September 8, 2009. A suicide car bomber detonated his explosives outside a NATO military base at the international airport in the Afghan capital on Tuesday.

Increased insurgent activity in northern Afghanistan in recent months is likely to force the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to once again re-evaluate its and the United States' escalation of the war.

Recent events in Kunduz province due south of Tajikistan, culminating in an air strike on hijacked fuel tankers in which scores of people - including civilians - were killed and the subsequent kidnapping of a British-Irish journalist have brought the troubles in the north to the fore.

A similar but less-reported situation exists with an increased Taliban presence in Badghis province along the border with Turkmenistan.

South of the border with Uzbekistan lies volatile Balkh province. Here, governor Ustad Atta Mohammed Noor is threatening mass mobilization of his ethnic-Tajik constituency if Hamid Karzai is certified as president without further investigation of alleged fraud. Noor supports a runoff vote with Dr Abdullah Abdullah, with whom he is allied in opposition to Karzai.

A second round of voting will take place if Karzai's share of the vote - which currently stands at 54% - drops under 50%. With 10% of the ballots cast in the August 20 presidential polls being investigated, this is possible.

What is emerging is that Karzai's splitting of the anti-Soviet-era mujahideen groups is leading to a breakdown in social cohesion in the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and until recently relatively harmonious northern belt.

This region, which stretches from China in the east to Iran in the west, abuts the three authoritarian Central Asian states mentioned above whose attention is being sought by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama and his NATO allies. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan is particularly in demand for his country to be used for bases and as a transit route for supplies going to Afghanistan.

Since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, most insurgent activity and outright insurgent-controlled districts have been in the southeast in the Pashtun-majority provinces hugging the Durand Line that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan.

The troubles across the border, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have a strong presence, have forced the US and European military commanders to seek alternate routes of supply through a string of weak security regimes which themselves have varying degrees of turmoil. These range from war-torn Georgia to quasi-Stalinist Turkmenistan.

Pakistan has much to lose if NATO military supplies are largely diverted from transiting it's own tenuous territory. (About 80% of supplies currently use this route.)

From the southern port city of Karachi to storage terminals in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, to the Torkham border in the Khyber Pass, Pakistan has grown accustomed not only to the monetary infusion that the US and NATO member states provide, but its military and political establishment sees its alliance with NATO as a regional bulwark against Indian hegemony and also serves to undercut its much-despised rival's interests in Afghanistan.

If the Western military alliance is able to forge a genuinely long-term relationship with the Karimov regime, foregoing European member states' social, democratic and human-rights agendas, Pakistan stands to lose the most in the region. Under Benazir Bhutto's and Nawaz Sharif's tutelage in the 1990s, Pakistan put its money on the Afghan Taliban as an implement to forge Islamabad's place as a regional leader with tentacles reaching through Afghanistan all the way to Ashgabad, Tashkent, and to a lesser extent, post-civil war Dushanbe (though there Moscow and Tehran hold much more sway).

In Kunduz, local Taliban and allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighters threaten to split Balkh and Samangan provinces from the still-peaceful Takhar and the remote Badakhshan provinces on Kunduz's eastern flank.

NATO has been in a very precarious position of leverage with the Kremlin following Russia's military intervention in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia in the summer of 2008. The Western alliance is still torn between support of Georgia, a weak potential candidate state, and related competition in the greater Caucasus with Moscow versus cooperation deemed essential by all involved parties in stemming the spreading of violent Islam in Afghanistan.

While the United States is engaged in a jumbled mix of killing insurgents, armed nation-building and diplomacy with AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, Russia seeks to contain militancy inside Afghanistan and is engaging with NATO to a moderate degree in classic realpolitik.

Russia's motivation is to block the spread of militant Islam in its Central Asian client states and it is prepared to make concessions to Washington and Brussels to do so. Moscow is watching NATO's moves closely, encouraging it as a proxy force to contain the Taliban while remaining extremely wary of its designs in Georgia and Uzbekistan. Russia will tolerate NATO implementing a temporary surge in forces and a corresponding increase in supply lines, but in no way intends to allow the Western alliance to maintain a permanent presence in the Kremlin's sphere of influence.

The proposed central supply route circumvents both Pakistan and the Russian Federation and would consist of a time-consuming shipment of supplies from Georgia's Black Sea coast to Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea to the port of Turkmenbashi and south through the Karakum desert to Afghanistan's far northwest.

This plan seemed feasible for all of its inherent geopolitical complications and variables (both Georgia and Azerbaijan do not control all of the their territory), but now the Taliban are quite active in destitute Badghis province. This disrupts reconstruction not only for the province but separates prosperous, Iranian-influenced Herat from Abdul Rashid Dostum's remotely controlled Jowzjan province and the northern hub of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The more northern route proposed would bring NATO supplies from the South Caucasus across the Caspian and down through Nursultan Nazarbayev's Kazakhstan and then through Uzbekistan.
So while the Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) and criminal networks are threatening the Indus route, now the Afghan Taliban, the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin and to a much lesser degree the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are in a strategic position to threaten both the proposed northern and central routes.

If either of the multi-faceted new supply routes is to become fully operational, military and economic interests in Pakistan stand to lose and the Commonwealth of Independent States strongmen will have much to gain, including the glossing over of their human-rights records by European and American activists and an infusion of much-needed cash into their moribund, centralized economies.

Also being proposed is a super northern route beginning with NATO member states in the Baltics and transiting the Russian Federation itself on down through Central Asia and coalescing in the northern node of Mazar-e-Sharif. If money is being spent and made in Russia's "near abroad" by Western governments, Moscow may not be content to sit idly by while its former satellites become enriched by NATO cooperation.

Russia also does not seek to allow any move that would further strengthen Georgia, which both of the proposed trans-Caucasus routes may indeed do. Putin may deem it in his nation's interests to control a part of the trans-shipment action. For NATO planners of these new route networks, diversification may be the first rule of further investment in the region. Political fickleness or another outbreak of war in either the Caucasus or the Pamir region may close one route down and cause the alliance to depend much more on another. Routes may open and close in fits and starts as the geopolitical environment shifts under NATO's feet. The name of new NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen's game will likely be agility.

Karzai's divisive campaign dealings in northern Afghanistan have further sown the seeds for discontent. Now, among virtually all of the mujahideen parties, there exist important, nuanced splits that Karzai has sought to deepen to create allies in all corners of the country while shredding the once stable, delicate social order of the north.

The division of loyalties within the Jamiat-e-Islami over the August election could yet yield dire consequences, with particular respect to Balkh, Samangan and Takhar provinces. Kunduz, with its disenfranchised Pashtun population and history of Pakistani interference up until the infamously alleged 2001 Kunduz airlift [1], is now a corridor of chaos leading up to the Tajikistan border and threatening the planned rerouting of NATO supplies.

Pakistan finds itself in a lose-lose situation; it cannot sufficiently protect NATO equipment traveling northward from Karachi, while Islamabad does not want to lose the income generated from such mass transshipment to Uzbekistan or any other regional peer competitor. Nor does Pakistan want to lose prestige as a specially designated non-NATO ally, which status it believes may help to act as a buffer from any Indian aggression.

The situation in Badghis province, while theoretically less dire than German-patrolled Kunduz, is deteriorating. Along the Turkmen border, at the mouth of the proposed central re-supply route, a source in Kabul told Asia Times Online that Spanish troops there were engaged in a loose, temporary pre-election "truce" with local Taliban elements.

After the fall of the Jose Maria Aznar government in Spain following the Madrid bombings in 2004 and the subsequent withdrawal of Spanish troops from the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq, Madrid is highly risk-averse to troop casualties. Spain's lack of domestic political fortitude could act as a de facto force multiplier for the Taliban congregating in Badghis' Bala Murghab district.

The Taliban reportedly vowed, via a group of moderating elders, not to stage attacks on election-related personalities or facilities in Afghanistan's poorest province as long as NATO troops were not visible during the electoral process. The socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero government is treading lightly in its zones of influence in northwestern Afghanistan.

Spain may yet send several hundred additional soldiers in a bid to curry favor with the Obama administration and has been engaging the Taliban of late. This gap in security in Badghis will have to likely be filled by an infusion of additional US troops. The same formula of supplementary US troops may be recommended for the now embattled German Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kunduz.

The expansion of war around Afghanistan's ragged periphery forms a geographical ring encircling the still tranquil, isolated, Iranian-supported Harzarajat region of central Afghanistan. The Harzarajat and its capital Bamiyan - famed for the giant buddhas the Taliban destroyed there in 2001 - along with the remote Wakhan corridor along the Afghan-Chinese border are now among the last places in the country not infected by either ongoing or recently renewed Taliban insurgency.

Until 2009, most of the American-led war effort was relegated to the Pashtun-majority south and east; the diverse northern provinces with Pashtun minorities remained quiet and prosperous while developing legal and illicit trade from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

A new Taliban strategy, possibly backed by Pakistan, according to a former Afghan government official who spoke to Asia Times Online, suggests diverting the war from the media-saturated fights around places like Lashkar Gah in Helmand and the notorious Korengal Valley in Kunar adjacent the Durand Line to regions far from removed from the Pakistani frontier.

The Taliban and their allies disrupting the vital peace south of the Amu Darya River is thus creating a more complex strategic environment for leaders like top US military commander General David Petraeus and the chief man in Kabul, General Stanley McChrystal.

With the war no longer confined to rural Pashtunistan, simply choreographing new supply routes to Western forces may not be enough. Rather than cozying up to opportunistic regional political leaders, the US and NATO will need a new, more robust anti-Taliban strategy rather than worrying about how to more safely deliver more equipment to further fuel the surge into Afghanistan.

1. Kunduz was the last major city held by the Taliban before its fall to US-backed Afghan Northern Alliance forces on November 26, 2001. The siege of Kunduz lasted two weeks, which allowed over 1,000 people, including al-Qaeda, Taliban and Pakistani army officers to be safely airlifted into Pakistan in the so-called "airlift of evil". Wikipedia

Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.