U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
While the U.S. has suspended its military transportation across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that does not have any effect on traffic through Central Asia, a Pentagon spokesperson has told The Bug Pit.
In a protest against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, supporters of Pakistani politician Imran Khan have imposed a sort of vigilante blockade of U.S. and NATO cargo across the border to Afghanistan. "Protesters have taken the law into their own hands deciding who can pass and go on to Afghanistan, and who can't," the BBC reported. "They have been harassing truck drivers and turning back vehicles carrying Nato provisions."
As a result, the U.S. has "voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo" through Pakistan, the Pentagon announced. In the past, that has meant a big boost for Central Asia: when Pakistan closed the border in 2011, it took close to two years to fully restore traffic. In the meantime, the U.S. was paying an extra $100 million a month to ship its goods via the longer, more difficult Northern Distribution Network.
But that's not happening this time (at least yet), Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told The Bug Pit. He said that the small amount of traffic via the NDN has not been affected by this latest move:
As a result of a U.S. attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, there are renewed threats in Pakistan to shut down the border with Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO forces. This, of course, would have a direct impact on Central Asia, by forcing the U.S. military to again shift its supply routes back to the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia and Russia. And this just as American military officials have managed to get away from the more expensive, difficult northern route and back to Pakistan.
The political party that rules the province that borders Afghanistan "passed a resolution that threatened to block the supply lines through the region in response to a C.I.A. missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, on Friday," the New York Times reported. It set a deadline of November 20 for the U.S. to stop drone attacks, after which they promised to shut the border. The resolution, the Times says, "was a means of building pressure on the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to end American drone strikes, while buying time to avoid a tricky confrontation with Mr. Sharif’s administration, which does not favor blocking NATO lines."
And also, crucially, the Pakistani military appears to favor the strike and to oppose closing the border. From an analysis of the political fallout by Ariq Rafiq in Foreign Policy:
Pakistan's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani meets Kazakhstan's minister of defense, Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, in Astana last month (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
With a handful of recent visits by senior Pakistani officials to Central Asia, is Islamabad looking to step up its security cooperation in the region?
Pakistani's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Tajikistan in August and Kazakhstan in September. The topics of discussion in Tajikistan included "development of military and technical cooperation, preparation of staff, and economic components" while in Kazakhstan they were "issues of regional security and the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops of NATO and USA in 2014." And an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sartaj Aziz, visited Bishkek in September for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
The limited Pakistani engagement with Central Asia has for the most part been associated with economic issues: the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, the CASA-1000 energy project, the development of the Gwadar port.
So does all this recent political-military activity add up to anything? A commentary in the Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post says, yes:
Why this renewed focus on defence leadership’s exchanges with [the Central Asian republics], where Pakistan’s main interest, exhibited so far, remains economic and energy-oriented? The visits have a clear message: Islamabad values the role of CARs in post-withdrawal stability of Afghanistan, and resultantly the region as a whole....
Group photo from the last Chinese-Pakistani joint air force exercise in 2011. (photo: Pakistan air force)
China and Pakistan are going to hold joint air force exercises in the province of Xinjiang, the home of China's restive Uyghur population that also borders Pakistan. The exercise will take place against the backdrop of improved relations between Beijing and Islamabad, which have been frayed over China's complaints that Pakistan doesn't do enough to combat Uyghur separatism on its territory.
The Chinese defense ministry said the exercise, called Shaheen-2 would take place Sept 2-22. It is the follow-on drill to Shaheen-1, held in Pakistan in 2011.
China has repeatedly accused Pakistan of allowing the presence of Uyghur militants on its soil, usually doing so in private but occasionally, including after attacks in the far western Chinese city of Kashgar in 2011, in public. But during a visit this year by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Islamabad the Chinese side publicly praised Pakistan's anti-terror efforts:
China “reiterates that it respects the anti-terrorism strategy developed and implemented by the Pakistani side in light of its own conditions. …China expresses its appreciation and continued willingness to help Pakistan build up counter-terrorism capacity”, the joint statement read.
And Pakistan also promised “continuous, active collaboration with and assistance to China in combating terrorist forces including the ETIM," referring to the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, the group China accuses of carrying out an Islamist, separatist agenda in Xinjiang.
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.