Pakistan border reopening solves immediate problem, and one down the road
KABUL — Whether it was an apology or not, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s message to Pakistan opened the way for the first military supply trucks in seven months to rumble over the Afghan border Thursday and assuaged fears of a costly, potentially messy exit. For now.
While much focus has been on the cost of getting supplies into Afghanistan, the real headache would have been getting troops and materiel out of Afghanistan, with the prospect of long lines of heavy military vehicles chugging up narrow mountain passes.
“Getting supplies into the country at this stage is not the critical problem,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Certainly between June and September it is getting the U.S. (troop) surge out and getting the French out.”
Before Clinton’s statement, which included the word “sorry” in addressing U.S. airstrikes in November that killed 24 Pakistani troops, the U.S. was moving supplies along the so-called “Northern Routes” through Central Asia and Russia. Bottlenecks were forming in many places, most notably in Afghanistan’s crumbling Salang tunnel, 11,000 feet up in the Hindu Kush mountains.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress in June that the route closures cost the United States an additional $100 million a month, but a document the Pentagon has since submitted to Congress to modify the DOD budget request tripled that amount. The DOD’s Omnibus Reprogramming Request listed resulting costs of $1.7 billion to the Army and $370 million to the Air Force, or nearly $2.1 billion total.
Some of the additional funds requested are “anticipatory” and represents costs not yet incurred, Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said Thursday. But he said there are no plans to modify the request now that the Pakistan routes are open.
One way to ease the strain on costs was to load supplies onto empty or partially empty military aircraft that were flying into Afghanistan, since those flight costs were already budgeted. But as those flights were reduced as part of the withdrawal, they would have to be added back, and subsequently the price would have climbed again, Cordesman said.
“Now you would have to pay for the whole flight,” he said.
While the move was likely made to ease the ongoing withdrawal, there were problems, beyond cost, with getting supplies into the country.
Trucks were slow to get through Afghanistan’s primitive road system, and at bases around the country troops found limited options at dining halls and bare shelves at post exchange stores.
Coalition officials have long downplayed the effects of the closure, noting that the delivery of more vital goods was never in peril. “Clearly this is a positive development. It gives ISAF a lot more flexibility in terms of transit of supplies and equipment,” said Maj. Martyn Crighton, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force’s Joint Command. “Obviously the containers of comfort items probably weren’t the priority, but at the same time they still got good chow, they can still shop at a good PX.”
But troops on the ground felt the effects beyond the chow hall.
At Combat Outpost Muqur, in southern Ghazni province, U.S. soldiers with the 504th Infantry Regiment noticed the slowdown after taking over the base from a Polish detachment in March.
“When we got here and started building the place up, we could tell the supply line was pretty strained,” said Capt. Brian James, noting that construction equipment and materials, which the Army typically ships by ground in Afghanistan, were slow to arrive at the remote base. “The fact that the border is open again, it’s good news.”
Despite the apparent abrupt about-face, this decision didn’t happen overnight, Cordesman said. It took months of negotiation and in the end it was unclear whether Clinton’s carefully worded statement even was an apology.
“Technically, they didn’t apologize,” Cordesman said. “They danced around the words, which in diplomacy is key. We gave them part of what they wanted and they gave us part of what we wanted.”
As for the timing, the Pakistanis may have realized they had less leverage than they originally thought, or perhaps “tempers cooled,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the Afghanistan Index, a compilation of economic, public opinion and security data.
“The bottom line is that both countries need each other, so some kind of repair of the situation was the only logical outcome,” he said.
But, while this seems to have knocked down an obstacle to a speedy withdrawal, it does nothing to address the more immediate problem of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and the Haqqani network, two of the main insurgent groups fighting coalition forces, nor did it address Pakistan’s role in the rocky peace process the U.S. has been trying to spearhead in Afghanistan, Cordesman said.
And there’s no guarantee this détente between the U.S. and Pakistan will last.
“No matter what happens, this is scarcely the last dispute we’re going to have with Pakistan and certainly Pakistan has a good memory,” Cordesman said. “It’s not a country that tends to forget, and it’s a country that tends to export as many of its problems as possible.”
Stars and Stripes’ Martin Kuz and Chris Carroll contributed to this report.