Well, this is bad. This is a real, no-kidding move against U.S. and NATO interests, one that could significantly increase the peril to our forces in Afghanistan. It creates the potential for things to go south very quickly for NATO troops.
That, in turn, increases the likelihood of divisions within NATO over the alliance’s Afghanistan commitment. The divisions could well affect NATO’s posture on the political conflict with Russia. And assuming the Obama administration is passive and ineffective in the face of this latest move by Moscow, the alliance will find an existential crisis – at least the beginnings of one – inescapable.
The basic story is that the U.S. and NATO have relied throughout the Afghan operation on supply routes that run through both Pakistan and the former-Soviet republics of Central Asia. In 2008, the route called the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN, was consolidated, with a portion of it running through the territory of Russia. Russia has benefited from transit fees, along with the Central Asian ‘Stans, and has been content to hold in reserve the pocket veto she possesses by agreeing to let our supplies flow through her transportation network.
Now Putin is exercising his veto by terminating the Russian leg of the NDN, which comprises most of the so-called “northern line of communication” of the NDN, or the NLOC. There is also a southern leg of the NDN, which since 2014 has run from Romania, across the Black Sea and through Georgia, the Caucasus, and the Caspian Sea. This is the “central LOC,” or CLOC.
By 2014, reportedly, the great majority of NATO supplies flowed to Afghanistan via the NDN. But the percentage of supply traffic is less important than the geographic noose that begins to close on our troops if the NDN isn’t an option.
For the time being, the CLOC route through Georgia and the Caucasus would presumably remain open. But Russia can close that route without a great deal of effort, most readily by putting pressure on the ‘Stans (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), which no doubt see the writing emerging on the wall regarding their independence of action. (There is also, of course, the possibility that Russia can effect the political changes necessary to close off Georgia as well. Given Georgia’s continued ties to the U.S. and other NATO nations, that would take a bit more work than exerting pressure on the current governments of the ‘Stans. But it’s more possible now than at any time since 1992.)
Without the CLOC, supplies would have to revert to flowing through Pakistan, which hosts two NATO supply routes, one in the south through Quetta and the Khojak Pass into Kandahar Province, and the other through the north and the Khyber Pass, into Nangarhar Province.
The Quetta route runs through Pakistan Taliban country, and has been used little in recent years due to frequent attacks on the supply convoys. In the north, Pakistan has closed the access point for the NATO logistics path through the Khyber Pass on multiple occasions over the last 10 years.
The proximate reasons for the closures have typically been insurgent attacks in and around the Pass. But Pakistan’s approach to dealing with each problem has been less than straightforward. Pakistan does a delicate balancing act trying to maintain internal stability in spite of the mountain-tribe and Taliban insurgencies in the “Northwest Territories,” and there have been numerous times when Islamabad basically wanted the U.S. to back off on terrorist-hunting in the region, as a price of keeping open the logistics path into Afghanistan. (That’s a key reason why NATO wanted to have the NDN option.)
This dynamic can’t be shrugged off, because if Russia can close both legs of the NDN, and NATO has to rely wholly on the route through Pakistan, that makes the Taliban’s job of closing the back door on our troops considerably simpler. The Taliban have been and remain a threat to the supply routes from Pakistan, and it simplifies their task to have a logistic outlet to the north whacked off. If the NDN can be shut down completely, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat (see Map 3) can be isolated, and the whole orientation of the NATO presence will have to turn to preserving the logistics and escape routes through the south.
If the CLOC through the Caucasus is lost, NATO’s priority will have to shift from stabilizing Afghanistan to being able to fight its way out, if the need arises. And the Taliban will make sure the need arises. The U.S. presence is to be 9,000-10,000 troops through 2016, with another 3,000-3,500 troops from other NATO nations; such a relatively small number is not self-sufficient in basic troop- and mission-maintenance supplies, and will be heavily dependent on its logistics tail.
A century and a half ago, in the “graveyard of empires” era, technology was a severely limiting factor for outside interests in Afghanistan. In 2015, technology isn’t the driver; it’s all about political will – and it has been every second of the period since October 2001. The Taliban are not invincible. But the West today unites breathtaking technological advantages with a will that blows over in a light breeze. It’s the modern West that produced the Obama administration. It’s time to worry.