Af-Pak: The Eagle Trapped ?
“Let’s get the hell outta here” is the sentiment behind the exercise seeking negotiations to secure needed assurances and guarantees from sinister unholy characters
SS Rao Sohoni Kabul
Unless one electsto remain in denial, it is to be noted that in Afghanistan the decade-old war, between two sets of external powers: the US and its NATO partners on the one hand, and on the other: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and various insurgent groups with headquarters in Pakistan, has transitioned to a stage beyond a stalemate.
Till recently, the armed opposition were far from being able to overcome the US-led military coalition; and the US-led coalition was unable to suppress the insurgency.
For ten years and more, the US had leaned on Pakistan for a range of facilitation; and in turn, Pakistan received from the US: military, political and financial aid and support.
Whilst keeping up appearances of being allies, close allies to boot, the US and Pakistan operated in noteworthy respects as antagonists -- whether covertly or openly.
This bizarre contradiction, basic to the Afghanistan theater, remained the bane of the war, throughout.
There was chronic chagrin in NATO circles at the safe haven and support provided to insurgency from Pakistan and the refusal of the Pakistan Army to act against key insurgent concentrations in Pakistan.
The Marines operation on May 2, 2011 in Abottabad, certain drone strikes, and the US helicopter gunships counterattack on the Salala Outpost on November 26, 2011, likewise infuriated the Pakistanis.
After Abbottabad and Salala, and with Pakistan closing the supply land routes from Karachi via Torkham and Chaman to Afghanistan, the basic contradiction underlying the conflict in Afghanistan, which accounts as much for its protracted duration as for its frustrations, stands exposed in full glare. More than two months on, there is little sign of the supply routes interdiction easing, other than CENTCOM Chief, Gen. Mattis being scheduled to meet with Pakistan Army Chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani later this month.
Military and political observers are not unaware, but the western news media have thus far, understandably, been slow to report that the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan now face disturbing supply challenges in Afghanistan.
The position of US/NATO forces, as a matter of fact, in terms of supply logistics, is incomparably more endangered than that of the Soviet armed forces during the Mujahideen war.
Soviet forces had executed a smooth and uneventful exit in 1989 by secure rail and land routes through terrain dominated and controlled by them
Soviet forces had executed a smooth and uneventful exit in 1989 by secure rail and land routes through terrain dominated and controlled by them.
For the US-led NATO however, a vulnerable and untenable military situation has come to pass – with the southern supply routes shut, and dependence compelled on the Northern Distribution Network -- involving freight transport to Afghanistan via Baltic Sea ports, traversing Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asian republics, repetitive freight loading, unloading and loading for movement by railways, road and shipping – for transfers including across the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea – and that too only for non-lethal transport, and even that only on the way in towards Afghanistan.
(Noteworthy it is that in 2008, Pentagon officials testified before the House Appropriations Sub Committee that the FBCF i.e. the Fully Burdened Cost of Fuel, of a gallon of petrol made available at a FOB (Forward Operating Base) in Afghanistan, averaged at no less than $ 400. The FBCF had by 2010 risen to $ 800 per gallon of petrol – this at a time when the route via Karachi was still operational.
Currently, fixed wing aircraft on long distance intercontinental flight paths, land at military airports in Afghanistan to deliver fuel, and within Afghanistan fuel is flown to almost 350 military bases including FOBs in helicopter bladders. Costs are therefore appreciably higher than $ 800 per gallon of petrol. There are numerous other essential deliverables.)
As to the way out of the theater, how are hundreds of tanks and heavy equipment, military stores and ordnance to be extricated other than by air transport? France alone, a country with less than 1/30ththe troop levels of the US, has about 500 tanks and masses of heavy equipment in Afghanistan.
Never before in its history of military engagement around the globe, has the US ever been in a theater predicament as it is now – crucial lines of supply to US troops being blocked and the alternative network being so vulnerable, costly, stretched and complicated.
Being obliged to use the undoubtedly brilliantly devised Northern Distribution Network – an amazing logistic triumph accomplished by a number of US Department of Defense agencies including the Transport Command, in tandem with the US State Department, - however makes the US vulnerable to exertion of pressure by Russia relative to a host of important political and military issues of international and strategic significance – including but not limited to location of missiles in Eastern Europe, the parallel Caspian pipeline, force levels in Central Asian bases, and the situation in West Asia.
In face of Pakistan’s obdurate hostility, it is no surprise that the US and NATO appear anxious to pull out forces as speedily as feasible consistent with honor and efficiency of withdrawal.
Currently, fixed wing aircraft on long distance intercontinental flight paths, land at military airports in Afghanistan to deliver fuel, and within Afghanistan fuel is flown to almost 350 military bases including FOBs in helicopter bladders. Costs are therefore appreciably higher than $ 800 per gallon of petrol
Apropos the phased pull out strategy and timeframe already announced, Defense Secretary Panetta pointedly hinted the remaining 35 month period may be reduced by 12 months to accomplish withdrawal by 2013.
Perhaps this was stated with an eye to the electorate ahead of the all important November polls in the US, but the message has not failed to register globally, including in GHQs Rawalpindi, in Quetta, in Waziristan, Khyber, Kurram, Khost and the many other sanctuaries of Islamic radicals in Af-Pak.
Motions of engaging in negotiations must supervene – via a settlement with the armed opposition - including agreement and commitments about the post-war set up in Afghanistan.
The US can scarcely be seen abandoning the cause of Human Rights, especially of women and girl children – these were among the key watchwords in the rationale for the American intervention in Afghanistan.
More important and urgent, however, is the need to forge a settlement that can facilitate an unopposed exit of American troops and materiel from Afghanistan.
“Let’s get the hell outta here” is the sentiment behind the exercise seeking negotiations to secure needed assurances and guarantees from sinister unholy characters previously on the list of the most wanted, dead or alive, and their mentors.
A well-publicised scrap of paper signed by a bigwig or two of the armed opposition, - accepting even in a qualified way that international agreements entered into by Afghanistan since 2001 and Human Rights would be respected, including particularly women’s rights and girls education, would be just fine, thank you very much – provided there is cast iron guarantee of safe passage for convoys out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and, would that this too is possible: assurances for the safety of the long desired oil pipeline that would ‘enable Central Asia’s energy resources reach the Arabian Sea’.
The US would be expected to provide the quid pro quo of releasing a number of prisoners in Gitmo and other security locations, pay hefty sums of money, leave behind substantial military equipment and stores, and pressure the Afghan government into accepting nominated leaders of the armed opposition back into the ‘national mainstream’ (whatever that may mean).
Pakistan would have other more serious and far reaching demands to stipulate, beyond the formal public apology it insists on from the US – which the White House has thus far eschewed making.
The non-Pashtun ethnicities will scarcely take kindly to such accommodation of their traditional adversaries, and have long been arming and preparing for just this sort of eventuality.
Factions and opposing alliances amongst Pashtun tribes, and internecine conflicts also exist, and will be accentuated.
Clearly, the conflict in Af-Pak is transposing into a new phase – more directly and openly involving Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Chechnya, and Al Qaeda recruits from West Asia; civil war conditions; and with Russia, China, India, Saudi Arabia and the US/NATO involved from a distance and indirectly.
But before that relatively more happy state for the US/NATO is reached, lies the problematic unfinished business of extricating forces, tanks and heavy equipment from Afghanistan.
Unlike in Iraq from where a dexterous force evacuation was smoothly executed to waiting aircraft carriers and transport ships, NATO in Afghanistan does not have that luxury.
Rather more than amphibious landings under fire, and river crossings with heavy equipment, a major military force extraction through topographically challenging, enemy-infested terrain is the strategists’ nightmare.
That nightmare is now upon the US and its NATO allies. And they have their policy makers who based strategy for ten years on Pakistan, to thank for it.
Meanwhile, GHQs Rawalpindi, and its acolytes in Quetta, Waziristan, Kurram and Khost, and some now in Qatar, bide their time – mulling prospects of even more lucrative and durable deals for themselves this time around.
On the Eagle taking to wing, enters The Dragon.
Based in Kabul, the writer is a senior advisor to the President of Afghanistan