The East-West Corridor to Afghanistan

Ten days ago, I referred to this M.K. Bhadrakumar piece in Asia Times Online as “speculation.” In the meantime, things have moved pretty quickly, and the direction they’re headed in lends increasing weight to the scenario Bhadrakumar sketched out.

In a nutshell, the Afghanistan Surge is essentially a done deal, with logistical preparations for an additional 30K troops already underway. That, in turn, creates a need for more secure supply lines than is presently the case via land routes through Pakistan. There are essentially three alternatives: the East-West Corridor by boat, rail and road via Georgia-Azerbaijan-Turkemenistan; airlift via Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; and freight transit through Russia and Central Asia. (Analysis in the Eurasia Daily Monitor here, and at the New Atlanticist here.)

As Bhadrakumar emphasizes, the advantage of the first two options for the U.S. is that, with the Afghanistan War effort as justification, it solidifies an American military presence in a vital, energy-rich region. It’s a presence that American strategic planners have been coveting for a while, but without much more than token success.

Recent events in the Caucasus (by which I mean the almost perverse courtship of Georgia, the pipeline politics of transit routes, and the Russia-Georgia War) as well as the upstream competition for supplies in Central Asia, can all be understood in the context of American efforts to get a bridgehead in Russia’s sphere of influence, and Russia’s efforts to slam the door on those efforts. That was the guiding logic behind WPR’s Central Asia feature.

To get back to Afghanistan supply routes, the first two options through the South Caucasus and Central Asia raise the temperature in NATO-Russian relations,while the latter one involving Russian transit agreements entails finding a working relationship between Russia and the West. The question Bhadrakumar was raising, and which Tom Barnett saw right away but dismissed, is whether President-elect Obama’s stated objective of securing Afghanistan will make him vulnerable to what amounts to a dressed-up, neoconservative rearguard action that risks alienating Russia, India and China. The news, via the IHT, that this is indeed what American military strategists are planning indicates that the answer is yes.

With yesterday’s handover of the Green Zone to Iraq authority, the endgame is now in sight in Iraq. And the fact that it includes an American security oversight of Iraq’s oil reserves, as well as likely American priority on oil contracts, is a point that has not been lost on Moscow, Delhi and Beijing. The idea that they will stand idly by and allow America, even under cover of NATO, to get the same kind of toehold on Central Asian energy sources seems farfetched.

The IHT article cited above refers to “delicate negotiations” with the Central Asian states and Russia, including confining the transit contracts to commercial companies, and limiting cargo to non-weapons logistical supplies. And it’s very possible that the U.S. will gain access to the routes. Russian influence is by some reports declining at an accelerated rate in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown that has hit the Russian economy, and in particular the energy sector, hard.

But make no mistake. The outcome of these negotiations, and how they are received in Moscow, Beijing and Delhi, is the canary in the mine for the chances of a successful Obama first term. After the honeymoon with Obama ends, and it will end, the U.S. will need at least the non-interference, if not the active support, of the other major powers to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan, the region beyond, as well as elsewhere (Iran). It’s not going to get that if it makes another hamhanded military grab on the energy prize that everybody’s got their eyes on, or even gives that impression.