US Search for Alternatives: Northern Distribution Network and the Afghan War

Shanthie Mariet D’Souzashanthie small
Visiting Research Fellow, ISAS

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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Iran: Foreign Policy Issues in Internal Turmoil

S. D. MuniMuni
Visiting Research Professor, ISAS

Iran is passing through serious internal turmoil precipitated by a power struggle between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the spiritual supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. This has been publicly reflected in the removal and reinstatements of ministers and high officials closer to the President by the supreme leader, as also the shifting of the president’s former supporters towards the supreme leader. In 2009, it was the supreme leader who backed Ahmadinejad in his presidential elections against serious charges of vote rigging by his then opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi. The latter represented secular forces within Iran. It seems that after his elections, Ahmadinejad moved in gradually to build his own independent secular power base, beyond the religious clergy but not without streaks of support and blessings from within the same clergy. The roots of the power struggle lies in a secular president’s challenge to the supreme authority of the religious leadership. This struggle is being waged on issues of corruption, inefficiency and personalities. But there is a strong under-current of nationalism in mobilisation of public support, particularly invoked by the President. The president is invoking broad based symbolism of Persian culture and civilisational eminence beyond the icons of religious and spiritual superiority. Interestingly, in this power struggle, chosen foreign policy issues have also been brought on the table.

Anti-Americanism is the core from where the foreign policy issues for internal nationalist mobilisation spring. In good measure, responsibility for this must rest with the American approach towards Iran which has been distorted by two factors. Firstly, the weakening of Iraq by Americans themselves as a result of their war against Saddam Hussein and secondly, promptings of the fear of Israel and Saudi Arabia that by emerging as a nuclear power, Iran would dominate not only the Persian Gulf but the entire West Asian politics. Accordingly, the US has moved strong sanctions against Iran to contain its nuclear aspirations. Ahmadinejad is therefore trying to break Iran’s isolation on the nuclear issue. The sanctions imposed by the US have also started biting into his domestic support structure. The President has carefully crafted his nuclear approach to emphasize his country’s right to access nuclear energy for civilian purposes and expose the discriminatory and unequal nature of the global and regional nuclear order. In the regional context, the acceptance of ‘Middle-East as a nuclear weapons’ free zone’ has been targeted by the NPT for 2012 under the US guidance to curb Iran’s nuclear aspirations, but Iran is using the same concept to build pressure on Israel, which is considered by all the West Asian countries as a non-declared nuclear weapon state. For this purpose, the Iranian President has been organising annual international conferences, inviting both the international scholars and heads of the governments and senior policy makers. Thus through his nuclear and Anti-American nationalism, Ahmadinejad is reinforcing his nationalist image, making it difficult for the supreme leader to carry out his threatened promise of sacking the President.

The question of the Arab spring constitutes a vibrant issue in Iran’s domestic politics. The President, while fighting against clergy is using this issue in ensuring that Iran does not follow the Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan way. His government is pushing policies that are against the rise of Islamic brotherhood in the Arab spring because prospects of growing Saudi Arabian influence are considerable in such a rise. The real challenge of regional dominance in West Asia may precipitate from the manner in which the issues of Arab spring settle down. If Ahmadinejad can find a grip over the intensifying ‘great game’ in West Asia precipitated by internal popular uprisings, he also, to a very large extent, would have gotten a handle to save his own domestic position and power.

Now President Ahmadinejad has opened another front, that of anti-terrorism, by inviting an international conference against terrorism (held April 25-26, 2011). Here also the emphasis is on Israeli terrorism and the policies of Western powers like the US and the UK, which have brought huge ‘injustice’ on the smaller countries in the name of fighting terrorism. The President has also offered help to smaller independent countries to fight against terrorism. Of interest in South Asia is the presence of the Presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan in this conference and Iran’s call to organise a summit level meeting of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan in Pakistan late this year to coordinate the efforts of three countries in their fights against terrorism. This is significant on the eve of the US drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. There have been internal tensions in Iran on the question of the US “war on terror” in the Afpak region. Iran is trying to cash in on the Pakistani and Afghan disenchantment against the US policies in this respect. Iran has also made dangerous counter-productive moves of extending anti-US support to the Afghan Taliban, much against the traditional Iranian policy of fighting against the Taliban during the 1990s by supporting the so-called northern alliance of non-Pushtoon forces within Afghanistan. It would indeed be a miracle if Iran’s initiative for putting together a regional front for managing Afghanistan in the absence (if at all!) of American presence takes any viable form, but the move needs careful monitoring in the interest of peace and stability in South Asia. In coalescing its efforts with Pakistan and Afghanistan on fighting terrorism, Iran can and perhaps will, invoke its now acquired status as a SAARC observer. In that context, the possibility of Tehran keeping its channels of diplomatic interaction opened with New Delhi also cannot be ruled out. Pakistan’s grant of Most Favoured Nations (MFN) status to India after decades of reservations, and slowly but gradually improving trade flows between Pakistan and Afghanistan can go a long way in facilitating the economic dimension of peace building in the Western segment of South Asia. This initiative will also help Ahmadinejad build his domestic image of emerging as a regional leader to tilt power scales in his struggle against the supreme leader.

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Indo-Iranian Relations: Can this relationship survive in the current international environment?

Mary E Stonaker
MEI, NUS, email:

As energy worries take centre stage around the world, foreign policy decisions are being influenced ever more by issues of energy security. The Indo-Iranian energy security issue is a pertinent example.

There exists a definite historical relationship between the peoples of the Indian subcontinent and Persia that has, despite many hiccups, progressed to a working relationship today. The question, however, lies in how functional that relationship is as the influence of other international players such as the United States strain the Indo-Iranian relationship. Energy security is a critical determinant of long-term Indo-Iranian ties in this respect.

There are many facets to energy security. The most prominent of these from an Indo-Iranian perspective appear to be nuclear energy and oil.

India’s outspoken criticism of nuclear inequality amongst countries (the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have nots’) causes India to appear conflicted when seeking exemption from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (2008, for civilian energy use) while voting for sanctions against Iran (2010). India prefers to allow the Iranian nuclear issues to remain in the realm of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, when India is required to vote into the Iranian nuclear issue, it tends to ally with Iran’s opponents, particularly the United States. India did just that in September 2009, voting against Iran at the IAEA in order to clinch a nuclear deal with the United States.

Oil trade between the two nations is a key reason why India tries to maintain a working relationship with Iran. For many decades now, India has relied on crude oil imports from, and refined oil exports to, Iran. After talks cooled in the past few years over an oil pipeline through Pakistan, the two countries began discussing an underwater pipeline to deliver India’s much needed oil supply. As an example to further the interdependency, Indian oil companies, ONGC Videsh Ltd and its partners Indian Oil Corp and Oil India Ltd announced plans to develop Iranian off-shore oil fields in 2009.

It appears as though energy security between India and Iran is the pivotal motivation for attempted cooperation on both sides. Despite external friends and foes, India and Iran will continue to return to each other as long as there are gains to be had and energy to be secured.

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