Within two weeks of successfully negotiating with the Central Asian republic Kyrgyzstan, the retention of the Manas air base, crucial to the expanding war in Afghanistan for “non-lethal and non-military supplies,” President Barrack Obama secured another land-mark during his Moscow visit July 7 / 8 ; he not only clinched a deal on 4,500 US military cargo flights per year to Afghanistan through Russian airspace, but also persuaded the Russian leaders into reviving the US-Russo military relations.
The strategic framework agreement signed by Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Russian counterpart, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff, envisages nearly 20 exchanges and operational events before the end of 2009, including a strategic discussion between the U.S. Joint Staff and the Russian General Staff.
The breakthrough on the Russian permission for the US and NATO military cargo supplies clearly marks a big diplomatic achievement for the Obama administration. At the same time, it also represents a big challenge to Pakistan in terms of its “strategic location” for cargo shipments headed for Afghanistan.
Until spring this year, two-thirds of essential military and non-military US-NATO cargo was transiting through Pakistan. Most Pakistanis, particularly those within the civilian and military establishment, believed Pakistan’s strategic advantage would be very difficult to offset and the United States plus allies would largely remain dependent on it because it offers the shortest possible and cheaper land route.
The Afghanistan-bound cargo suffered the most since late 2008, with around 450 supplies’ containers and vehicles (such HumVEEs, APCs) torched in almost two dozen attacks on container terminals located on the periphery of Peshawar. General David Petraeus, the US Central Command Chief, went around in the Central Russian Republics since early this year, striking deals with Kazakhstan, followed by one with Uzbekistan in April, and then managing to lure Kyrgyzstan into a financial incentives’ package, despite the Kyrgyz Parliament’s deadline for closing operations from Manas.
The deal with Uzbekistan for the shipment of “non-lethal” supplies to Afghanistan covers rail and road transport as well as air, giving the US a big advantage of time and money saving. Similarly, the deal on flights through Russia will save the U.S. government $133 million annually in transportation costs while boosting logistical efficiency and ensuring timely deliveries.
The deal on June 25 with Kyrgyzstan would cost the U.S. $60 million in annual rent, more than triple the previous yearly cost of $17.4 million and in return, the United States keeps its only air re supply hub for the war in Afghanistan just as it adds more than 20,000 forces there by the end of the year. Along with troops, weapons, ammunition and other military supplies, the Manas base is used to refuel tanker planes that provide in-flight refueling of allied jets circling Afghan skies and it is also a key medical evacuation point.
In addition to the annual rent, the U.S. also will spend about $37 million to build new aircraft parking slots and storage areas, plus $30 million for new navigation systems. Washington has also committed to give Kyrgyzstan $51.5 million to combat drug trafficking and terrorism and to promote economic development.
A cursory look at all these agreements with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, suggest that the US would be coughing up millions of dollars for the cargo passage through an erstwhile enemy territory.
But this hunt for cargo facilitation also underscores that money probably matters little as far as the United States and its allies are concerned. What is of prime importance for them is to maintain the supplies’ chain to Afghanistan. Any disruption in this chain means upsetting the pace of operations and this is what President Obama and his administration probably don’t want. Keeping the pressure up on insurgents inside Afghanistan would be possible only when critical cargo supply is guaranteed.
Although Pakistan remains critical for progress and success of the war in Afghanistan and the border regions, it does lose quite a big of its strategic advantage in view of the latest developments. Obama has broken ice with Russia after winning over its satellites in Central Asia. They have all dug into the American pockets, cutting good deals. Moscow would most probably also trade-off some of its demands like keeping Georgia and Ukraine out of NATO, as well as denying the installation of NATO defense systems in all the states in the eastern periphery of Russia.
The Russians and the Central Asia states seem to have played their cards very intelligently i.e. mending political fences and simultaneously extracting financial benefits from the US-led western alliance that is desperate to score tangible success in Afghanistan without getting bogged down in the logistics of the military, fuel and food supplies.
While they have cut a good deal with the United States, Pakistan’s leverage on the cargo through its territory is gradually slipping, a danger many observers have been warning of since early this year. But with insurgency raging in Malakand /Swat, Bajaur and other parts of FATA, the civilian authorities apparently have had little time to contemplate as how to prevent the loss of this strategic leverage. No serious debate over the issue took place within the government circles as to what happens if most of the NATO cargo is diverted away from Pakistan and transited through Russia and Central Asia.
This development, the shifting of Afghanistan-bound supplies to Central Asia amounts to both political as well as financial loss for Pakistan. In monetary terms, it is not a big deal but this does underscore the gradual erosion of Pakistan’s position in the region. It also highlights the dwindling trust in Pakistan’s capability to handle the current crisis. It certainly needs, on the institutional level, a deep and urgent stock taking of the situation and to think of ways as how to contain the decline. If it is not handled with wisdom and foresight, even strategic locations cannot prevent a state from degenerating into a “migraine”, as former US foreign secretary Madeline Albright had chosen to describe Pakistan.