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Informed Comment

Obama May Postpone Afghan Surge

Severe Problems in Supply Routes Afflict Aghanistan War Effort

While the attention of the US public and the news media here has been consumed (understandably enough) by the congressional debate over the economic stimulus plan, America's war in Afghanistan has nearly collapsed because of logistical problems.

First, the Taliban destroyed a crucial bridge west of Peshawar over which NATO trucks traveled to the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan. 75% of US and NATO supplies for the war effort in Afghanistan are offloaded at the Pakistani port of Karachi and sent by truck through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. Then the Taliban burned 10 trucks carrying such materiel, to demonstrate their control over the supply route of their enemy. The Taliban can accomplish these breathtaking operations against NATO in Pakistan in large part because Pakistani police and military forces are unwilling to risk much to help distant foreign America beat up their cousins. That reluctance is unlikely to change with any rapidity.

Well, you might say, there are other ways to get supplies to Afghanistan. But remember it is a landlocked country. Its neighbors are Pakistan, China, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Pakistan is the most convenient route, and it may be at an end. China's short border is up in the Himalayas and not useful for transport. Tajikistan is more remote than Afghanistan. The US does not have the kind of good relations with Iran that would allow use of that route for military purposes. A Turkmenistan route would depend on an Iran route, so that is out, too.




So what is left? Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, that's what.

More bad news. Kyrgyzstan has made a final decision to deny the US further use of the Manas military base, from which the US brought 500 tons of materiel into Afghanistan every month. It is charged that Russia used its new oil and gas wealth to bribe Kyrgyzstan to exclude the US, returning the area to its former status as a Russian sphere of influence. (Presumably this would also be payback for US and NATO expansion on Russia's European and Caucasian borders).

Then there was one. The US has opened negotiations with Uzbekistan, which had given Washington use of a base 2002-2005 but ended that deal after it massacred protesters at Andizhon in 2005. Some Uzbeks charged that the US had promoted an "Orange Revolution" style uprising similar to the one in the Ukraine against Uzbek stongman Islam Karimov. But even if the US could get a stable relationship with Karimov, the Uzbeks are not offering to be the transit route for military materiel, only for nonlethal food, medicine and other items.

In the light of these logistical problems (which are absolutely central to the prospects for success of the Afghanistan War), and given that no clear, attainable, finite mission in Afghanistan has ever been enunciated by US civil or military leaders, it is no wonder that President Barack Obama is reported to be putting the "Afghan surge" or the sending of 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan on hold until a clearer mission can be formulated. TheTimes of London writes:

' The president was concerned by a lack of strategy at his first meeting with Gates and the US joint chiefs of staff last month in "the tank", the secure conference room in the Pentagon. He asked: "What's the endgame?" and did not receive a convincing answer. '

and adds, 'Leading Democrats fear Afghanistan could become Obama's "Vietnam quagmire".'

This is a warning that I have voiced, in Salon.

And make sure to read Tom Engelhardt's essential essay on Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires.

Aljazeera English reports on the blocking of the supply routes in Pakistan used by NATO to send materiel to Afghanistan, by Taliban in Pakistan. Just a note on the high quality both of the report and the discussion, which includes former State Department South Asia analyst Marvin Weinbaum, former head of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Lt Gen (Ret.) Asad Durrani, and former Afghan/Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mulla Abdul Salam Zaeef. You would almost never get this range of opinion in expert comment on such an issue on American corporate news. Aljazeera's philosophy, of allowing all sides of an issue to be heard, seems to me far superior to the American approach of having a US centrist debate a US far-right conservative about foreign policy (typically even an American left voice is absent over here).


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Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st. He is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

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