Commentary

America’s Imperiled Military Lifeline through Pakistan

After months of increased attacks on supply trucks, U.S. and NATO officials are scrambling for alternative routes to sustain its forces in land-locked Afghanistan. Today, three-quarters of NATO provisions bound for Afghanistan must travel through the deteriorating security environment in neighboring Pakistan. If U.S. and NATO leaders intend to establish new routes for the mission, they will have to make concessions to surrounding countries including Iran and Russia.

Militants operating in and around the Pakistani tribal region of Khyber Agency have repeatedly hijacked supply vehicles entering Afghanistan. Earlier this month, gunmen torched more than 160 vehicles near the Pakistani border city of Peshawar, the biggest assault yet on the vital military supply line. Last March, dozens of oil tankers were attacked in the tribal town of Landi Kotal. If the Pakistani supply routes are severed, Washington’s options are not good.

Relying on providing enough supplies through the air using planes off of aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean is not realistic. That is true even with the current troop levels in Afghanistan, much less with the 20,000 to 30,000 additional forces earmarked for deployment in 2009.

The most convenient and sufficient alternate route would be through Iran, which has linguistic, geographic and historical ties to Afghanistan. Although the interests of Tehran and Washington have occasionally overlapped, most recently when Iran quietly supported America’s effort to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan, ongoing U.S. efforts to isolate Iran make that option infeasible.

If that situation were to change, Washington would have to be willing to negotiate with Tehran on a wide range of issues, including making concessions regarding Iran’s future influence in Iraq.

Another option would be a “northern corridor” through Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan, such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. All of those governments have indicated some willingness to cooperate. The Central Asia alternative, though, requires at least quiet support from Russia. None of these nations want to risk Moscow’s wrath by unilaterally collaborating with the United States.

For the time being, the U.S. and NATO will have to rely on Pakistan.”

Russia has with some reluctance allowed NATO to provide limited logistical shipments using the northern route. But the Kremlin’s willingness to endorse more ambitious supply line agreements is highly uncertain, especially given the deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington.

A third route under consideration would be a “central corridor,” moving supplies through Georgia and Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, through Turkmenistan and into Afghanistan. But in the aftermath of Russia’s war with Georgia last August, Moscow is likely to demand major concessions for allowing the passage of military supplies through its geopolitical back yard. Indeed, Moscow would probably be even more wary of a NATO logistical presence in this region than in Central Asia. Concessions demanded may include the postponement of NATO expansion or an agreement to halt the proposed installation of ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.

For the time being, the U.S. and NATO will have to rely on Pakistan. America’s foreign policy in the region remains hostage to events in that increasingly unstable country. Washington would be wise to take steps immediately to repair relations with either Tehran or Moscow if it wishes to have another feasible option for sustaining the Afghanistan mission.

Stemming the rising tide of violence in Afghanistan is crucial to America’s “war on terror.” Success requires the ability to supply U.S. and NATO forces in that country, which in turn, requires the wisdom to engage in effective diplomacy with key powers, especially Iran and Russia.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute. Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.