They are becoming more desperate by the day and with their desperation comes greater pressure on those who can provide a safe corridor to approximately 130,000 soldiers, 70,000 vehicles and 120,000 containers of war-time heavy equipment out of Afghanistan. Logistics and hard economic considerations dictate that the corridor must be the shortest possible route to sea, it should not involve too many changes in modes of transport (rail, road, air), and it must be cheap.
One does not have to be a genius to calculate that PAKGLOC (“PAKistan Ground Lines of Communication”) is the cheapest option. The only other option, the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), is a 3,100 mile network of sea routes, roads and rails, which is more than twice as expensive, requires four times longer travel time under best conditions and, most of all, it is fraught with political and physical risks as it involves nine countries: Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Estonia and Russia.
Yet, all is not lost for Nato, at least not yet. Nato, or more specifically, the US, knows that Pakistan will, sooner or later, open its land route, they have enough horses on the ground to win this race. The question is of who is betting and how much. And, then, they also have another option in their plan B. It is this plan B that has recently seen diplomatic traffic moving toward the Central Asian Republics, the closing of eyes on terrible human rights issues in these republics, and even granting of several concessions.
Britain is most aggressive in exploring an alternate route. Its Defence Secretary Philip Hammond signed an over-flight access deal with Kazakhstan on Feb 27, 2012 and the two sides agreed to start negotiations on a land transit arrangement. The British defence secretary then visited Uzbekistan on Feb 28 for similar discussions on the land route north. Nick Harvey, British armed forces minister, also visited Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in early March for further discussions.
In a way, there is nothing new in this: Britain and several other Nato members already have access to Afghanistan through Uzbekistan. The route also passes through Russia and takes an average of nearly 60 days. The trouble is that this route costs, on an average, $17,500 per container, as compared to $7,200 which has so far been the average cost of shipping a container via Pakistan in less than a quarter of that time.
The cost factor becomes significant if one considers the total of containers that need to leave Afghanistan and the time frame in which they need to leave. In addition, there is the added danger of Taliban attacks once a majority of Nato soldiers are airlifted.
Nato does not want to leave behind anything too dangerous, as everyone knows that whatever military hardware is left behind will fall in the hands of the Taliban, sooner rather than later. Nato also does not want to arm the so-called Afghan army, more than the bare basics, for the same reason. None of the European countries have unlimited budgets for Afghanistan and the American economy is not doing well either.
Thus, the days of “a billion here or a billion there” are really over and it now all boils down to dollars and cents per container. It is this time-sensitive logistic issue that is moving so many players in this game in both the Central Asian Republics and more so in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
There are enough sold-out decision makers around, but it is now the twenty-first century, a post-modern, post-colonial, post-everything world where there are no permanent alliances and no permanent friendships. There are only permanent interests. There are no principles left in any domain of human interaction and certainly none in international politics. Thus, the terrible dictator of Uzbekistan, who massacred and literally boiled his opponents in 2005, is no more so terrible and the Western diplomats are warming up to his cold dictates. The Nato leadership is orchestrating a public turn around on its previous position on all of the “bad guys” of the region through selective amnesia and the lure of mega-lucrative contracts laced with underhanded money transfers to the right hands.
Thus, when Kyrgyzstan threatened to not renew the lease of its airbase to the US in its capital, Bishkek, the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta promptly flew in. Kyrgyzstan’s Defence Council Secretary Busurmankul Tabaldiev started the meeting by publicly saying that that after 2014 “there should be no military mission” at Manas, but by the end of the visit, a senior US official travelling with Panetta told reporters on condition of anonymity that the US hopes there will be some opportunities for additional negotiations to secure a longer-term contract for the use of Manas. The official said the US administration also hopes to make the case that supporting the war effort in Afghanistan serves Kyrgyzstan’s interests by boosting regional stability.
This is not the first time Kyrgyzstan has notched up pressure – and price: in 2009, President Almazbek Atambaev had also threatened to cancel US access to the base; Washington then renegotiated and secured a new deal by agreeing to triple the rental payments to Bishkek. US officials say the US now pays $60 million a year for use of the airfield, up from an earlier annual fee of about $17 million.
More recently, Uzbekistan’s dictator, with whom the US had cut off relations in 2005, has been talking to President Obama; the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others were at his doorsteps and Clinton made a mega turn-around recently when she announced that “Uzbekistan has made progress on human rights issues and trade barriers will be lifted.”
Pakistani generals may have found a windfall in the attack on their soldiers, and they are certainly aware of the fact that they hold the prized route out of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s political leadership is, likewise, fully mature in bargaining; for once, the country is in the right hands! Yet, it is not price that the political leadership is interested in; it is the next five year term, following elections in 2013, that is its main objective and a nod from the United States, along with the most sophisticated rigging apparatus now available, is what it is looking for.
There are signs that the ruling party may get what it wants as Zardari is becoming increasingly confident, as if he has the results of the next general election in his pocket; his recent aggressive statements betray that he is in his best bargaining mode. In addition, this week, the US ambassador has also met another old player in this dirty game and the man with the big beard and bottomless stomach has once again entered the game of big money.