The Afghan Trap

January 26, 2009 Topic: Security Region: Central AsiaEurasia Tags: War In Afghanistan

The Afghan Trap

What’s best for our interests in Afghanistan could conflict with other U.S. strategies to isolate Iran and put pressure on Russia.

One of the things President Obama is discovering and will discover over the next several weeks is the gap between policy conception and policy implementation. As former-Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Blackwill observed on these pages four years ago, "In policymaking, the White House can say what it wishes conceptually, but this must be translated into specific policies. Implementation is the orphan of public policy inquiry."

Obama has outlined an ambitious agenda for Afghanistan. The problem, however, is that no problem exists in isolation. Let's just take two complications on Afghanistan.

We want to encourage economic growth and development in the country. On Thursday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and India's Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee officially opened a new highway that links the Afghan town of Delaram in the southwestern province of Nimroz with the Iranian border town of Zaranj-which in turn connects to the port of Chabahar. India plans to use this new communications link to trade with Afghanistan (and with central Asia beyond). It is also a boon to the Afghan economy. It is a definite plus for any strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan-but it comes at a cost: India's actions weaken U.S. efforts to economically isolate Iran and pressure it over its nuclear program and support for terrorism. Conversely, any American action to shut this port and road link down would have adverse economic consequences for Afghanistan and complicate efforts to win away the local population from extremist elements.

We also want to deploy additional military forces into the country. Yet, the principal supply route for U.S. and NATO forces via Pakistan remains vulnerable to attack and disruption. On the same day as Karzai and Mukherjee were dedicating the new Delaram-Zaranj highway (which the United States is not in any position to use as an alternate route), Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, put the outlines of a deal on the table: if NATO restores full contacts with Russia severed after the fall 2008 Caucasus war, Russia would facilitate the "full transport" of NATO's nonmilitary cargoes across Russian territory to central Asia and thence into Afghanistan. The more sensitive issue of allowing the transit of military equipment might also be on the table. Yet is this a step the new administration could take-especially after Russia's recent spats with Georgia and Ukraine?

The trap the new president must avoid is assuming that Iran or Russia will accommodate the United States on Afghanistan because our experts assure him that "it is in their interests too"-because creating a situation in that country that Tehran or Moscow can live with is not equated with making the United States successful.

One would think that based on what he has said about the importance of Afghanistan, the calculus of improving the odds of success would lead him and his team to ignore Afghanistan's use of Iran as its outlet to the world (and India's own support of that project) and to restore the NATO-Russia relationship not as any reward to Moscow but because it serves U.S. strategic interests to have a new secure transport route into Afghanistan. But it is just as easy for the first to become a roadblock and the second to be stalled because they conflict with other policy objectives vis-à-vis Iran and Russia.

So we shall soon see how President Obama sets foreign-policy priorities and how they are conveyed through the apparatus.


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 in this essay are entirely his own.