On Feb. 26, I woke up to the sound of a suicide car bomb explosion two blocks away. I ate my full English breakfast amid cacophonous gunfire from the neighborhood park. The Taliban took responsibility for my wake-up call. It is these sorts of events that prompt analysts here to argue that despite impressive progress against insurgents in Marjah, Afghanistan is “going to hell in a handbasket.”
But, as I ventured out on to the streets later that day, I couldn’t help noticing the extraordinary resilience of ordinary Kabulis. The bazaar was bustling, men and women flocked to mosque and traffic was as thick as ever. Colorful convoys of supply trucks plowed through the maelstrom. Business as usual.
Afghanistan’s fate depends a lot less on isolated suicide attacks, and more on those convoys, and the geopolitics surrounding them. It used to be that almost all nonlethal supplies for U.S., NATO and Afghan forces reached the conflict zone by going through the conflict zone, i.e., northwestern Pakistan. But as of last year, up to 10 percent of supplies entered Afghanistan at its northern borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Most of these containers, which reach the border by truck and train, have come across Central Asia, either through Russia or across the Caspian Sea from the Caucasus.
This is what U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) calls the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The fate of Afghanistan depends on the strength of this network. The extra supplies, brought through more secure routes, are essential for the maintenance of the Obama administration’s 30,000-person troop surge aimed at achieving short-term stability. But more importantly, the trade routes those supplies are revitalizing are essential for the long-term economic development of Afghanistan. Without an engine for prosperity, the Taliban fighter’s compensation – up to four times the take-home pay of a police officer – will remain attractive for young men, regardless of their religious fervor.
The Obama administration’s “regional” strategy for Afghanistan has very publicly included neighboring Pakistan in the overall scope of the conflict. But Pentagon strategists, working closely with international logistics companies, have also quietly sought to ensure that the countries of Central Asia have an active stake in Afghanistan’s long-term viability. TRANSCOM deliberately chose not to militarize the NDN, relying entirely on commercial shippers and, increasingly, regionally procured goods.
Other U.S. agencies have set up a “virtual storefront” on the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border through which regional suppliers can co-op to meet Pentagon procurement guidelines. This is to foster the transition from military supply route to regional trade route. If this transition fails, so will Afghanistan’s economic future.
But the geopolitical deck is stacked against success. The United States and NATO rely on the use of Russian transport infrastructure for the majority of supplies that come through the NDN. While Moscow has been publicly supportive, and even offered the use of Russian airspace for the transit of lethal supplies last year, U.S. officials and international companies privately point to increasing demands for checks and fees that are making the practicalities of shipping more difficult.
It seems that Russian decision-makers view cooperation on the NDN as part of broader negotiations with the United States and NATO on arms control, missile defense and Alliance enlargement. It is for this reason that the NDN’s secondary route skirts Russian territory to the south. But this is fraught with its own geopolitical conundra: simmering conflicts in Georgia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Caspian Sea disputes limiting ferry capacity and the priority for all Central Asian states of regime maintenance over regional cooperation.
In approaching Afghanistan, it is clear that administration officials understand the big picture and the importance of preparing for the long term. The NDN is not only a testament to regional cooperation, but interagency teamwork in Washington. However, this effort cannot fall prey to geopolitical machinations if it is to ensure that regional trade follows up on the hard work of U.S. and NATO forces. Success in Afghanistan should be measured in convoys, not car bombs.
Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow with the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and co-author of The Northern Distribution Network and Afghanistan: Geopolitical Challenges and Opportunities.