US opens route to Afghanistan through Russia's backyard
American influence in former Soviet countries could make or break Obama administration's new Afghan-Pakistan strategy
Luke Harding in Nizhny Panj The Guardian, Monday 30 March 2009
The road passes a shimmering green mountain pasture, then dips steeply to a new US-built bridge. Across the languid Panj river is Afghanistan and the dusty northern town of Kunduz. On this side is Tajikistan, Afghanistan's impoverished Central Asian neighbour.
It is here, at what used to be the far boundary of the Soviet empire, that the US and Nato are planning a new operation. Soon, Nato trucks loaded with non-military supplies will start rolling into Afghanistan along this northern route, avoiding Pakistan's perilous tribal areas and the ambush-prone Khyber Pass.
This northern corridor is essential if Barack Obama's Afghan-Pakistan strategy is to work. With convoys supplying US and Nato forces regularly attacked by the Taliban on the Pakistan route, the US is again courting the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
Nato has already signed a transit deal with Tajikistan. It says it expects bilateral agreements with Uzbekistan "within days" and Kazakhstan "within weeks". Pakistan will remain the primary route. But the sleepy Tajik-Afghan border crossing at the village of Nizhny Panj will become a focal point of Obama's Afghan push.
"We used to cross the river by boat. Then the Americans built a bridge," Rasul Nematov, 35, who lives in Nizhny Panj said. Next to his front garden, past a line of washing and a trailing vine, is a Tajik sentry tower. The Pentagon has given Dushanbe, Tajikistan's attractive capital, $10m to beef up security on its mountainous border, a key conduit for Afghanistan's biggest export, heroin.
Currently, only a few dozen Afghan drivers cross the bridge every day. From here they proceed to Dushanbe, filling up their Kamaz trucks with sugar and other goods. They then head home. The route goes past fields of cotton, donkeys, small boys selling fish, and willow and poplar trees, their blossom now floating across a fragrant spring landscape.
"This road to Tajikistan is good. It's safe, quiet," Said Muhammed, 54, an Afghan truck driver from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif told the Guardian. He added: "The problem is with the road south from Kabul to Kandahar. I don't drive it. It's dangerous. The Taliban dragged my friend out of his truck and set it on fire."
But looming over the US's latest attempt to get a foothold in Central Asia is the region's former colonial super-power - Moscow. Formally, Russia has offered to help Obama in his attempts to deal with the deteriorating situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and last month it agreed the shipment of non-lethal supplies destined for Kabul across Russian territory. Informally, however, Russia has moved decisively to reassert its influence in Central Asia, a region it still regards as its backyard. In 2001 George Bush and Vladimir Putin, the US and Russia's then leaders, cut an informal deal to cooperate over the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. Moscow allowed the US military to set up several bases in Central Asia.
Since then, though, the Kremlin sees itself as having been betrayed - by what it regards as US-engineered pro-western revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. It has hit back by sealing backroom deals with Central Asia's democracy-averse strongmen. In 2005 Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, fed up with western criticism of his dire human rights record, kicked Washington out of its military base near the border town of Termiz.
Vital supply point
Last month, meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan announced it was also shutting its US airbase in Manas, named after a legendary Kyrgyz hero who rode a winged horse and performed amazing feats. The base near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, is the US's last outpost in Central Asia, and is a vital supply point for ferrying US troops and supplies to nearby Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan's president announced the base's closure in Moscow hours after meeting Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, who offered him a $2bn loan. Russia may yet allow the US to carry on using the base - but only as part of a new deal encompassing Moscow's wider strategic concerns on Nato expansion and missile defence.
Analysts say there is likely to be only one winner in Central Asia's new great game -a hackneyed phrase used to describe the romanticised 19th-century struggle between imperial Britain and tsarist Russia, played out against the backdrop of the Pamir mountains and the Hindu Kush. It won't be Washington, they predict.
"It's up and down. Since 2001 the Americans have had the upper hand in Central Asia. Now the Russians are getting back what the Americans have lost," Parviz Mullajanov, an expert in international affairs based in Dushanbe said. He added: "In reality, the US never won the game. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has managed to preserve its leading position in Central Asia."
According to Mullajanov, Moscow has significantly boosted its military, economic and intelligence activity across the region. It has other advantages too, he says. "All post-Soviet countries live in Russian-speaking informational space. The majority of people watch Russian TV and read Russian newspapers. They see the outside world through Russian eyes. This is a very powerful tool."
The US's position, by contrast, is "very weak", Mullajanov suggests. Washington's attempts to reach out to civil society and opposition groups have got almost nowhere in Central Asia - a region run by a series of variously repressive and autocratic super-presidents, all apparently in the job for life. The US faces another headache in the shape of China, an ambitious pre-imperial contender in the neighbourhood.
Speaking at the White House on Friday, Obama made it clear that Afghanistan was his administration's top military priority. Instead of concentrating on Iraq, Obama said he intended to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan". This "clear and focused goal" would require an extra 21,000 US troops, in addition to the 38,000 already there, he declared.
Some, however, wonder how wise Obama is to rely on Central Asia. In a gloomy report, the International Crisis Group recently suggested the region was little better than crisis-rocked Pakistan, describing it "as a seriously risky bet". The report's author, Paul Quinn-Judge, noted: "Its leaders are all former Soviet apparatchiks ... most of the citizens live in deep poverty, and the countries' economies are for the most part feeble and fragile."
Sliding towards meltdown
He went on: "Worst-case scenarios include state collapse, the disintegration of national infrastructure, chaotic succession struggles and Islamic insurgency." If this were not bad enough, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - the two countries most important to the US's new logistical push - were sliding towards possible economic and social meltdown, the report claimed.
Either way, few in Tajikistan believe Obama's war in Afghanistan can be a success. "The US has already lost the war in Afghanistan. Sooner or later they will be forced to leave the country," Mullajanov said. He added: "The new administration understands very clearly that victory isn't achievable. Instead, the US is going to force the Taliban to make concessions, and to talk to them from a position of power."
Back in Nizhny Panj, Tajik border guards in dark blue uniforms cast an expert eye over another Afghan lorry. Tajikistan has agreed to allow up to 250 Nato trucks a day to cross here, a decision that will turn the riverside hamlet into a major hub. "I don't mind Nato. But what we really need here is a minibus to take our kids to school," said Nematov, a local. He pointed out: "It's 5km [three miles] away. At the moment they walk."