Afghanistan, logistics, geopolitics, war, peace

The WaPo’s Craig Whitlock has an informative piece in today’s paper about the many continuing challenges the U.S. military has faced as it attempted to provide logistic support to the “surged” U.S. troop presence in very distant Afghanistan.
Supplying these troops is particularly hard, due to three factors:

    1. Um, Afghanistan is a long way away from the United States; it is landlocked with high mountains surrounding it on nearly every side; and it has lousy internal infrastructure.
    2. The all-volunteer U.S. military is configured in a certain way and most of it fights in a certain way. Bottom line here: supporting one service-member in the field, what with bottled water, air-conditioning when at all possible, decent electric supplies, warm meals whenever possible– oh, not to mention the high cost of her or his weaponry, very high-tech vehicles, and the fuel needed to power them– etc., etc., places huge demands on the supply branches such as would not be placed by, for example, a Maoist-style field force “living off the land.”
    3. U.S. politics certainly constrains logistics choices that might otherwise be far simpler (and less expensive) to make. For example: one look at the map so handily provided by the WaPo today shows a big U.S.-logistics black hole in the whole of Iran, a neighbor of Afghanistan that has a number of pretty good land links with it. But the U.S. can’t use Iran as a transit zone! (More on this, below.) In addition, though, domestic U.S. political pressures mandate that the vast bulk of the goods supplied to U.S. forces be bought from (and shipped from) U.S. suppliers. So it might make a lot more sense to source the supplies from elsewhere. (And I believe that in the case of bottled water, this is not shipped in from the United States– can anyone confirm that?) But still, that domestic-sourcing pressure might help save a few jobs back in the United States, but it certainly adds hugely to the logistical challenge.

So yes, in some respects the U.S. military is a competent organization; and by and large it has been able to meet the logistical challenges created by the above factors.
Whitlock quotes Alan F. Estevez, the Pentagon’s principal deputy assistant secretary for logistics, as saying “If you look at what we’ve done there in the last two years, we look at it more or less as a logistics miracle.”
H’mm. “Miraculous”, maybe. But also a truly gargantuan money sump for the currently hard-pressed U.S. taxpayer, a massive burden on the global environment and especially the environment of the war zone itself… And all for– what exactly?
In order to deliver the machinery of lethal combat into one of the poorest countries on earth…


And to do this in pursuit of a U.S. “strategy” in Afghanistan that has never been justifiable, feasible, or even clearly articulated– from October 7, 2001, the day the U.S.-led coalition started the war that chased the country’s Taliban government from power, right through to today.
Today when, as we all know, after nearly ten full years of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government is now finally getting into negotiations with the Taliban over how to wind down the war.
Honestly, I feel my heart is about to break. When I think of all the death, destruction, gross loss of financial resources, and damage to the international community that has been wrought by these past ten years of war in Afghanistan…
Imagine if, instead of launching that war effort to oust the Taliban government (as punishment for the role it had played in hosting Al-Qaeda over the preceding years), Washington had sat down at that point, in September 2001, and done some very smart and tough negotiating with the Taliban, right then and there?
Such a negotiating strategy could have been aimed at very firmly “persuading” the Taliban to cooperate in a campaign to round up and deliver to some appropriate (preferably U.N.based) judicial forum all the Al-Qaeda people and networks that it had any knowledge about at all.
Remember the sheer extent of the international sympathy the United States enjoyed back then! Our country would have had the cooperation of just about all the world’s governments and peoples in pushing forward this campaign.
Imagine how different Pakistan would look today if we had done that.
Imagine how different Iraq and the rest of the Arab world would have looked if militarism had not become enshrined, back in September-October or 2001, as the absolute “go-to” tool in Washington’s foreign-policy toolkit…
Ah well. I did just want to put this whole issue of the current “logistics miracle” that the U.S. is achieving in Afghanistan into some kind of broader context.
(Imagine if all the brains, smarts, and investment that have been poured into that logistics miracle and the whole of the broader war effort since September 2001 had been poured instead into providing safe drinking water and universal K-12 schooling in every low-income country in the world– How much safer would everyone in the world be today than we are now?)
But meanwhile, over in miracle-land, let’s look at that WaPo map again:
Supply-graphicstory.jpgIt only look like a miracle to get anything through a network of supply routes like this because of the tangled and complex nature of the networks themselves!
Look for a moment at the route that starts in Constanta, Romania. It’s not clear, of course, how any goods actually get there. (Does the Pentagon buy very much of anything from Romania itself? I doubt it.) But from there they are shipped by sea to Poti, Georgia. Then they’re transferred to either trucks or rail-cars for the trip across the Caucasus to Baku. Then they’re put on ships again, to cross the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan. And from there they take a circuitous truck route through Kazakhstan and then through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan to end up in northern Afghanistan.
You can bet that at each goods-transfer point there are high costs (and payoffs)– and similarly at each international border. No wonder some estimates have it that delivering a gallon of vehicle fuel to Afghanistan costs $400, and keeping each U.S. service-member supplied in the field there for a year takes around $1 million.
Back in November/December 2008, when Bernhard of moon of Alabama and I were both blogging quite a bit about the logistics challenge in Afghanistan, the sketch map he drew of the basic options the Pentagon had for supplying the war in Afghanistan captured the basic outlines of what the main (non-Iran) possibilities were. And his red line there did show how hard those trans-shipments from Romania across the Black and Caspian Seas would be. But his sketch failed to capture the messy complexity of all those alternative routes coming into Afghanistan from all directions. Plus, crucially, Bernhard was showing the possibility– which was then still a live one– of the Pentagon being able to conclude some kind of a deal with China to be able to use some of their rail network.
Well, in a companion article in today’s WaPo, Whitlock reported that the talks U.S. officials were having with their counterparts in Beijing on this request were all going fairly well– until “China suspended military relations with the United States in January 2010 to protest the sale of $6 billion in weapons to Taiwan.”
Well, I’m assuming the people in Obama’s Pentagon knew what the stakes would be with the Taiwan arms sale. So it seems to me, the essential choice they were making was to continue with Washington’s longstanding campaign to buttress the military encirclement of China on the Pacific Rim, even if this should involve seriously weakening the U.S. military’s position in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is also a country that’s on the periphery of China’s sphere of immediate influence. Indeed, the two countries share one tiny stretch of common border, though not much of anything goes directly across it, as far as I can see. And Pakistan is of even more evident and longstanding geopolitical interest to China. (I last wrote at length about there matters in this blog post, from October 2009– as it happened, just a few months before Obama and Gates announced that big arms sale to Taiwan.)
Well, moving right along with my consideration of some of the geopolitics of the Pentagon’s current “logistical miracle” in Afghanistan, let’s look again at that large hole in the logistic net, as it hangs over Iran.
Iran has a fairly long border with Afghanistan, and it also a fairly good national highway system. For the Pentagon, trucking supplies into Afghanistan via Iran whether from the Turkish (or Iraqi) land borders, or from one of Iran’s seaports, would have been an attractive way to get them to where they’re needed. And many of Afghanistan’s people and traders themselves are very happy to import goods via Iran. In a recent piece in Asia Times Online, Syed Fazl-e-Haider wrote,

    Iran’s role in Afghan trade increased with the completion in 2008 of the 218-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram road, built with the help of India. The link reduced Afghanistan’s near total dependence on Pakistan for access to seaports by allowing a link with the Iranian port of Chabahar.
    Delays in implementing [the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement] further encouraged a shift in the Afghan transit trade with Iran, and Afghan traders increasingly book cargo containers from Dubai for transportation through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, east of Chabahar.
    As many as 17,000 containers have been booked from Dubai to (the Iranian port of] Bandar Abbas by Afghan traders, according to the Pakistan newspaper The News. This trend could continue…

So has Washington been prepared to emulate those wily Afghan traders and use the Iranian route to get much-needed supplies into the war-zone in Afghanistan?
You kidding?
Craig Whitlock, in his main piece in today’s WaPo, (mis-)frames the matter this way:

    With landlocked Afghanistan lacking seaports, and hostile Iran blocking access [to Afghanistan] from the west, Pentagon logisticians have limited alternatives.

No, Craig, Iran is not just gratuitously “blocking access” for the U.S. military to get materiel into Afghanistan. Rather, surely, what is happening is that Washington long ago balked at the idea of the cooperation, negotiation, and engagement that winning such an agreement would involve.
All of which is rather surprising if you take the longer view and recall that Iran was one of three major international allies upon whom the Pentagon relied heavily back in the fall of 2001, in order to prepare and implement the plan to invade Afghanistan and topple the Taliban. (The other two were India and Russia.) But soon enough after that– I believe it was at or before that point in 2003, when Pres. Khatami’s overture to Washington received such a rude rebuff from Pres. G.W. Bush– official Washington (including the leaderships of both parties) decided to turn their backs on the potential for detente with Iran that was offered by Iran’s active cooperation in the invasion of Afghanistan and its more passive but still non-trivial cooperation in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein…
Here’s one of the things that most riled me on reading Whitlock’s piece. At the end, he reports–without challenging the snooty imperialistic meme incolved, that tells us that brown people are “irrational” and often are clearly acting against heir own best interest (which “we” white people so well understand, on their behalf, of course.)– on the way that the former U.S. ambassador in Tashkent wrote about Uzbekistan’s policy on one of these trans-shipment questions, as revealed by WikiLeaks. He write,

    “Uzbek pride often gets the better of rationality and officials here will think nothing of cutting off their nose to spite their face,” Norland added in a July 2009 cable.

Excuse me? Who in this whole matter has been “cutting off their nose to spite their face”?
If the U.S. planners and the administration that employs them had been serious about maximizing the chance for U.S. success in the very long war in Afghanistan, would they not have put that task ahead of the desire for an (actually, not terrifically large, dollars-wise, but extremely large, politics-wise) new arms delivery to Taiwan?
If they had been serious about the war in Afghanistan war, would they not have fund some diplomatic way to deal with Iran, and gain access to the huge logistical benefit that that would have offered?
And while we’re about it, if they had been serious about realizing their main goal of swiftly incapacitating Al-Qaeda and rounding up its leading figures, would they not have made 100 times more effort back in September 2001 to do just exactly what they’re doing now, ten years and so many wasted lives later, in negotiating firmly about this matter with the Taliban?
Talk about “cutting off their nose to spite their face.’ It certainly isn’t the non-Americans who are the people o earth who do that.

6 thoughts on “Afghanistan, logistics, geopolitics, war, peace

  1. Clif Brown

    Excellent commentary!
    But we don’t end up with the likes of you in power, Helena. Those who reach the top are more in the Dick Cheney mold. That thinking makes the world you envision impossible and the one we have inevitable. Money is not a consideration, control is everything.
    Consider what a difference it would make if the United States dedicated one entire carrier battle fleet to humanitarian purposes – aircraft carriers converted to huge floating hospitals with supporting ships ready to provide fuel, food, you name it, to any point around the world with helicopters employed to ferry diseased or injured to the carrier/hospital ship – Marines ready to establish an on-shore hospital/medical support base. Repayment for expenses by the suffering country would be at that country’s option.
    The world would drop its collective jaw if this happened.
    Afghanistan is a bottomless sink for money and lives. The Taliban came back from seeming extinction when we first went in and does anyone want to bet that they, locals after all, will be there when all is said and done by the United States?
    There are brick walls that cannot be breached all over the world. I thought that the Vietnam debacle had taught us a lesson, but with the success of the 1991 Iraq war, I worried as I heard talk of the US “recovering” from the humiliation of Vietnam. So another brick wall was just waiting to be attacked. Hubris is the word.
    Just as we all wonder how millionaires can end up bankrupt, nations, when holding great wealth and power, are also likely to squander.

  2. Steve Connors

    Helena,
    Firstly, on a historical note, I believe the US was involved in negotiations with the Taliban in 2001. If I recall correctly the T were willing to hand over OBL to some sort of Ulema court (a sort of Islamic ICC) for trial. That was rejected by the US administration.
    Also, in an otherwise comprehensive post on the logistics problems the US faces on a daily basis in Afghanistan, you haven’t mentioned the considerable “protection money” paid by the US – indirectly but not inadvertently – to the Taliban. Off the top of my head I believe this comes in at about $1200 per vehicle and the percentage of that received as tax by the Taliban shadow governments is a considerable source of funding. Cutting off noses, indeed.
    Steve

  3. Steve Connors

    For anyone who missed the funding report here’s the WaPo piece:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/21/AR2010062104628.html
    I was originally tipped off about this many months earlier by a regular commenter on Registan, Josh Foust’s blog. The commenter, a civilian NGO worker, indicated that this whole affair was common knowledge to those working in Afghanistan so I found it particularly worrying that there had been no news reporting of the trend prior to the congressional report.

  4. paul

    I constantly wonder; is Helena feigning naivete? I mean, it’s charming to claim that the US could have persuaded the Taliban to turn Al Queda over for ‘justice’, but for that to happen, they’d have had to be able to prove that Al Queda actually caused, planned, carried out 911. They still can’t prove that, and you know it, Helena.

  5. Salah

    US problems in Afghanistan started when they went to fight Al-Qaida there; US waged a war on a nation that has nothing to do with OBL and his gangs. In fact none of those 9/11 criminals were Afghani.
    Talban are tribal/ethnic group although they follow extreme side of Islamic religion, they did not said or behaved in any hatful or threatened any western nations in that matter, in fact Iran’s Mullah were more publically insulting US and other western nation for the last 30 years.
    Let not forgot that before 2001 there was delectations Washington DC negotiating oil pipeline through Afghanistan they met some high-ranking US officials, which support what said above.
    US should withdraw its troop, leave that country, and start new approach that makes both nations friend not enemies.

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