A lot appears to be undergoing transformation in the war in Afghanistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Recent reports have referred to a serious bid by the US to expand its supply routes through Central Asian states for the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, as an alternative to the route through Pakistan, which remains problematic. Americans are obviously preparing for the eventuality of a complete denial of transit rights by Pakistan, prompted by its desire of satisfying its bruised ego, which will suddenly put the forces in Afghanistan in dire straits, bereft of critical supplies.
Pakistan used the transit route as a bargaining chip in September 2010 by sealing off a major crossing into Afghanistan. The insurgents took advantage of the logjam of hundreds of supply trucks and fuel tankers on the roads by launching few rockets and destroying dozens of the stranded vehicles.
Principally two Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – lie on the existing one-way supply route – a patchwork of rail and land transport ways – the US uses from Europe via Central Asia to Afghanistan. They count for 40 per cent of the supply of non-lethal items (food, tents, blankets and construction material) currently. The plan is to augment it to 75 per cent. The challenges for the US are twin – firstly, to negotiate an expanded supply agreement and secondly, to make the route all inclusive allowing the supply of non-lethal as well as lethal items, just like the route through Pakistan. All this obviously will necessitate some diplomacy and lots of money.
Muslim majority Kazakhstan is the least of American problems. Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhs follow a pragmatic policy of balancing the country’s relations between Russia and the US. Post 9/11, Kazakhstan granted over flight rights and the use of airbases to US and coalition forces. It signed a five-year military cooperation agreement with the US, which has been since extended till 2012. However, of late the approval given by the Kazakh majlis (lower chamber of parliament) to send four officers on six-month missions to Afghanistan, has been overturned by its upper chamber, the Senate, citing popular mood against such a step. The US will have to push this country to shed its minor inhibitions and allow not only an expansion of the supply line but the transportation of lethal items as well.
Similarly, Uzbekistan, sharing a strategic 137 kilometre long border with Afghanistan, maintains good working relations with the US. But to negotiate an expanded agreement with this country, the Obama administration will have to ignore the allegations of widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime of President Islam Karimov. Of late, US intelligence reports have cautioned against terrorist attacks or localised civil disturbance in the country. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Al Qaeda are active in the Uzbekistan, which will necessitate dedicated security deployment to guarantee an undisturbed and expanded supply route.
By passing Uzbekistan is not an option, for it requires negotiation with two additional countries – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, neither of whom is less authoritarian than the others. Further, a route through these two countries will lengthen the supply route substantially, adding to the already high transportation costs.
For obvious reasons, the US has very little choice. According to the Wikileaks, China has called off its cooperation to be a part of the supply route to Afghanistan. Iran is out of the US consideration for obvious reasons. Even though the US will likely find a way to manage its relations with Pakistan, prudence demands keeping an emergency plan open. Having an option always helps.
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