A dangerous new Afghan road opens
By Derek Henry Flood
Increased insurgent activity in northern Afghanistan in recent months is likely
to force the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to once again
re-evaluate its and the United States' escalation of the war.
Recent events in Kunduz province due south of Tajikistan, culminating in an air
strike on hijacked fuel tankers in which scores of people - including civilians
- were killed and the subsequent kidnapping of a British-Irish journalist
have brought the troubles in the north to the fore.
A similar but less-reported situation exists with an increased Taliban presence
in Badghis province along the border with
South of the border with Uzbekistan lies volatile Balkh province. Here,
governor Ustad Atta Mohammed Noor is threatening mass mobilization of his
ethnic-Tajik constituency if Hamid Karzai is certified as president without
further investigation of alleged fraud. Noor supports a runoff vote with Dr
Abdullah Abdullah, with whom he is allied in opposition to Karzai.
A second round of voting will take place if Karzai's share of the vote - which
currently stands at 54% - drops under 50%. With 10% of the ballots cast in the
August 20 presidential polls being investigated, this is possible.
What is emerging is that Karzai's splitting of the anti-Soviet-era mujahideen
groups is leading to a breakdown in social cohesion in the multi-ethnic,
multi-linguistic and until recently relatively harmonious northern belt.
This region, which stretches from China in the east to Iran in the west, abuts
the three authoritarian Central Asian states mentioned above whose attention is
being sought by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, US President Barack
Obama and his NATO allies. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan is
particularly in demand for his country to be used for bases and as a transit
route for supplies going to Afghanistan.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, most insurgent activity and
outright insurgent-controlled districts have been in the southeast in the
Pashtun-majority provinces hugging the Durand Line that separates Pakistan from
The troubles across the border, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have a strong
presence, have forced the US and European military commanders to seek alternate
routes of supply through a string of weak security regimes which themselves
have varying degrees of turmoil. These range from war-torn Georgia to
Pakistan has much to lose if NATO military supplies are largely diverted from
transiting it's own tenuous territory. (About 80% of supplies currently use
From the southern port city of Karachi to storage terminals in Peshawar, the
capital of North-West Frontier Province, to the Torkham border in the Khyber
Pass, Pakistan has grown accustomed not only to the monetary infusion that the
US and NATO member states provide, but its military and political establishment
sees its alliance with NATO as a regional bulwark against Indian hegemony and
also serves to undercut its much-despised rival's interests in Afghanistan.
If the Western military alliance is able to forge a genuinely long-term
relationship with the Karimov regime, foregoing European member states' social,
democratic and human-rights agendas, Pakistan stands to lose the most in the
region. Under Benazir Bhutto's and Nawaz Sharif's tutelage in the 1990s,
Pakistan put its money on the Afghan Taliban as an implement to forge
Islamabad's place as a regional leader with tentacles reaching through
Afghanistan all the way to Ashgabad, Tashkent, and to a lesser extent,
post-civil war Dushanbe (though there Moscow and Tehran hold much more sway).
In Kunduz, local Taliban and allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighters
threaten to split Balkh and Samangan provinces from the still-peaceful Takhar
and the remote Badakhshan provinces on Kunduz's eastern flank.
NATO has been in a very precarious position of leverage with the Kremlin
following Russia's military intervention in the breakaway Georgian region of
South Ossetia in the summer of 2008. The Western alliance is still torn between
support of Georgia, a weak potential candidate state, and related competition
in the greater Caucasus with Moscow versus cooperation deemed essential by all
involved parties in stemming the spreading of violent Islam in Afghanistan.
While the United States is engaged in a jumbled mix of killing insurgents,
armed nation-building and diplomacy with AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, Russia
seeks to contain militancy inside Afghanistan and is engaging with NATO to a
moderate degree in classic realpolitik.
Russia's motivation is to block the spread of militant Islam in its Central
Asian client states and it is prepared to make concessions to Washington and
Brussels to do so. Moscow is watching NATO's moves closely, encouraging it as a
proxy force to contain the Taliban while remaining extremely wary of its
designs in Georgia and Uzbekistan. Russia will tolerate NATO implementing a
temporary surge in forces and a corresponding increase in supply lines, but in
no way intends to allow the Western alliance to maintain a permanent presence
in the Kremlin's sphere of influence.
The proposed central supply route circumvents both Pakistan and the Russian
Federation and would consist of a time-consuming shipment of supplies from
Georgia's Black Sea coast to Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea to the port of
Turkmenbashi and south through the Karakum desert to Afghanistan's far
This plan seemed feasible for all of its inherent geopolitical complications
and variables (both Georgia and Azerbaijan do not control all of the their
territory), but now the Taliban are quite active in destitute Badghis province.
This disrupts reconstruction not only for the province but separates
prosperous, Iranian-influenced Herat from Abdul Rashid Dostum's remotely
controlled Jowzjan province and the northern hub of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The more northern route proposed would bring NATO supplies from the South
Caucasus across the Caspian and down through Nursultan Nazarbayev's Kazakhstan
and then through Uzbekistan.
So while the Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) and criminal networks
are threatening the Indus route, now the Afghan Taliban, the Hezb-e-Islami
Gulbuddin and to a much lesser degree the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are in
a strategic position to threaten both the proposed northern and central routes.
If either of the multi-faceted new supply routes is to become fully
operational, military and economic interests in Pakistan stand to lose and the
Commonwealth of Independent States strongmen will have much to gain, including
the glossing over of their human-rights records by European and American
activists and an infusion of much-needed cash into their moribund, centralized
Also being proposed is a super northern route beginning with NATO member states
in the Baltics and transiting the Russian Federation itself on down through
Central Asia and coalescing in the northern node of Mazar-e-Sharif. If money is
being spent and made in Russia's "near abroad" by Western governments, Moscow
may not be content to sit idly by while its former satellites become enriched
by NATO cooperation.
Russia also does not seek to allow any move that would further strengthen
Georgia, which both of the proposed trans-Caucasus routes may indeed do. Putin
may deem it in his nation's interests to control a part of the trans-shipment
action. For NATO planners of these new route networks, diversification may be
the first rule of further investment in the region. Political fickleness or
another outbreak of war in either the Caucasus or the Pamir region may close
one route down and cause the alliance to depend much more on another. Routes
may open and close in fits and starts as the geopolitical environment shifts
under NATO's feet. The name of new NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen's game will
likely be agility.
Karzai's divisive campaign dealings in northern Afghanistan have further sown
the seeds for discontent. Now, among virtually all of the mujahideen parties,
there exist important, nuanced splits that Karzai has sought to deepen to
create allies in all corners of the country while shredding the once stable,
delicate social order of the north.
The division of loyalties within the Jamiat-e-Islami over the August election
could yet yield dire consequences, with particular respect to Balkh, Samangan
and Takhar provinces. Kunduz, with its disenfranchised Pashtun population and
history of Pakistani interference up until the infamously alleged 2001 Kunduz
airlift , is now a corridor of chaos leading up to the Tajikistan border and
threatening the planned rerouting of NATO supplies.
Pakistan finds itself in a lose-lose situation; it cannot sufficiently protect
NATO equipment traveling northward from Karachi, while Islamabad does not want
to lose the income generated from such mass transshipment to Uzbekistan or any
other regional peer competitor. Nor does Pakistan want to lose prestige as a
specially designated non-NATO ally, which status it believes may help to act as
a buffer from any Indian aggression.
The situation in Badghis province, while theoretically less dire than
German-patrolled Kunduz, is deteriorating. Along the Turkmen border, at the
mouth of the proposed central re-supply route, a source in Kabul told Asia
Times Online that Spanish troops there were engaged in a loose, temporary
pre-election "truce" with local Taliban elements.
After the fall of the Jose Maria Aznar government in Spain following the Madrid
bombings in 2004 and the subsequent withdrawal of Spanish troops from the
"coalition of the willing" in Iraq, Madrid is highly risk-averse to troop
casualties. Spain's lack of domestic political fortitude could act as a de
facto force multiplier for the Taliban congregating in Badghis' Bala Murghab
The Taliban reportedly vowed, via a group of moderating elders, not to stage
attacks on election-related personalities or facilities in Afghanistan's
poorest province as long as NATO troops were not visible during the electoral
process. The socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero government is treading
lightly in its zones of influence in northwestern Afghanistan.
Spain may yet send several hundred additional soldiers in a bid to curry favor
with the Obama administration and has been engaging the Taliban of late. This
gap in security in Badghis will have to likely be filled by an infusion of
additional US troops. The same formula of supplementary US troops may be
recommended for the now embattled German Provincial Reconstruction Team in
The expansion of war around Afghanistan's ragged periphery forms a geographical
ring encircling the still tranquil, isolated, Iranian-supported Harzarajat
region of central Afghanistan. The Harzarajat and its capital Bamiyan - famed
for the giant buddhas the Taliban destroyed there in 2001 - along with the
remote Wakhan corridor along the Afghan-Chinese border are now among the last
places in the country not infected by either ongoing or recently renewed
Until 2009, most of the American-led war effort was relegated to the
Pashtun-majority south and east; the diverse northern provinces with Pashtun
minorities remained quiet and prosperous while developing legal and illicit
trade from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
A new Taliban strategy, possibly backed by Pakistan, according to a former
Afghan government official who spoke to Asia Times Online, suggests diverting
the war from the media-saturated fights around places like Lashkar Gah in
Helmand and the notorious Korengal Valley in Kunar adjacent the Durand Line to
regions far from removed from the Pakistani frontier.
The Taliban and their allies disrupting the vital peace south of the Amu Darya
River is thus creating a more complex strategic environment for leaders like
top US military commander General David Petraeus and the chief man in Kabul,
General Stanley McChrystal.
With the war no longer confined to rural Pashtunistan, simply choreographing
new supply routes to Western forces may not be enough. Rather than cozying up
to opportunistic regional political leaders, the US and NATO will need a new,
more robust anti-Taliban strategy rather than worrying about how to more safely
deliver more equipment to further fuel the surge into Afghanistan.
1. Kunduz was the last major city held by the Taliban before its fall to
US-backed Afghan Northern Alliance forces on November 26, 2001. The siege of
Kunduz lasted two weeks, which allowed over 1,000 people, including al-Qaeda,
Taliban and Pakistani army officers to be safely airlifted into Pakistan in the
so-called "airlift of evil". Wikipedia
Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in
analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through
traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.