Thursday, 5 July 2012

Supply route resolution reveals geopolitical realities in Central Asia

After more than seven months, ISAF supply trucks are finally moving through Pakistan. Intense talks over the past few weeks have encouraged a significant mending of U.S – Pakistan relations. Both governments were nursing bruised egos but the realities of geopolitics have forced a deal to reopen the Pakistan supply routes.

U.S.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced July 3 that ground supply routes through Pakistan into Afghanistan are reopening again. Clinton expressed regrets for the incident in Salalah, Pakistan, in November of 2011 that resulted in the deaths of Pakistani soldiers, and said the United States is committed to working with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

The reopening of the Pakistan transit routes is certainly good news for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Thousands of supply trucks have been marooned on Pakistani roads, in places blocking them completely, as they wait for the borders to open again. In the past, these stationary vehicles have been a tempting target for militants, so being on the move again will please their drivers.

The extraordinary length of time between the closure and the reopening has been filled with high-level talks. These discussions were being hindered by two main issues: Pakistan’s position on the per-container charges of shipping supplies across the border and the U.S. refusal to issue an apology for the November incident. Both of these appear to have been resolved.

While both governments have been antagonistic since before the end of last year, and the supply route had been temporarily closed before, the November closure was the lowest diplomatic point in years. There has been some resolved tension over transit fees, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar assured Hillary Clinton that the transit fees would be waived in the interest of peace and security in the region. This is being touted as a sign that the two countries are finding common goals once again and relations are improving.

Yet it was only on June 21 that U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said in a speech that past displays of regret over the November incident were enough and that the time for apologies was over. At the time, Panetta’s words were a rare overt signal that U.S. patience with Pakistan was wearing thin. The official talks were going nowhere and U.S. and ISAF forces were using longer and far more expensive options for logistics.

This is what makes Washington’s handing of the situation so intriguing. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s outright apology on Tuesday, a complete reversal on their previous position, indicates just how important flexibility in negotiation has become for both governments. Flexibility in Central Asia was very much a one way street for almost a decade. The United States, caught in an unprepared position after 9/11, needed Pakistan to bend to almost every political and military request it made. Pakistan spent over ten years essentially being a middle-man for U.S. logistics. A certain amount of frustration boiled over in November when Islamabad showed Washington just how strong its hand really is, forcing the war effort to drastically rearrange their logistics and adding zeroes to their monthly bill.

The deaths at the Pakistani checkpoint were something of a final-straw for Islamabad. NATO aircraft strafed the compound killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. And in response, Islamabad moved to close the transit route and demanded that the United States cease operations from the Shamsi Air Base, which the United States has used to launch covert unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes. Via skilful diplomatic manoeuvring the UAV strikes have continued and Pakistan is still begrudgingly allowing tarmac space for those machines, but it has only increased the tension between the countries.

UAV missions are a precise and cheap method of hunting militants in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Northern provinces. U.S. President Barack Obama has ramped up the use of drones in the international fight against Islamic militants, drawing the anger from the local Pakistani villagers and, by extension, Islamabad. While those drones are a sufficient option for U.S. forces to target militants, no amount of accuracy can totally discount the inclusion of innocent people in missile strikes.

This is because militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan commonly travel between villages with non-combatants either as learned safety against expected strikes or as part of traditional custom. The escalating deaths of these innocent Pakistanis have made U.S. combat operations extremely unpopular with Islamabad. And as the government in Pakistan is now democratically elected, the officials needed to respond adequately to display their control over the situation. Closing the transit routes was a drastic but necessary response to what they deem as the unforgivable and escalating spill-over of battle into Pakistan from Afghanistan. 

Washington made it clear to Pakistan that U.S. military operations were going to continue inside their country as long as Islamabad was unable (or unwilling) to plug the border and stem the flow of militants to Afghanistan.  Obama has called for Islamabad to recognise that there is only one, not two, types of Taliban militants.

Pakistan understands that once Western forces depart Afghanistan in 2014, it will be left with the consequences in its backyard. Therefore Islamabad is strategically fostering tight relationships with elements of what it calls the “good” Taliban (militants that originate in Pakistan that fight in Afghanistan) but is conducting military operations against the “bad” Taliban (those militants launching attacks on Pakistan). Understandably, given the nature of the Afghan war, the U.S. doesn’t agree with this differentiation and would prefer if Islamabad dealt militarily with both. This is the fundamental base of distrust between Washington and Islamabad today.

The geopolitical situation in Central Asia will be critical to control once Western troops leave. Not for the United States though. From Washington’s perspective it doesn’t matter what type of government is in Kabul or Islamabad, so long as those countries do not breed more international terrorists. Instead, it is Pakistan that must deal with the long-term condition of Afghanistan. Islamabad needs the U.S. to finish their operations in Afghanistan because the sooner they are gone, the sooner they can subsume Kabul into their orbit once more and the sooner Afghanistan will hopefully cease to be a problem.

As for the supply routes, while the Pakistan ground supply routes were closed, ISAF and U.S. forces were receiving their everyday supplies via an overland path known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). 

The NDN has various courses, though the main artery travels through Russia down into Central Asia. The length of this route makes it unstable. Traveling through former Soviet States such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Russia itself introduces complex political considerations, any one of which could jeopardise the entire network. It is a true example of diplomacy indeed just how long this supply route has managed to stay open.

The NDN was adding an extra US$100 million per month to the Afghanistan war budget. The extraordinary costs of bringing supplies to Afghanistan were a huge boost for the Former Soviet Union countries, and the U.S has developed some lasting ties in those nations as a result. Many of the Central Asian states are becoming more important geopolitically and good relations in the present will assist the United States in the future.

Reopening the Pakistani route will drop the costs of waging war in Afghanistan, and facilitate a faster exit for international forces. But it wasn’t really the logistical and budgetary concerns that made this particular diplomatic deal happen this week. Islamabad needs assurances from Washington that its proposed timeline for withdrawal is still on track. Islamabad would not have made any deal if it were not convinced of a conducive ISAF schedule. More importantly, Pakistan wants to ensure their political influence is maintained over Afghanistan once the United States leave. Whether that means the Taliban eventually hold power in Kabul needs to be a Pakistani decision, not one controlled by Washington.

The decade-long U.S. adventure in Central Asia is brought one step closer this week now that ISAF supply trucks are moving along the dusty Pakistani roads once again. Geopolitical realities will keep Washington and Islamabad cooperating in the short term, but ultimately their goals diverge.

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