Every morning, on Kandahar Air Field, the British, US, Canadian and Dutch troops like to start the day with a cappuccino from Green Beans, the US army’s answer to Starbucks. But a few weeks ago the soldiers had a nasty shock: a sign on the Green Beans door saying there would be no frothy coffee for the lads because of a ‘supply problem’ in Pakistan.
War is hell, isn’t it? But the sign wasn’t just bad news for coffee-loving squaddies, it also revealed the Achilles’ heel for the entire international mission in Afghanistan: Nato’s supply roots, which are being steadily throttled by the Taleban.
Politicians and generals can discuss strategy until they’re blue in the face, but absolutely nothing can be achieved if the supply lines collapse. Nearly all the food and all important fuel required by the 80,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan has to be trucked in through Pakistan’s troubled border region, into Afghanistan’s equally restive southern provinces. And since the summer the Taleban has been using its hold in these semi-autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan to wreak havoc by blowing up roads, bridges and the fuel trucks which can be destroyed with just a well-aimed rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).
The private logistics contractors employed to move all this gear have become used to having their convoys shot up on an almost daily basis, and the Taleban are growing bolder by the month. A particularly embarrassing moment for Nato came in November when video footage was released of bearded militants driving around in brand-new armoured Humvees which had, quite literally, fallen off the back of a lorry trundling through the Khyber Pass — the famous gap in the mountains bordering Afghanistan which has served as an invasion route for millennia.
Military spokesmen, well practised in the art of dissembling, point-blank deny that the Taleban attacks have succeeded in hampering Nato operations. But the scarcity, particularly of fuel, is much in evidence to anyone who has spent time in the archipelago of military bases in southern Afghanistan. In the Dutch base in Uruzgan province there was not enough fuel for soldiers to heat their tents this winter. Camp Bastion, the huge UK base in Helmand, likes to keep at least 30 days’ worth of fuel in reserve. If there’s no supply problem, why has the reserve amount dropped to ten days? Word from the British troops was that the decision for a period last summer to stop all non-essential patrols was ‘probably because we’ve run out of fuel’.
So the supplies are limited and supply lines ever more vulnerable. Now they have to provide for the arrival of 17,000 more US troops, and the number of military mouths to feed is only going to increase further in the years to come. America and Nato’s military superiority matters little if it can’t get its kit into the country. As long as that remains the case, the Taleban can strangle any surge at birth.
So what’s the solution? Is there a solution? Well, General David Petraeus has been sniffing around for other possible routes into Afghanistan, and last month Rear Admiral Harnitchek, a senior officer in the US logistics service, was in Tajikistan to secure a deal that will allow around 200 containers of supplies to start flowing each week from Uzbekistan, into Tajikistan and then on to Afghanistan.
Tajikistan looks, on the face of it, to be an excellent answer, the key to Petraeus’s otherwise impossible predicament. And there are some superficial advantages to using this route: the two countries supplied the Russian troops during their nine-year stay in Afghanistan, and the US army has already spent $37 million on a 700-metre bridge across the Amu Darya river, which marks the border with Tajikistan.
But however much Petraeus and Harnitchek may want it to be, Tajikistan is very far from the perfect solution. There are huge dangers in becoming reliant on ‘Trashcanistan’, as the corrupt and authoritarian former Soviet Central Asian colonies are unkindly known. For one thing, there is the risk of putting the fate of the war in Afghanistan in the hands of a region regarded by Russia as its own backyard — the Kremlin is suspected of using $2.1 billion in aid to pay Kyrgyzstan to kick the Americans out of the vital Manas logistics base, which was confirmed a few weeks ago.
Diplomats in Dushanbe believe that Tajikistan is primed to slip from being just another obscure ‘Stan’ into a major international headache, suffering many of the problems of its southern neighbour. First on the country’s long list of problems is its president. Formerly known as Emomali Rahmonov (before he decided the ‘ov’ was too Russian), Rahmon has risen from Soviet collective farm boss to president of a country which he and his family run as their own private fiefdom. Despite an annual budget of just $700 million and cash-starved health and education systems, the President recently blew $300 million on a new office for himself. The people live in pathetic poverty, while the hulking ‘People’s Palace’ sits awkwardly, to say the least, among the elegant neoclassical buildings of central Dushanbe.
The interiors have been kitted out with Italian marble and Russian hardwood, the few who have been allowed inside report. Rahmon tells appalled Western diplomats that since the democratic powers are unwilling to hand over billions of aid money, he requires opulent surroundings to entertain potential benefactors from Russia, China and Iran who have fewer scruples.
This isn’t just an aesthetic or ethical problem: because of his corruption and because of the army of mostly twenty-something men who have started returning home as recession has wiped out their jobs on the buildings sites of Moscow, Rahmon’s regime is under threat. An apocalyptic report published in February by the International Crisis Group concluded that it could ‘collapse at any moment’ given a big enough disaster.
The most cynical members of the international community in Dushanbe foresee Tajikistan being sucked into the wider Afghan conflict, in the same way Cambodia was drawn into Vietnam and Pakistan is already part of the ‘AfPak’ conflagration. Also, the Taleban will probably move to open up a new front in Tajikistan if a major logistics operation is established just beyond the country’s undefendable border.
So there’s no easy solution to Afghanistan’s most fundamental problem, and a quick fix in Tajikistan may prove to be more of an opportunity than a frustration for the Taleban. As one Taleban commander interviewed by CBS last month put it: ‘We almost blocked the supply routes coming via Pakistan, and we have already sent about 1,000 Taleban to cut new supply routes from the north into Kabul, via Central Asia and Russia.’
Bullish Nato officials point to the Berlin airlift as an example of how the West will always be able to get supplies through, whatever the cost. But while the Berlin airlift lasted less than 11 months, the Afghan commitment will take a generation. If Nato is to succeed in Afghanistan, it will have to solve its supply problem.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 14, 2009