NATO's failure to reopen Pakistani supply routes

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NATO might be able to run the war without Pakistan, but it cannot end the war without Pakistan. There is so much equipment in Afghanistan, so many vehicles, so much ammunition, so much trash and construction material, that the NDN could never hope to accommodate all of it by NATO’s 2014 end date for combat operations. Furthermore, some of the governments along the supply route, like dictatorial Uzbekistan, are morally reprehensible regimes that should not be rewarded with surplus combat equipment. So the Pakistani supply routes must be reopened.

This past weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago, however, did not result in the supply routes reopening. President Asif Ali Zardari’s demands for an apology over the Nov. 24 airstrike have gone unanswered, and he was invited only at the last minute to attend the summit. The discussions Presidents Obama and Hamid Karzai had with Zardari didn’t go anywhere, either — I asked NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow if they had a breakthrough on the talks, and he said they were “still in progress.”

If the Pakistani supply lines cannot be reopened, then the withdrawal from Afghanistan will become a lot messier. Just as the Russians left tons of equipment, supplies, buildings, weapons and vehicles behind in their mad rush back north after the Geneva Accords were signed in 1988, so too will the United States and NATO leave an unimaginable cache of valuable equipment and materiel behind as they leave over the next two years.

Pakistan’s relationship with the West is facing critical issues over the next two years. Their nuclear arsenal remains at risk from seizure by Islamist militants. The economy is slowly collapsing under the weight of both terrorism and poor government mismanagement. The terrorism question itself remains frightfully unresolved, and the Pakistani military’s decision over the last 15 years to sponsor international terrorism through the Taliban and related organizations is unacceptable. The supply route question is coming to head with these critical issues unresolved.

The withdrawal of combat troops and transition to Afghan-led security is the lynchpin of NATO’s, and Obama’s, strategy for Afghanistan. Yet that strategy is under tremendous strain by the closure of Pakistan’s supply routes. Reopening those routes needs to be made a priority if Obama’s strategy is to have any hope of success.

The long-term stability of the region depends on that as well. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is being developed by the Asia Development Bank to supply energy to India while getting Afghanistan and Pakistan much-needed cash from transit fees. But all the best plans in the world will go nowhere so long as Pakistan’s supply route challenge remains unanswered.


Foust is the Fellow for Asymmetric Operations at the American Security Project, and attended the NATO 2012 summit in Chicago.

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