Russia's hard bargain over Afghanistan

Brian Stewart on Russia's tough demands to help in Afghanistan.

In 2000, a group of senior Canadian officers was summoned to the top floors of National Defence headquarters in Ottawa for what seemed to be a particularly far-fetched kind of war game.

Their orders were to study the globe and pinpoint the very worst destination on Earth to send a Canadian force. Headquarters wanted an intractable bundle of military and political problems to see what their planners could make of the situation.

Among the conditions would be fierce local resistance, unfriendly neighbouring countries, a harsh landscape and a logistical nightmare that had bedeviled would-be occupiers in the past.

Afghan men take a break near a destroyed Russian truck north of Kabul in February 2009, 20 years after the Red Army pulled out of Afghanistan in disgrace. (Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press)
  By a wide margin, the clear and dubious winner was Afghanistan.

Former commander of the army, Gen. Mike Jeffery, remembers the exercise as a warning: "We chose what we believed was the most demanding piece of terrain, most difficult to get to, most demanding to support strategically, most difficult to operate in, and guess where we were?"

At the time — this was before 9/11, remember — intervention in Afghanistan seemed remote.

A year later, however, following the attack on the Twin Towers, NATO plunged into famously isolated and rugged Afghanistan with forces that were demonstrably too small for the task of stabilizing that profoundly damaged mountain nation.

It was NATO's first combined-forces operation overseas and eight years later it remains locked in a grinding counter-insurgency against the Taliban that is as militarily frustrating as it is deadly.

Supply-side nightmare

From the beginning, the loose-knit NATO command, including its U.S. contingents, underestimated the staying power of the Taliban in their craggy redoubts in the east and in the south of the country where Canada's forces are now stationed.

They also failed to anticipate how Pakistan's North West Frontier Province would become an invulnerable sanctuary for indigenous Pashtun guerrillas, which make up the bulk of the Taliban's combat formations.

A U.S. soldier patrols the outskirts of Bagram, north of Kabul, in March 2009. At least 17,000 more U.S. soldiers have been ordered to Afghanistan to bolster the 38,000 already in the country. (Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press)

So far in this conflict, media attention has been concentrated on the combat operations against the Taliban as well as on the casualties caused by improvised roadside bombs.

Less note has been paid to Afghanistan as a logistical nightmare where every aspect of geography and climate works against the critical need to supply, feed and arm the 50,000 NATO and other foreign troops, along with 65,000 allied Afghan soldiers.

That is a difficult challenge under the best of conditions. But Afghanistan is a vast, landlocked nation that is a quarter larger than Iraq and roughly the same size as Germany, and it remains remarkably difficult to get around.

At its centre is a vast series of mostly trackless mountain ranges. The nation is tied together only by one national highway running around its edges, a modest two-lane strip of pavement that for generations has been the prime target of guerrillas, bandits and local warlords.

Death pass

Afghanistan is surrounded by Iran on the west, Pakistan to the east and south, and the three "stans" Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north. Even China gets a look-in along the northeast border. Further to the north, Russia remains a sombre shadow overhanging all.

To military planners and diplomats the need to placate Afghanistan's neighbours during this conflict has turned into an increasingly expensive struggle to keep basic supply lines functioning as the war escalates.

Over the past nine months, the logistical dilemma for NATO has grown to alarming proportions. Over 80 per cent of all supplies, including almost all fuel and heavy equipment, has to be brought in through Pakistan, along one of the most hazardous choke-points on Earth, the notorious Khyber Pass, which is now largely dominated by Taliban units and allied tribes.

Given the inability of the Pakistan government to exert security control in this frontier region, military and civilian convoys are now ambushed with growing frequency.

During February, a key supply route was disrupted by several attacks on bridges and roads in the Khyber Pass. An added uncertainty is the continued willingness of civilian transport drivers to operate in the face of increasing Taliban death threats.

Russia's 'help'

The growing vulnerability of this route has sent NATO scrambling to find safer alternatives down through the Russian Caucasus, across the Caspian Sea and into Afghanistan via the "Stans."

To achieve this northern route, Washington needs Moscow's approval and active support, which has only come, hesitatingly, and at a steeply rising diplomatic price.

Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign a $2 billion aid agreement from Moscow after which Bakiyev said he would be ending American use of a key airbase in his country. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Press Service/Associated Press)

Recently, the first NATO supply train has been permitted to rumble through Russian territory en route to Afghanistan. Its cargo enters Afghanistan from Uzbekistan, with future shipments expected to come via neighbouring Tajikistan as well.

These new routes are very welcome right now. But they will be hard pressed to handle the more than 5,000 extra containers a month that will be needed once President Barack Obama follows through with his pledge to send in 17,000 more U.S. troops this spring and summer.

At the moment, these northern routes seem able to handle fewer than 1,000 containers a month. But even this modest gain has been offset in part by the threatened loss of a functioning NATO airbase at Manas in Kyrgystan, used until now as an important transit point for troops.

Pushed by its benefactor, Moscow, which wanted to put pressure on the new Obama regime, Krygystan's parliament voted in February to shut down the base later this year.

Cold War politics

Logistical reality has forced the Obama White House to show immediate flexibility and overt good will towards Putin's Russia in order to get full Russian cooperation on supply.

Some attempt at improved U.S.-Russia relations was in the cards in any case, but the Kremlin knows how to drive a hard bargain.

Now, it appears willing to cooperate on condition that (a) it hears no more criticism of Russia's invasion of Georgia last summer; (b) the U.S. scraps the Bush administration plans for a missile defence program in nearby Poland; and (c) there is a clear indication the U.S. respects Russian concerns about its "near abroad" in Eastern Europe.

This is the price tag and now Pentagon and White House planners are likely looking askance at what Afghanistan has dragged all of NATO into.

A mission that was designed to be wrapped up within a year is now dependent for its very lifeblood on a mistrusted Kremlin inner circle and a little known trio of potentially unstable Central Asian neighbours to avoid the problem of an ambush-alley running through Pakistan.

All these difficulties might have been foreseen had military planners had more time to consider the Afghan invasion following 9/11.

But civilians throughout NATO were hungry for a tactical win in the new War on Terrorism and seemed not to have taken account of Napoleon's most famous dictum: "civilians talk tactics; professionals discuss logistics."