by Cheryl Rofer
NATO troops in Afghanistan have been supplied through western Pakistan and the Khyber Pass, but recently there have been numerous problems in that area. Early this month, the Taliban burned supply trucks in Peshawar, the gateway to the Khyber in Pakistan. Pakistan then launched an attack on the militants that closed the Khyber for three days. Pakistani authorities later arrested seven men who they said planned those attacks. (Click on maps to enlarge.)
So General David Petraeus made a whirlwind tour of Central Asia to work out an alternative. He visited Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and talked with government leaders to secure their cooperation.
But the last four of those once belonged to Russia, which is not pleased about a US presence there. The US has had a base located at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. On January 12, a Russian newspaper, Vremya Novostei, reported that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was willing to expel the US military in return for up to $2 billion in Russian assistance. The president would sign an executive decree that would close down the Manas facility by the end of the first half of 2009.
Then Petraeus visited Kyrgyzstan, with a suggestion that US aid might be increased from the current $150 million a year. The Kyrgyz prime minister visited Moscow at about the same time. It’s not clear what made the difference, but Kyrgyzstan decided to allow the US to stay at Manas. Did the Kyrgyz government decide that the US offer was more reliable, given Russia’s financial troubles? Do they want the US presence as a counterbalance to Russia’s influence and perhaps a backup against trouble with Uzbekistan, which was notably absent from Petraeus’s itinerary?
The new route is said by anonymous US sources to be
overland from Russia through Kazakhstan and on through Uzbekistan using trucks and trains. Another possible route is through Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to the Kazakh port of Aktau and then through Uzbekistan.
For ordinary Afghanis, India has been building a road in southwest Afghanistan that would link up with the Iranian port of Chahbahar. Obviously, NATO resupply will not be via this road. Pakistan isn’t too pleased with being bypassed and possibly encircled by India.
I’ve got even more questions than usual about these developments. Let me break it down into subplots.
Russia’s role. Russia has been very quiet and cooperative with this scrambling for a NATO supply line. What are they getting out of it? It seems like it’s been some time since Russia has offered up any good will, after doing just that with George Bush and getting nothing for it. Have there been discussions about a potential role for Russia in NATO? Or is it a goodwill gesture to the new US president?
And what was that business with Kyrgyzstan? If it was Russian bullying, it didn’t work, which may bode ill for Kyrgyzstan in the future. Or did Russia have to back off from its promises because of its financial difficulties?
Meanwhile, Russia accuses Turkmenistan of cooperating too much with NATO. Maybe the Turkmenistani government didn’t check things out properly with Moscow before talking to Petraeus? Under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan may be rejoining the world after its bout of insanity under Father of All Turkmen Saparmurat Niyazov. Are the rapid personnel moves in the government unsettling Moscow?
Uzbekistan’s role. The US took a lot of flak a while back for being too friendly with the dictatorial regime of Karim Islamov. But those anonymous administration sources outlined routes through Uzbekistan, which was absent from Petraeus’s itinerary. A problem with a route through Uzbekistan is that Islamist sentiment has been growing there in response to Islamov’s repression. Moreover, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have been at odds for some time now over water and energy.
There is also the rivalry between Pakistan and India for influence in Afghanistan, and Iran is also looking for influence. These deserve much more discussion, and I will just mention them here.
Update: This news report suggests possible answers to some of my questions. It may be that Russia is willing to extend some good will to the new US president. It may also be that it is Russia that has urged Uzbekistan to cooperate, and that its spirit of cooperation may extend to allowing the US to remain at the Manas airbase. But all that is inference. I've been wondering, too, if there are quiet communications from the Obama administration to Russia.
Update II: Paul Goble informs us of a speech by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which Lavrov declares "the chief conclusion which we draw for ourselves on the basis of the results of 2008 is that Russia has essentially completed the period of ‘concentration’” The quote is from Foreign Minister Aleksandr Mikhailovich Gorchakov, who served after the Crimean War.
For Russian statesmen then and even more for post-Soviet Russian commentators, Gorchakov’s words have been read as meaning that Russia, in the face of defeat, should carefully reexamine its own massive internal resources, define very carefully what it hopes to achieve in the world, and then reenter the diplomatic and geopolitical fray with new energy.So Russia may be changing its stance in the world at the same time as the US is. There seems to be some indication that Russia would like to work with (or supplant?) NATO. Read all of what Paul says. And here's the text of Lavrov's speech for those who can read Russian.
Maps from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection of the University of Texas.