As the United States prepares to boost its military presence in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is using all means to secure alternative routes to supply U.S. and NATO forces as the security situation continues to deteriorate in Pakistan, according to U.S. officials who asked that they not be named.
So far Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan have all agreed to provide new supply routes to Afghanistan, all anxious to boost their international profiles, these sources said.
Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Times, “These new routes reflect a necessary fallback position since Pakistan is becoming more and more unstable. We relied on the Paks for seven years, but routes became more and more insecure.”
Former CIA chief of Counterterrorism, Vince Cannistraro, described the Pakistan routes as “a mess” and “increasingly vulnerable.”
For the past seven years, the United States relied on Pakistan’s route through the Khyber Pass since it was the most efficient Schaffer said, noting: “We not only used roads but could sail a ship out of Karachi.”
But according to Cannistraro and serving U.S. officials, the Pakistani route from Karachi to Kabul was so insecure that Pakistani trucking companies halted deliveries of goods to Afghanistan late last year because neither the trucks or their drivers were safe from attacks by militants.
Late last year, in the Peshawar area militants destroyed about 150 trucks headed for Afghanistan, according to published reports. More attacks have been reported this year, U.S. officials said.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official said that trucks are often looted in broad daylight and their drivers either killed or kidnapped for ransom.
With 21,000 additional U.S. troops expected in Afghanistan, the U.S.-NATO forces will require some 3,500 tons of water per day as well as thousands of tons of jet fuel and other key goods, according to U.S. officials.
The northern supply route offered by Uzbekistan and the other three countries in the region would allow the transit of non-military cargo, according to a State Dept. Official, who asked not to be named.
Schaffer observed that using the Central Asian Republics could pose
“overflight issues and other complications,” but these appear to be on the way to being solved.
According to Robert McDermott, an analyst writing for the Jamestown Foundation, Turkmenistan, a neutral country, is offering an air corridor that could act as an additional support to the six-day overland northern route.
The Turkmen air corridor would begin in Latvia and cross Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan through Tajikistan to avoid a bottleneck at Termez, according to McDermott.
He added that a pilot flight had been launched on Feb. 19 and completed on Feb. 25.
Attempts to reach McDermott by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful.
But a State Department official confirmed that the United States will fund the use of these routes, although he would not discuss amounts or terms.
A major meeting on March 9 in Baku, Azerbaijan, by the U.S. European Command, representatives from the U.S. Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, the Defense Logistics Agency and the Department of Defense, was also attended by Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, to investigate South Caucasus supply routes.
CSIS Middle East expert Tony Cordesman said that the Obama administration has also been talking to Turkey to gain permission to have flights leave from Turkish bases, pass through Iranian or Turkmenistan airspace, or depart from Navroly or Karshi-Kanabad in Uzbekistan, transiting Turkmenistan.
A more economical route could originate in Turkey, stop to make purchases of goods in Azerbaijan and then ship them to Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, U.S. officials said.
Cordesman said another possibility was a route beginning in Turkey transiting Armenia or Georgia, and Azerbaijan across the Caspian passing through Kazak or Uzbek airspace. A more direct route could pass through Turkmenistan air space, a U.S. official said.
On March 5, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohayan told senior Afghanistan officials that Armenia would open its airspace for shipments of supplies to U.S. forces, according to published reports.
Azerbaijan is also an active candidate. According to published reports by the Caspian Navigation Bureau, a new route was tested by shipping containers through Azerbaijan and into Afghanistan. This new route would send 30,000 containers per month, making Azerbaijan a new and important U.S. security partner, according to public statements by the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Anne Derse.
Some U.S. intelligence officials believe the new transit agreements and the growing closeness of fresh ties could lead to the countries allowing U.S. bases on their soil if that became necessary, using warehouses to store arms or humanitarian aid. Even Georgia has made an offer to the administration to provide a supply route and a military base, a State Dept. official said.
But the Obama administration is determined to rely on civilian, commercial purchases and avoid militarizing the program, according to Middle East analyst Pat Clawson at Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Regarding a China route for re-supplying U.S. forces, Schaffer was skeptical: it runs through a part of China that “we don’t get anywhere near. China will stay close to Pakistan.”
The most controversial offer of help came from Iran which has agreed to let the United States Air Base at Al-Udeid in Qatar be the chief base from which U.S. materiel would be flown across Iran into Afghanistan, according to former senior DIA official Col. Pat Lang. The plan was presented to President Obama in early April by Secretary of Defense Bill Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff head Adm. Mike Mullin, and transport command official, Gen. Duncan J. McNabb after numerous Iran-U.S. backdoor meetings.
According to Lang and other U.S. officials, Al Udeid in Qatar would act as the hub from which U.S. aircraft could fly weapons, supplies and troops over the Persian Gulf, and continue through southern and central Iran to the U.S. base at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
There is also a sea route from Iran that could be used, former and serving U.S. officials said. The Revolutionary Guards main naval base is at Chah-Bahar, on the Arabian Sea near Iran’s northern border with Pakistan and is the main base for Tehran’s submarine fleet. The argument is that it would provide the ideal port of call for U.S. provisions to reach Afghanistan by sea. From the port, U.S. ships would travel north through Iran’s Sistan-v-Baluchstan route up to the Iran- Pakistan-Afghanistan border intersection where they would head east to Kandahar.
Lang said this plan was facing strong Israeli opposition.
Schaffer said she wasn’t aware of the plan, but added: “like anything with Iran, it will have a sting in the tail.