Suppliant for Supplies?

America’s supply routes to Afghanistan just suffered a huge blow. Will we have to negotiate with Iran and Russia to continue the war?

Within a matter of hours, the logistical network upon which President Obama's plans for Afghanistan rests has received two major shocks. The first has been the attacks in Pakistan, which destroyed the bridge fifteen miles west of Peshawar on the main supply route for NATO into Afghanistan and was followed up by an attack on a truck depot at Landikotal (in Khyber province) which destroyed eight vehicles. The second is the announcement in Moscow this week by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, that he would demand the closure of the American airbase at Manas, the only facility to which the United States has access in central Asia. If the Kyrgyz government follows through by formally terminating the lease agreement, the United States would have one hundred eighty days to withdraw of all its personnel and equipment.

While Bakiyev noted that growing domestic opposition to the U.S. presence in his country guided his decision, it is not accidental that he made his announcement after securing lucrative economic concessions from Russia. $180 million in Kyrgyz debt is being forgiven, and Bishkek will receive $150 million in financial aid from Russia as well as a low-interest stabilization loan of $2 billion to deal with the global financial crisis.

Iran is already capitalizing on the opportunity by offering use of its ports and road networks as an alternative for supplying international forces in Afghanistan. NATO's Supreme Allied Commander General John Craddock told reporters in Afghanistan that he does not oppose alliance members exploring this option to supply their forces in the country. It goes without saying, however, that if Iran becomes a major alternative route, it also becomes much harder to apply meaningful pressure on Tehran. The chair of the Expediency Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said as much on Tuesday and stressed that cooperation with Iran and Pakistan is the main "pivot" for resolving regional issues, a reality that the United States will have to come to terms with.

So, if achieving success in Afghanistan is one of the central organizing principles for the foreign policy of the Obama administration, how might it have to adjust its other foreign-policy preferences?

Russia seems to have a clear strategy: its bargaining chip of offering use of its territory to ship "nonlethal" supplies (food, fuel, medicine and nonmilitary personnel) as part of a Europe-to-Afghanistan supply chain-along with the possibility that military supplies and soldiers could be considered in the future-has now been enhanced by its leverage with Kyrgyzstan. Bakiyev's announcement sends a vivid signal that the Kremlin has the means to "persuade" Bishkek to change its decision-if it suits Russia. And Moscow has made no bones about what it wants-an end to NATO's eastward expansion. How vital is the "northern supply route" to NATO's and America's success in Afghanistan? Is halting NATO expansion worth the price? The Obama team will have to wrestle with this calculus-and it will also have to be able to make its case to skeptical European allies who seem more amenable to reaching some sort of accommodation with Russia that would effectively create a belt of "neutral" states between Russia and the West.

What we cannot rely on is the argument that Russia's interests are served by the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz government released a statement on Tuesday noting that most of the benchmarks that were set out when the United States requested use of the Manas airbase have been met (at least on paper). What this signals is that the revival of the Taliban, which is of such great concern to the United States, is less worrying for Russia and central Asia. The current Afghan regime has its weaknesses, but there remains a strong "buffer" in the form of the Northern Alliance containing and limiting the Taliban's influence and serving as a barrier between the Taliban-controlled regions and central Asia. So Moscow feels that it can bargain with the United States on Afghanistan as a result.

So what's on the table? Hope that the Pakistani supply routes can handle the increased traffic? Using cooperation with Iran on Afghanistan as an opening wedge for some sort of grand bargain? Try to jury-rig an alternative northern supply route by investing in reconstructing Georgian infrastructure and then offering generous incentives to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan?

It used to be said that "victuals" was the first half of what you needed to spell out "victory." This is no less true for Afghanistan.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.