The fog of war thickens in the final stages as the soldiers start leaving the contested battlefield in an indeterminate war. One solitary Englishman survived to tell the base camp at Jalalabad what happened to the British column led by Maj. Gen. William Elphinstone that retreated from Kabul in January 1842 — Assistant Surgeon William Brydon — and he too, with part of his skull sheared off by a sword and was given refuge by a kind-hearted Afghan shepherd who took pity on the Englishman. Later, when asked by his superiors at Jalalabad what happened to the army, Brydon famously answered: “I am the army.”
I found last week’s report by Washington Post rather intriguing — “U.S. turns to other routes to supply Afghan war as relations with Pakistan fray”. True, it makes sense to cut down on the two Pakistani transit routes that currently ferry as much as three quarters of the NATO supplies for troops in Afghanistan. Given the state of play in US-Pakistan relations, the right thing to do is to line up alternate transit routes. But the problem with the alternate supply routes through Central Asia is that they depend on Russia’s goodwill and the US has to first make up its mind as to what to do with Russia — especially if Vladimir Putin returns to power in the Kremlin in the March 2012 presidential election. As Russian history shows, Moscow unfailingly haggles when the interlocutor is desperate.
Something doesn’t gel. Pray, when Russian and US diplomats are descending on Dushanbe, locked in a bitter struggle to secure control of Tajik-Afghan border, when they are outdoing each other in Bishkek, why should Moscow facilitate the consolidation of US and NATO’s military presence in Central Asia? In fact, will Russia do such a favour to the US without consulting China? And, will China welcome it? The WikiLeaks just disclosed over the weekend that China brushed aside repeated US requests to allow transit facilities through Chinese territory to Kazakhstan for ferrying supplies for Afghan war.
The heart of the matter is that a northern transit route can come very handy during the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. Anders Fogh Rasumssen, NATO’s secretary-general, must be already doing contingency planning on an orderly withdrawal. He has to worry about the men and a lot of heavy equipments that need to be relocated. Technically, the best routes will be via Pakistan to Karachi port and off to Europe. But then, Elphinstone’s shadow looms large at the NATO Hqs in Brussels. So, Rasmussen dropped by for a pow-vow with Dmitry Medvedev who is vacationing in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The US faces the same dreadful scenario in Iraq – and in Iraq, all it entails for the remaining 40000 troops to leave is to travel along a 250-kilometer stretch of road cutting through the desert into Kuwait. The US commanders have taken precaution by paying off the 10 tribal leaders along the route a princely amount of 10000 dollars per month just to hire workers to clear the roads so that the US columns can pass without trampling upon the IEDs that the militants may plant. In a June report, NYT quoted Col. Douglas Crissman who is in charge of 4 Iraqi provinces that it is “one of the greatest challenges” to get the US troops safely out of Iraq. He asked: “Our forces were attacked today, and we were just sitting still. What is going to happen to the threat when we line up our trucks to leave and start moving out of the country?” Of course, the militants’ strategy — as manifest in the Taliban attack on the Intercontinental in Kabul — is to step up the efforts to kill US soldiers to press Washington to withdraw troops lock-stock-and-barrel on schedule and not to leave any residues in the Mesopotamian desert.