US’ Afghan drawdown immune to Ukraine tensions

The NDN helped Washington to reduce its dependence on the supply routes running through Pakistan. Source: AP

The NDN helped Washington to reduce its dependence on the supply routes running through Pakistan. Source: AP

The Northern Distribution Network was useful to have, but not necessarily indispensable and it was a commercial proposition of some benefit to Russia, which need not be burdened with political or strategic baggage.

Up until recently, Afghanistan was counted by the Barack Obama administration among the clutch of issues where the ‘reset’ between the United States and Russia produced tangible results. And the finest Afghan flower of the ‘reset’ was thought to be the so-called Northern Distribution Network [NDN], which connects the Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

The NDA provided the supply lines for the US and North Atlantic Treaty [NATO] troops in Afghanistan to meet their demand for non-military supplies (which had increased in 2010-2011 by a whopping 200-300 percent more than the 2008 baseline) as well as to address the emergent concerns with Pakistan’s supply lines.

The NDA is a series of commercially based logistical arrangements, but it helped expand the US presence in Afghanistan and, therefore, it impacted the geopolitical landscape of Eurasia.

The key transit countries of Central Asia (and Russia) probably fancied that they would enjoy new leverage over Washington by creating a vehicle for constructive interaction with the US on a broad spectrum of bilateral activities (not necessarily related to the Afghan problem.)

For Russia, the matrix of agreements with the NATO member countries created a new ambience for its overall relations with the western alliance in the post-cold war setting – especially with Germany, which created its own supply hub at Termiz, Uzbekistan.

Equally, the NDN provided a commercial and political instrument to stimulate Washington’s interaction with Central Asia’s ruling elites. Besides, the NDN helped Washington to reduce its dependence on the supply routes running through Pakistan. Indeed, the NDN put Pakistan in a chastened mood as regards its overall capacity to hold the US and NATO’s military operations to ransom – although, the Pakistani transit routes come far cheaper than the NDN.

Suffice to say, the NDN offered a unique opportunity for the US to further its longer-term strategic goals in the region. These goals are several. They include, firstly, the economic and political development in Afghanistan to be reinforced by a long-term international commitment to the future of that country. Secondly, it was presupposed that the expansion of supply routes via the NDN would ensure a long-term increase in the US presence not only across Afghanistan but also Central Asia, and this indeed paired with America’s broader regional strategies, including even its rebalance strategy in Asia.

The best part was that the NDN provided an underpinning to ensure that the US’ immediate needs and long-term objectives need not be mutually exclusive, but, on the contrary, the two could be mutually reinforcing. The NDN linked the logistical throughput capacity and the immediate needs of the US-led war in Afghanistan with the long-term US’ development goals (New Silk Road) and geopolitical objectives in the adjoining regions of Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia, apart from furthering the US’s bilateral interests with the concerned transit states.

All in all, therefore, the statement on Wednesday by the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan General Joseph Dunford at a US Senate hearing in Washington to the effect that even if Russia were to cut off access to the NDN the US could still complete its current partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, comes as a bit of surprise. Dunford said, “We’ve [US] resilience in the system and I’m not concerned at all about a loss of the Russian Northern Distribution Network.”

Dunford made this forthright assessment against the backdrop of the US lawmakers preparing sanctions against Russia over its intervention in Ukraine. The stunning part is his denial mode. No matter the non-availability of the NDN, he was comfortable with NATO planning to keep between 8000 and 12000 NATO troops in Afghanistan after 2014, along with thousands of additional US forces focused on counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda.

In retrospect, the US avoided any ‘dependency’ to develop on Russia’s goodwill and cooperation. Thus, it stubbornly rejected any role for the Collective Security Treaty Organization and it insists that Washington’s bilateral security pact with Kabul does not need any mandate from the UN Security Council. It seems Washington could anticipate that the ‘reset’ with Russia might prove short-lived and a need might arise for it to dispense with Russia’s cooperation in the post-2014 Afghan scenario.

Put differently, the NDN was useful to have, but not necessarily indispensable and it was a commercial proposition of some benefit to Russia, which need not be burdened with political or strategic baggage. Conceivably, the US was never really enthused by its allies’ dependence on the NDN, but couldn’t do much about it. The Ukraine crisis, arguably, resolves a contradiction in the US’ Central Asian strategies.

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