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    South Asia
     Dec 20, 2008
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All roads lead out of Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar

The measure of success of president-elect Barack Obama's new "Afghan strategy" will be directly proportional to his ability to delink the war from its geopolitical agenda inherited from the George W Bush administration.

It is obvious that Russia and Iran's cooperation is no less critical for the success of the war than what the US is painstakingly extracting from the Pakistani generals. Arguably, Obama will even be in a stronger negotiating position vis-a-vis the tough generals in Rawalpindi if only he has Moscow and Tehran on board his Afghan strategy.

But then, Moscow and Iran will expect that Obama reciprocates


with a willingness to jettison the US's containment strategy towards them. The signs do not look good. This is not only from the look of Obama's national security team and the continuance of Robert Gates as defense secretary.

On the contrary, in the dying weeks of the Bush administration, the US is robustly pushing for an increased military presence in the Russian (and Chinese) backyard in Central Asia on the ground that the exigencies of a stepped-up war effort in Afghanistan necessitate precisely such an expanded US military presence.

Again, the Bush administration's insistence on bringing Saudi Arabia into the Afghan problem on the specious plea that a Wahhabi partner will be useful for taming the Taliban doesn't carry conviction with Iran. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Wednesday pointedly stressed the need to be vigilant about "plots by the world's arrogance to create disunity" between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Russian-Iranian proximity
It seems almost inevitable that Moscow and Tehran will join hands. In all likelihood, they may have already begun doing so. The Central Asian countries and China and India will also be closely watching the dynamics of this grim power struggle. They are interested parties insofar as they may have to suffer the collateral damage of the great game in Afghanistan. The US's "war on terror" in Afghanistan has already destabilized Pakistan. The debris threatens to fall on India, too.

Most certainly, the terrorist attack on Mumbai last month cannot be seen in isolation from the militancy radiating from the Afghan war. Even as the high-level Russian-Indian Working Group on terrorism met in Delhi on Tuesday and Wednesday, another top diplomat dealing with the Afghan problem arrived in the Indian capital for consultations - Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mahdi Akhounjadeh.

Speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, General Nikolai Makarov, just about lifted the veil on the geopolitics of the Afghan war to let the world know that the Bush administration was having one last fling at the great game in Central Asia. Makarov couldn't have spoken without Kremlin clearance. Moscow seems to be flagging its frustration to Obama's camp. Makarov revealed Moscow had information to the effect that the US was pushing for new military bases in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Coincidence or not, a spate of reports has begun appearing that Russia is about to transfer the S-300 missile defense system to Iran. S-300 is one of the most advanced surface-to-air missile systems capable of intercepting 100 ballistic missiles or aircraft at once, at low and high altitudes within a range of over 150 kilometers. As long-time Pentagon advisor Dan Goure put it, "If Tehran obtained the S-300, it would be a game-changer in military thinking for tackling Iran. This is a system that scares every Western air force."

It is hard to tell exactly what is going on, but Russia and Iran seem to be bracing for a countermove in the event of the Obama administration pressing ahead with the present US policy to isolate them or cut them out from their "near abroad".

Aviation Week magazine recently quoted US officials as claiming that Moscow was using Belarus as a conduit for selling the SA-20 missile systems to Iran. "The Iranians are on contract for the SA-20," one of the US officials said. "We've got a huge set of challenges in the future that we've never had [before]. We've been lulled into a false sense of security because our operations over the last 20 years involved complete air dominance and we've been free to operate in all domains."

The US official said the deployment of SA-20 around Iranian nuclear facilities would be a direct threat to Israel's fleet of advanced but "non-stealthy" F-15Is and F-16Is. Ha'aretz newspaper reported on Tuesday that the head of political-military policy in the Israeli Defense Ministry, Major General Amos Gilad, was traveling to Moscow with a demarche that Russia should not transfer S-300 to Iran.

Evidently, Moscow is maintaining an air of "constructive ambiguity" as to what is exactly happening. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented in October that Moscow would not sell the S-300 to countries in "volatile regions".

But, on Wednesday, Russia's Novosti news agency cited unnamed Kremlin sources as saying that Moscow was "currently implementing a contract to deliver S-300 systems". Again, on Wednesday, the deputy head of the Federal Service of Russia's Military-Technical Cooperation, Alexander Fomin, publicly defended Russian-Iranian military cooperation as having a "positive influence on stability in this region". Fomin specifically commented that systems such as the S-300 benefited the whole region by "preventing new military conflicts".

The US thrust into the Russian backyard in the Caucasus and Central Asia will most certainly have a bearing on the Russian-Iranian tango over the S-300. Moscow and Tehran will be on guard that despite the stalemate of the Afghan war and the mounting difficulties faced by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, the cold warriors in Washington continue their great game in the Hindu Kush.

Politics of transit routes
This becomes glaring if we look at the saga of the US's supply routes to Afghanistan. Recent events have shown that militants are capable of holding NATO to ransom by disrupting the supply routes to Afghanistan via Karachi port. Logically, the US ought to look for alternate supply routes.

Apart from the Karachi route, there are three alternate routes to supply the troops in Afghanistan: one, via Shanghai port straight across China to Tajikistan and to Afghanistan; two, the Russia-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan/Turkmenistan land routes up to the Afghan border on the Amu Darya; three, the shortest and the most practical route via Iran.

Russia has both road and rail links connecting the Afghan border. China, on the other hand, has at present only one rail connection to Central Asia - the line from Urumqi in Xinjiang Autonomous Province ending on the Kazakh border. But China is currently working on two additional loops - one from Korgas on the Kazakh border to Almaty and the second from Kashi to Kyrgyzstan. Both these loops connect China to the Central Asian rail grid of the Soviet era leading to the southern Uzbek port city of Termez on the Amu Darya, which is a traditional gateway to Afghanistan.

But surprisingly, Washington wouldn't look at any of these alternate routes. Iran is understandably a no-go area (even though, in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan the Bush administration sought and obtained logistical support from Iran). But the US is equally wary of involving Russia and China in the war effort. It apprehends that tomorrow these countries might well demand a say in war strategy, which has so far been the US's exclusive turf. Then, there are other implications.

The containment strategy towards Russia and China cannot be sustained if there is a critical dependence on these countries for the US's war effort in Afghanistan. Again, their involvement will effectively freeze any expansion plans for NATO into Central Asia - let alone the scope for establishing new US military bases in the region. All-in-all, therefore, by involving Russia and China in the supply routes for US troops in Afghanistan, the US would be under compulsion to shelve its entire "Great Central Asia" strategy, which aims at rolling back Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

So, what does the US do? It has decided on a three-pronged approach. First, the US will motivate the recalcitrant Pakistani generals not to create problems for NATO convoys passing through Pakistan. Thus, US Senator John Kerry, who visited India on route to Pakistan last week on a mediatory mission, pledged, inter alia, that the US would urgently act on the Pakistani top brass's demand for upgrading its F-16 fleet capable of carrying nuclear weapons, apart from expediting a fresh multi-billion dollar new aid package for Pakistan.

Second, the US had began working on an entirely new supply route for Afghanistan which steers clear of Tehran, Moscow and Beijing and which, more importantly, not only dovetails but holds the prospects of augmenting and even strengthening the US's containment strategy towards Russia and Iran.

US's Caucasian thrust
Thus, the US has begun developing an altogether new land route through the southern Caucasus to Afghanistan, which doesn't exist at present. The US is working on the idea of ferrying cargo for Afghanistan via the Black Sea to the port of Poti in Georgia and then dispatching it through the territories of Georgia, 

Continued 1 2  

NATO seeks out new Afghan supply routes (Dec 12,'08)

Kazakhstan ponders joining Afghan fray
(Dec 11,'08)

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