New York Times: The United States is seeking new supply routes for the war in Afghanistan that would bypass Russia, and has even had logistics experts review overland roads through Iran that might be used by NATO allies, according to military planners and Pentagon officials.
The New York Times
By THOM SHANKER and ELISABETH BUMILLER
Published: March 11, 2009
WASHINGTON — The United States is seeking new supply routes for the war in Afghanistan that would bypass Russia, and has even had logistics experts review overland roads through Iran that might be used by NATO allies, according to military planners and Pentagon officials.
The effort is aimed at developing reliable alternatives to routes through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan, where convoys have come under increasing attack by the Taliban, and to prepare for the possible loss of an important air base in Kyrgyzstan. The planning also reflects growing concern that Russia could use its clout to restrict American and allied shipments that would be passing in greater amounts through its territory on the way to staging areas in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan en route to Afghanistan.
Pentagon and military officials cautioned that the United States was not in any way considering the use of overland routes through Iran for American supplies, a politically implausible proposition given the near frozen state of relations between the United States and Iran. American officials say that recent overtures from the Obama administration toward Iran — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week proposed a conference on Afghanistan that would include Iran — did not encompass any use of Iranian roads.
But Pentagon and NATO planners, as part of an effort to consider every contingency, have studied Iranian routes from the port of Chabahar, on the Arabian Sea, that link with a new road recently completed by India in western Afghanistan. The route is considered shorter and safer than going through Pakistan.
“In the course of prudent planning, our military planners have looked at virtually every conceivable avenue of supplying our forces in Afghanistan,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “However, as you would expect, they have done so with an eye on logistical feasibility rather than political reality.”
The route through Iran nonetheless might be the focus of bilateral supply talks conducted by individual NATO allies that have relations with Iran, as NATO’s supreme allied commander, Gen. John Craddock, an American, suggested last month. Moreover, the Shiite government in Iran has long had testy relations with the Sunni Taliban, improving the odds that it could offer transit of supplies to NATO nations.
In an interview in February with The Associated Press, General Craddock said NATO would not oppose individual member nations’ making deals with Iran to supply their forces in Afghanistan. “Those would be national decisions,” he said. “NATO should act in a manner that is consistent with their national interest and with their ability to resupply their forces. I think it is purely up to them.”
Outlines of potential alternatives to routes through Russia emerged in greater detail this week, as the American military hosted a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, for transportation officials and private contractors from two former Soviet republics — Azerbaijan and Georgia — and from Turkey to examine new supply routes into Afghanistan.
The route would be a west-to-east swing across the Caucasus region and into Central Asian states to the north of Afghanistan.
Officially, the United States and NATO would be expected to explain that this new route would be a supplement to other transit lines, and not intended as an antidote to potential Russian coercion as Russia takes on a greater share of supplying the Afghan mission.
“We want to avoid any danger of single-point failure, whether it’s Pakistan or Russia,” said one American military officer. “It’s simply prudent planning to have alternative lines of communication.”
Even so, any new deals for routes through former Soviet republics would diminish the Kremlin’s growing role in supplying the alliance in Afghanistan, and would be expected to frustrate the leadership in Moscow. In particular, including Georgia as part of a new route would irritate Russia.
Georgia, which fought a war last summer with Russia, is said by American officials to be eagerly seeking a role in supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan — as it desires alliance membership, and protection, and wants to do all it can to bind itself to the Atlantic alliance.
Although Russia expresses a desire to support the American and NATO mission in Afghanistan, Kremlin leaders offered large economic incentives to Kyrgyzstan to kick out the Americans from a base in Manas, just outside the Kyrgyz capital, that has been an important hub for moving troops into Afghanistan as well as a base for tanker planes.
Mr. Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, said late Wednesday that the Kyrgyz government had agreed that American negotiators would travel there in coming days and engage in talks on extending access rights to the Manas base. The question of additional payments is expected to be central to the discussion. Even so, the Air Force is working on contingency plans to move the tanker fleet to bases in the Persian Gulf if it loses basing rights to Manas.
The Azeri capital, Baku, is emerging as a leading candidate to substitute for Manas, should the Kyrgyz government refuse to reconsider its withdrawal of the basing rights.
American and Azeri officials said that the focus of the discussions on Monday and Tuesday was a surface route that would move supplies from the Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea and overland to Baku, where they would cross the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan, and then overland across Uzbekistan into Afghanistan.
A second potential route would land cargo at the Caspian seaport of Turkmenbashi, in Turkmenistan, for transit into Afghanistan. Talks on supply routes have also been held with officials in Tajikistan, another neighbor to the north of Afghanistan.
One American official said the first “trial run” of cargo containers on the new route was conducted within the last two weeks, with shipments of lumber sent from Turkey to Georgia to Azerbaijan, and then onward toward Afghanistan.
At the conference, the American military was represented by officials from the European Command, Transportation Command and Defense Logistics Agency, and officials said the talks focused only on movement of nonlethal supplies.