Russia or the South Caucasus: Options for NATO and the United States to Supply Forces in Afghanistan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 239

The incoming U.S. Administration and (less credibly) NATO declare their intention to augment forces and escalate combat in Afghanistan. At the same time, however, security risks have reached unacceptable levels on the route for military and civilian supplies into Afghanistan via Pakistan. The Pakistan route carries nearly 80 percent of the total supplies to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Apparently surprised by the sudden deterioration there, the United States and NATO are seeking alternative routes, not to replace the Pakistan route, but to reduce their reliance on it, diversify their options, and spread the security and political risks.

Given the U.S. intention to “surge” in Afghanistan (the wisdom of which is coming under debate on both sides of the Atlantic), Washington has apparently decided to increase its reliance on the supply route from Europe via the South Caucasus and Turkmenistan for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Georgia and Azerbaijan offered full access and passage rights for U.S. and NATO forces from the outset of their operations in Afghanistan. The Pentagon also made an agreement with Turkmenistan at that time. Thus far, however, the allies have only made limited use of the South Caucasus route.

This option offers the advantage not only of physical safety but also of immunity to Russian political manipulation. Moreover, it adds to the strategic rationale for supporting Georgia’s economic, political, and military consolidation and Azerbaijan’s national success as a pro-Western, energy producing and transiting country. According to U.S. media reports, the Pentagon is rapidly developing plans for a significant increase in the use of the South Caucasus route to supply its forces in Afghanistan (Washington Post, November 18).

NATO, however, seems to have opted for transit by railroad and highway via Russia (with planned continuation through Central Asia) for the NATO-led International Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). According to the alliance’s special envoy for the Caucasus and Central Asia, Robert Simmons, “emphasis is made on the route we agreed upon with the Russian delegation in Bucharest [at the NATO summit]. It will allow for freight traffic to the international contingent in Afghanistan via Russia” and the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. To that end, NATO seems eager for a Russian invitation to Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to go to Moscow: “It will take an invitation from the Russian government [but] we have not received any. We hope that the visit to Moscow will take place before long,” Simmons said in a Russian press interview (Interfax, December 8; Vremya Novostei, December 9).

Unwittingly, NATO (or some of the most influential West European governments within it) are bolstering Moscow’s confidence that NATO needs Russia and can therefore be pressured into tradeoffs, to Moscow’s advantage and at third parties’ expense. NATO leaders are probably determined to resist such tradeoffs, but their constant public quest for Russian support and understanding can only generate more Russian pressure on them.

The alliance briefly suspended political and military contacts with Russia on August 19 in response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia. That and other elements of NATO’s response (or lack thereof) looked so feeble as to invite scornful comments from friends and foes alike (see EDM, August 20, 28). Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, proffered his quotidian dose of insult to the alliance: after the suspension decision, Rogozin said, European NATO officials are “whispering in our [Russian] ears: But you are not going to cut off our supply route to Afghanistan, are you?” (Interfax, August 21).

As Moscow had expected, NATO’s suspension of contacts was short-lived. The Alliance announced a gradual, selective resumption of relations with Russia on December 3, and the gradualness apparently allows a visit to Moscow as soon as possible.

Russian officials from Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov on down routinely declare that NATO needs Russia more than Russia needs NATO. The situation in Afghanistan is a major factor behind this calculation. Consequently Moscow advances its own terms for resumption of relations with NATO. According to Lavrov, Russia seeks a boost to its role in the NATO-Russia Council (implying some kind of joint decision-making on some issues), censuring Georgian “aggression,” tacit abandonment of NATO enlargement, renunciation of the anti-missile shield in Central Europe, discussions on President Dmitry Medvedev’s “European security” proposals (which would marginalize NATO), and some form of recognition of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (Interfax, December 13, 15).

Moscow will not press for dramatic concessions across the front but rather for piecemeal gains wherever possible, in return for doling out “cooperation” with NATO on issues deemed pressing by the alliance. The Russians will almost certainly seek to extract a price from NATO on those issues, in return for limited Russian cooperation on transit to Afghanistan. During the last few years, Russia has allowed Germany and a few other Russia-friendly countries to transport some supplies to Afghanistan via Russia under bilateral arrangements. Now, however, NATO is collectively asking Russia for such logistical support.

Thus far the U.S. and NATO have moved most of the supplies by cargo ships to Pakistan, unloading the military supplies in Karachi for transshipment on truck convoys and haulage to Afghanistan. The lion’s share flows through the Khyber Pass and a small part via Quetta to Kandahar. The Pakistan solution is relatively cost-effective, thanks to the maritime shipping to Karachi; but it turns out to be an insecure solution on land; and even its cost-effectiveness becomes dubious when rising costs of security, the cost of delays, and the losses of materiel are factored in.

Pakistani transport companies have become reluctant or are even refusing to haul vital supplies to NATO and U.S. forces because of mounting attacks on trailer truck convoys along the main route. Pakistani Frontier Corps troops recently began escorting convoys to protect them from ambushes, but the problem has worsened since summer. A series of insurgent raids on logistical bases in Pakistan near Peshawar and on convoys moving toward the Khyber Pass have resulted in destruction of those bases, with hundreds of loaded trucks and scores of Humvees burned or captured on Pakistani territory. Other convoys have been hijacked and looted on Afghan territory. In one case, helicopters were reported to have been captured by insurgents. In some cases, substantial bribes must be paid to local Taliban or gangster groups to “protect” the convoys. In the second week of December alone, at least 260 vehicles were burned in two attacks just in Pakistan; and approximately 1,000 trucks are stalled on the Pakistan-Afghan border at this moment (AP, December 7, 12; The Times, December 11, 15).

This situation necessitates an urgent shift to alternative routes. According to General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the problems in Pakistan have brought “new urgency” to using alternative supply routes to Afghanistan via Central Asia (New York Times, December 15). The South Caucasus is clearly the lowest-risk option, while the Russian option is fraught with high political and ultimately strategic risks.