Although Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO military back in July, traffic there is still moving so slowly that the coalition forces haven't even moved all of the goods that had backed up there -- meaning the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia remains the key means of supplying foreign forces in Afghanistan. That's according to Air Force Col. Robert Brisson, chief of operations for U.S. Transportation Command, in a recent interview with Military Times.
U.S. military officials have spent the past five months wrangling with the Pakistanis over a formal legal agreement and also working to clear out the roughly 7,000 shipping containers that were stalled in transit when the Pakistanis abruptly closed the border crossings in November 2011.
Coalition forces are only able to get between 10 and 50 cargo trucks per day across the border, compared to around 100 before the border was closed, Col. Brisson said.
“We haven’t booked any new cargo into the ports of Karachi and Qasim to move northbound, nor have we started moving new cargo heading southbound out of Afghanistan,” Brisson said.
New cargo may begin moving in late December or January, he said.
The U.S. and Pakistan are still working out the terms of the new agreement to ship goods through that country, and apparently the biggest sticking point is the question of transit fees.
Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly canceled his visit to Pakistan last week, but ties between the two countries nevertheless appear to be growing as a result of the Kremlin's fear of instability in Afghanistan.
Putin was supposed to be in Pakistan last week for the Dushanbe Four summit, a grouping that includes Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But he canceled at the last minute; foreign minister Sergey Lavrov went instead and Pakistan's chief of army staff, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, visited Moscow at the same time. And despite Putin's cancellation, analysts in Russia, Pakistan and India all seem to agree that Russian-Pakistani relations are nevertheless destined to get stronger.
Part of this seems to be a very slow post-Cold War geopolitical realignment, and part is motivated by specific worries about Afghanistan. Russia and India have strong relations, especially military-to-military ties, a vestige of the Cold War when India was a Soviet ally and its enemy, Pakistan, was supported by the U.S. But India is now seeking to diversify its relations, including strengthening ties (including in defense) with the U.S. That has led some in Moscow to want to send India a message, said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and an analyst well connected to the Russian Ministry of Defense, in an interview with Kommersant:
“India remains Moscow’s most important partner in the area of [military-technical cooperation], both in terms of volume and potential. Yet Delhi’s attempts to diversify its supplies of new weapons – increasingly from Western countries – are making Russia flinch. Moscow has explained to Delhi, in no uncertain terms, that it can also diversify its military-technical ties by means of a rapprochement with Pakistan."
Pakistan has agreed to reopen its border to U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan, charging more than it did before -- and presumably taking money out of the pockets of Afghanistan's neighbors to the north, who were filling in while Pakistan implemented its blockade.
The new agreement with Pakistan will cost the coalition in Afghanistan an additional roughly $365 million a year, McClatchy reports, citing unnamed officials. Just days before, a U.S. senator, Claire McCaskill, reported that Pakistan's refusal to allow NATO transport to Afghanistan -- which it did in retaliation for a strike killing several Pakistani soldiers -- was costing $38 million a month. It's not clear whether those two numbers are commensurate -- as the blog Danger Room reported, the U.S. has been keeping cost figures of Afghan transit close to its vest, because it doesn't want to give Pakistan information that would allow it to drive a harder bargain. But assuming the numbers are commensurate, the new deal with Pakistan would save the U.S. a bit of money -- $8 million a month -- from what it had been paying on the NDN. $38 million times 12 also comes pretty close to the figure of $500 million per year that Deirdre Tynan reported the U.S. was paying to the NDN countries. But the Pentagon hasn't provided many details of that, either, so it's also not clear whether this is the same figure McCaskill cited.
The U.S. military might rely on India as a way of getting equipment in and out of Afghanistan if Pakistan doesn't cooperate, a senior military official has said. The official, Marine Lt. Gen. Frank Panter, deputy commandant for installations and logistics, testified at a Congressional hearing on Thursday and was asked about the U.S.'s plans if Pakistan doesn't soon start to allow U.S. and NATO supplies to again transit that country. He said India would be part of the solution, according to a report from the Press Trust of India:
"If we can't negotiate or successfully negotiate the reopening of the PAK GLOC (Ground Lines of Communication) we have to default and rely on India and the Northern Distribution Network, our increased strat airlift."
India has already been taking up some of Pakistan's slack. ABC News reported in January that as a result of Pakistan's blockade, the Pentagon had started "diverting some cargo from Pakistani ports to Indian ports where the supplies are either flown into Afghanistan or transported northward by train for delivery through one of the NDN routes."
(It's not clear how you would go by train to an NDN route: the only ways northward through India to Afghanistan have to pass through either Pakistan or China, and that is probably not happening.)
Indian analyst M K Bhadrakumar, writing on his blog, suggests that the U.S. is using India either as leverage against Pakistan, or perhaps to transport sensitive equipment with which it doesn't trust Pakistan:
The Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia won't be sufficient to get U.S. military supplies out of Afghanistan, senior U.S. military officials have said, saying that they need Pakistan to reopen its territory again to military transit. On Tuesday, the head of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and said: “The withdrawal out of Afghanistan, we do need the ground line of communications through Pakistan.” That reinforced comments from last week by his colleague, General William Fraser, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, when he testified in front of the same committee. “With the amount of equipment we need to move ... we need the Pakistan [ground lines of communication] open,” Fraser said. “Because of the large numbers that we are talking about that we need to bring out in a timely manner.”
While the U.S. recently concluded agreements with all the Central Asian states for "reverse transit" -- bringing equipment out of Afghanistan when the U.S. and NATO start withdrawing in 2014 -- the generals' testimony emphasizes that won't be enough. General Mattis is going to Pakistan next week to try to negotiate a reopening of those routes, which have been closed since December, when a U.S. attack killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
As a result of a NATO attack that killed as many as 28 Pakistani soldiers today, the Pakistani government has closed off NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. From Reuters:
Hours after the raid, NATO supply trucks and fuel tankers bound for Afghanistan were stopped at Jamrud town in the Khyber tribal region near the city of Peshawar, officials said.
The border crossing at Chaman in southwestern Baluchistan province was also closed, Frontier Corps officials said.
A meeting of the cabinet's defence committee convened by Gilani "decided to close with immediate effect NATO/ISAF logistics supply lines," according to a statement issued by Gilani's office.
It's not clear how long Pakistan will cut off NATO supplies, but they did it for ten days after another NATO attack killed three Pakistani soldiers last year.
According to the latest data from Reuters, NATO supplies into Afghanistan are roughly divided into thirds: a third goes overland via Pakistan, a third by air and a third overland via the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan. The U.S. had already been trying to increase their share of cargo shipped via the northern route, worried about the reliability of Pakistan. And now with the Pakistan route cut off indefinitely, that will put immediately more pressure on the northern route and Uzbekistan.
Azerbaijan seems to be looking seriously at rejuvenating its air force with Chinese-Pakistani fighter jets, the state news agency APA reports. They cite a source from the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, one of the builders of the aircraft, at the big Dubai air show:
Members of the Azerbaijani delegation watched the JF-17's demonstration flights at the airshow, the PAC officials said.
They said that several rounds of discussions had been held with the Azerbaijani side, but that talks had yet to reach the purchase and sale stage. They said that the initial size of the order had been determined, however. PAC is meeting orders from Pakistan’s Air Forces at present and would be able to meet an Azerbaijani order in the next few years.
This is not news, exactly; Azerbaijan has been talking about this for at least four years. To quote from a news story then:
In the spring of 2007, at the international military exhibition IDEAS in Dubai, the Azerbaijani side became interested in the multi-functional JF-17 fighter developed and produced jointly by China and Pakistan, as well as small-bore weapons and tanks made in Pakistan...
In 2009, APA was reporting it as more or less a done deal.
Speaking in Washington on October 27 following her return from a trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that bipartisanship is essential if the United States is to achieve its strategic objectives in the region.
Clinton defended the Obama administration’s approach in the face of growing skepticism among Republican Party members of Congress. She insisted that the administration was "meeting our commitments and progressing towards our goals" in Afghanistan and across the region and needed to remain fully engaged.
“America paid a heavy price for disengaging after the Soviets left in 1989,” she said. “We cannot afford to make that mistake again. … We have to be smart and strategic. And we have to work together to protect our interests.”
Clinton stressed a need to strengthen security in the Afghan-Pak border area. In Islamabad, she joined with senior US military and intelligence leaders in insisting that Pakistan’s government and military get out of the terrorist sponsorship business since “trying to distinguish between so-called good terrorists and bad terrorists is ultimately self-defeating and dangerous.”
Clinton reassured committee members that “talking” with the Taliban and their allies did not mean that administration was abandoning its core goals. “Insurgents must renounce violence, abandon al Qaeda, and abide by the laws and constitution of Afghanistan, including its protections for women and minorities,” Clinton said. “If insurgents cannot, or will not, meet those redlines, they will face continued and unrelenting assault.”
A Chinese military doctor tends to a Pakistani patient during a PLA humanitarian mission to Pakistan in 2010.
In its effort to combat separatist Uighur groups, China is apparently seeking to establish military bases in the part of Pakistan that borders the Uighurs' home province of Xinjiang. That's according to Pakistani journalist Amir Mir, writing in Asia Times:
While Pakistan wants China to build a naval base at its southwestern seaport of Gwadar in Balochistan province, Beijing is more interested in setting up military bases either in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan or in the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) that border Xinjiang province.
The Chinese desire is meant to contain growing terrorist activities of Chinese rebels belonging to the al-Qaeda-linked East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) that is also described as the Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP).
The Chinese Muslim rebels want the creation of an independent Islamic state and are allegedly being trained in the tribal areas of Pakistan. According to well-placed diplomatic circles in Islamabad, Beijing's wish for a military presence in Pakistan was discussed at length by the political and military leadership of both countries in recent months as China (which views the Uyghur separatist sentiment as a dire threat) has become ever-more concerned about Pakistan's tribal areas as a haven for radicals.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai raised a few eyebrows this weekend by suggesting that he would go to war against the U.S. -- the country without whose protection he would have been run out of Kabul years ago -- on the side of Pakistan. Reports the New York Times:
“God forbid, if there is ever a war between Pakistan and America, then we will side with Pakistan,” [Karzai] said in the interview with Geo Television, which was conducted partly in Urdu, partly in English. He added that Afghanistan would back Pakistan in a military conflict with any other country, including its archrival, India...
The prospect of a war between the U.S. and Pakistan is, of course, remote, and Karzai's statement was likely a ham-handed attempt to declare Kabul's loyalty to Islamabad, as tension between the two capitals has been rising; there have been high-profile attacks in Afghanistan originating in Pakistan, and Afghanistan just signed a strategic partnership agreement with India.
"This is not about war with each other," said Gavin Sundwall, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "This is about a joint approach to a threat to all three of our countries."
Anonymously, the interpretations were less generous: "It was totally careless, unnecessary and, yes, irresponsible," said one Afghan official [to the Journal]. "He hasn't pleased anyone except, maybe, a few Pakistani generals."