Carl von Clausewitz observed, “There is nothing more common than to find considerations of supply affecting the strategic lines of a campaign and a war.” As Secretary of Defense James Mattis prepares to dispatch more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, the Trump administration needs to consider how, as military scholars have written, “Logistical considerations will account for the feasibility of entrenching on a given piece of ground.” What policies will enable those troops and their supplies to get there and allow Afghanistan to develop the resources to entrench its own forces?
Military and economic access to landlocked Afghanistan depend on transit through Pakistan, Iran, or Russia — all of which some in the Trump administration and Congress seem bent on confronting simultaneously. The only alternative, a path that snakes from northwest Afghanistan to Turkey through Central Asia and the Caucasus via the Caspian Sea, lacks capacity and is vulnerable to both Russian and Iranian pressure. Afghanistan’s forbidding location poses obstacles to overextended U.S. ambitions. No matter how great President Donald Trump makes America, he cannot win the war on geography.
On June 14 Mattis told the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “At noon yesterday, President Trump delegated to me the authority to manage troop numbers in Afghanistan.” An anonymous official told The Washington Post Mattis would deploy an additional four thousand troops to reinforce the military’s mission to train, advise, and assist Afghanistan’s security forces. According to The Wall Street Journal, however, a few days later National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster sent out a secret memo to limited distribution, capping the Pentagon’s discretion at 3,900 troops. Any deployments above that modest number would require fresh authorization from the White House, as in previous administrations.
The White House has neither denied the change nor provided a reason for it. The very same day Mattis announced his soon-to-be-withdrawn delegated authority, however, the Trump administration hinted it might adopt Pakistan policies that could preclude more massive deployments. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee the administration was “beginning an inter-agency policy review towards Pakistan,” which hosts the leadership and rear bases of the Taliban. Members of Congress have called on the administration to eliminate aid to Pakistan, revoke its status as a major non-NATO ally, and designate it as a state sponsor of terrorism. The administration is also considering expanding drone strikes against Afghan Taliban targets in Pakistan. These policies, aimed at pressing Pakistan to cease support for the Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqani Network, would remove the incentives put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations for Islamabad to play its other role in the Afghan war: permitting transit through its airspace and territory for U.S. personnel and supplies.
That military transit has proven vulnerable to political tensions. Pakistan suspended U.S. military ground (but not air) transit for eight months straddling 2011 and 2012 after an incident in which U.S. troops killed 28 Pakistani soldiers at two posts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. If the United States escalates cross-border attacks on Taliban sanctuaries, such incidents could recur and escalate.
Transit through Pakistan is also essential to the Afghan economy: Until recently, Pakistan has been the country’s major trading partner. An intermittently implemented transit agreement has provided Afghanistan with its only access to maritime trade, through the port of Karachi. Bilateral tensions have led Pakistan to close the border several times, even resulting in the fall of the Afghan government in 1962. Reciprocal accusations of support for terrorism in the past few years have led to repeated border closures. Afghan trade with Pakistan has fallen by half since 2014.
Geography, if not politics, would enable the United States to supply Afghanistan through Russia via Central Asia or by way of Iran. These countries provided indispensable logistical, intelligence, and diplomatic support to the United States during the 2001 campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban and have benefited from U.S. efforts there. When Pakistan closed the border to U.S. military supplies in 2011, Moscow facilitated U.S. military air and ground transit to Afghanistan through what Washington called the Northern Distribution Network. This network relied on the U.S. Transit Center on Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Air Base (closed under Russian pressure in 2014) for air transit, and on Russian and Central Asian railroads for ground transit.
On June 15, however, the Senate passed a bill that would step up sanctions on both Russia and Iran. The bill would for the first time impose sanctions on the Russian railroads that formed part of the Northern Distribution Network. Both Russia and Iran have supported the Afghan government, but they have also established some cooperation with the Taliban. Their interests and the Taliban’s converge in preventing the United States from establishing a long-term military presence in Afghanistan and in fighting Islamic State. However improbable it sounds to American ears, some in Moscow and Tehran also believe Washington seeks to use the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Afghanistan to pressure Russia and Iran over Syria and other issues.
Some of those issues are existential. The day before the Senate voted to impose more sanctions on Iran, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Tillerson whether the United States supported “a philosophy of regime change” there. Tillerson seemed to say yes: U.S. policy, he said, is “to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” Direct security and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Iran in Afghanistan ended when President George W. Bush placed Iran on the “axis of evil” in February 2002, effectively granting Pakistan a monopoly as the U.S. regional partner. The United States and Iran have nonetheless avoided confrontation in Afghanistan and engaged in some indirect coordination. As Afghanistan’s commerce has shifted away from Pakistan, Iran has become the country’s leading commercial partner, with an estimated 25 percent of total trade volume. U.S. promotion of even “peaceful” regime change in Iran risks escalation with dire consequences for Afghanistan. Iran recently repeated its previous warning to the Afghan government that it reserves the right to respond to U.S. actions against Iran anywhere, including in Afghanistan.
Cooperation with Iran is essential not only to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for maritime trade, but also to provide India with reliable sea and ground routes to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Japan, concerned about Chinese naval expansion into the Indian Ocean, is supporting and financing efforts by India, Iran, and Afghanistan to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar. Unlike Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf, Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman, is safely outside the choke point of the Strait of Hormuz. India, Iran, and Afghanistan are connecting the port to Afghanistan and Central Asia by road and rail and have concluded an agreement for duty-free transit. A Delhi-Kabul commercial air corridor established on June 19 complements Chabahar but cannot substitute for it. It depends for its operation on access to Pakistan’s airspace.
Encouraged by the lifting of sanctions resulting from the nuclear agreement, India and Iran agreed on a major expansion of Chabahar in May 2016. Since Trump’s inauguration, however, concern about the escalation of U.S. sanctions on Iran has caused Chabahar construction to grind to a halt. Companies have declined to bid on tenders, and banks will not commit to financing. Sanctions against Iran thus risk repeating the “axis of evil” precedent, perpetuating U.S. and Afghan dependence on Pakistan.
Despite Trump’s apparent sympathies for Russia, there is no prospect of Congress relaxing sanctions on Moscow as long as the issues of Ukraine and interference in the U.S. election remain unaddressed. Presidential recalcitrance may instead lead Congress to insulate legislative sanctions against national security waivers. U.S. relations with Iran seem headed toward confrontation, which would likely lead to escalation of tensions between Iran and Afghanistan. Simultaneous increase of pressure on Pakistan could lead Islamabad to block transit again, perhaps including overflight rights. The United States risks provoking a blockade of its own forces.
As long as the additional U.S. troop deployment does not much exceed the cap of 3,900, Pentagon planners think they have an alternative in the “Lapis Lazuli Corridor.” This recently established transport corridor runs from northwestern Afghanistan through Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and then through Georgia to Turkey. The route is mainly meant for trade, but it is also open for military overflights. Its overland capacity is limited by both the poor quality of the physical infrastructure and Turkmenistan’s neutrality, which does not permit ground transit of military supplies and personnel.
That route is a slender tightrope for thousands of troops to cross. In June 2016 Russia showed its influence over Turkmenistan by practically forcing the country to accept a visit by Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, who proposed defense cooperation on the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border, which he called the border of the Commonwealth of Independent States. That border has been subject to repeated Taliban incursions. American use of Turkmenistan for military transit could risk more such incidents and provoke further Russian pressure to insulate Central Asia from the Afghan conflict. The Russian Navy has also built a well-armed Caspian Fleet, which drew international attention when it fired cruise missiles targeting Syria. Iran likewise has a Caspian naval presence.
Georgia, whose Abkhazia and South Ossetia autonomous regions Russia invaded and occupied in August 2008, also remains vulnerable to Russian pressure. Russia has recognized Abkhazia as an independent state and retains de facto control of South Ossetia. There is a constant risk of hostilities between Russian or Russian-backed forces and the Georgian state. U.S.-Turkey relations, strained by both the July 2016 coup attempt and conflicts of interest in Syria, are volatile, to say the least. It requires considerable optimism, verging on wishful thinking, to posit that Washington could both overcome the obstacles to military transit on this route and also retain it undisturbed for the many years that the U.S. military proposes to maintain its counter-terrorism platform in Afghanistan.
Perhaps Trump will so restore American might and prestige that Washington can compel Pakistan’s military to change its perception of existential threats; spark the Iranian masses to overthrow the Islamic Republic and replace it with a pro-American democracy; persuade Vladimir Putin that Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria are not worth sacrificing rapprochement with the United States; and leave the Taliban with no choice but to abandon their principal objective, the expulsion of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Barring such good fortune, what Clausewitz called “considerations of supply” dictate more modest objectives. The United States cannot both stabilize Afghanistan and establish a long-term military presence there. It can fight a forever war against varying permutations of adversaries, or it can use its military presence as leverage to negotiate a settlement between Afghanistan, its neighbors, and the Taliban. Such a settlement would provide for the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. forces while preserving safeguards against terrorism through international partnerships, not military expansion. That settlement will be sloppy and unstable, but hardly more so than the conflicts the United States will perpetuate by seeking to entrench a permanent military presence in a landlocked country whose neighbors do not want it there.
Barnett R. Rubin is Director of the Afghanistan Regional Project and Associate Director at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University. He taught at Yale and Columbia Universities, headed the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as senior advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013) and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan (2001-2002). His most recent book is Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror (2013).
Image: U.S. Army