So, how will US troops come home from Afghanistan? According to Baku officials, by catching a train in Azerbaijan.
To borrow from American journalist H.L. Mencken’s line, war, like love, is easy to begin, but hard to end, and the 2014 NATO pullout from Afghanistan is likely to be a logistical nightmare, with thousands of troops to transport and scads of guns to pack and ship.
But worry not: Azerbaijan, NATO’s Caspian-Sea chum, is offering a cheap ticket home for American and other troops via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, scheduled for completion in 2014.
If it all goes as planned, troops from Georgia, the largest non-member troop contributor to the NATO campaign, can get off midway.
To date, 35 percent of the “non-lethal” military supplies for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan went through Azerbaijan, Mammadyarov stated.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railroad, constructed by NATO-friendly Azerbaijan, NATO-aspiring Georgia and NATO member Turkey, was presented to the Alliance last month by envoys of the three countries. The presentation included other existing and upcoming sea, air and land transport infrastructure.
Azerbaijan has impounded mine removal equipment for Afghanistan supplied by the international mine clearance organization The HALO Trust. Baku has long had a spat with the UK-based charity for conducting mine clearance operations in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh without its imprimatur.
Azerbaijan, which provides a corridor for about a quarter of NATO's supplies for Afghanistan, has indicated in the past that its cooperation with the alliance is contingent on respect of its national interests. In Baku's eyes, The Halo Trust does not meet that requirement.
“[T]his organization should have ceased its work in the occupied territories [Nagorno-Karabakh] and should have offered apologies to Baku,” Nazim Ismailov, director of Azerbaijan’s National Agency for Mine Actions, said on July 8, APA news agency reported. “But they have not done it.” Azerbaijan has dispatched the equipment to neighboring Georgia instead of to Afghanistan, he added.
The Halo Trust began work in Nagorno Karabakh right after Baku's bitter and protracted war over the region with Karabakh separatists and Armenia ended in 1994. The organization says that mines and unexploded ordinance are a persistent problem in the territory and that it could take up to five years of intense work to clear the area entirely.
Committed to bringing the territory back under its fold, Baku tries to make sure that all ties between Nagorno-Karabakh and the outside world go through Azerbaijan.
On May 10, Armenia moved to triple its Afghan contingent to 130 personnel -- a figure that will make the tiny South Caucasus country the second-largest South Caucasus troop contributor to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Afghan campaign. It follows after NATO groupie Georgia, which tips the scales at 924 personnel.
By comparison, Azerbaijan, the largest and the richest of the Caucasus lot, will now have the smallest number of forces (94) on the ground in Afghanistan.
Competition between the three countries traditionally runs deep; no less so, it would appear, in Afghanistan.
“Armenia should not be in the last place in this regard in the South Caucasus,” argued Defense Minister Seiran Oganian in his May 10 address to Armenia's National Assembly. Some Armenian lawmakers agreed, saying that beefing up Armenia's troop presence in Afghanistan will improve the country's international image.
The recent casualty cost for Georgia's military engagement in Afghanistan apparently has not chilled the country's ardor to participate in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s war against the Taliban. Nearly a week after four Georgian soldiers died in Afghanistan, Tbilisi has offered to contribute civilian manpower to shore up the US-led campaign. Georgian doctors and support personnel are expected to leave for Afghanistan next year, the foreign ministry said.
“Georgia remains loyal to its commitment and does not plan to withdraw its contingent. On the contrary, we fully realize our responsibility and, unfortunately, despite the casualties we are ready to take on a more active role in the peace mission,” Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze told an October 11 news conference.
Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze told RFE/RL that Georgia is now looking to help develop schools and hospitals in the war-torn country. Tbilisi hopes that its contribution will help push NATO doors open for Georgia. Various of NATO’s European members are perceived to be blocking Georgian membership for fear of antagonizing Russia.
"I think [Karzai] thinks that you are going to be there forever, for ulterior motives, due [to] strategic goals," Abdullah said during a conversation with Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein at the Asia Society in New York on May 27. "And at the same time it has happened that perhaps he also think[s] that as long as [the US is] there, he will be the president."
Abdullah, who has supported and served Karzai in the past, said the president does not believe in an elected democracy and would rather control the country through appointees. Thus, governors who do not provide services to constituents stay in power – as long as their loyalties lie with Karzai -- and drive civilians towards the Taliban.
“Taliban is the only option for the Pashtun,” Abdullah said, referring to tribes in the impoverished southern provinces of Afghanistan. “And the first thing they’ll ask for from the Taliban is education for their kids – girls and boys,” he added, underscoring the desperation and lack of ideological common ground between Talibs and regular Afghans.