Northern Distribution Network: US’ New Strategy

By K.N. Pandita

US-Pak relations have soured so much so that the Indian External Affairs Minister had to issue a statement of concern, something which India does extremely rarely. Pakistan Army Chief seems to have crossed the boundaries of fine diplomatic circumspection. He has placed a high price on his country’s capabilities as a nuclear power. Or maybe such bellicose posture is only for public consumption.

Pakistan Army Chief is desperate for the retrieval of his credibility which ran aground after the American pincer operation in Abbotabad in May last. Engineering two very offending acts, first armed attacks on US embassy in Kabul, and second the assassination of Burhanu’d-Din Rabbani, who was vigorously engaged in carrying forward a pacifist mission in Afghanistan were meant for sending impressionable messages to the US in support of General Kiayani’s bombast that “Pakistan was not Iraq or Afghanistan but a nuclear power.” That is typical sword-rattling exercise. 

If nothing, at least the present US-Pak spat has made Washington change its decades-long perception that Pakistan is indispensable to her strategic interests in the Middle East and South Asian region. The real cause of America’s woes in the Asian region is her stubborn insistence on holding on to this illusionary concept. Now Kiyani’s boast of Pakistan’s nuclear capability and the consequential Armageddon as his option, force Washington to ask Pakistan whether she is an ally or an adversary in war on terror.

If this harsh and rather agonizing truth has dawned upon the US, it naturally points to a new and quintessential era in bilateral relations between them with far reaching impact on a host of other issues and situations. We will discuss only one of these situations and that pertains to overland connectivity to the epicenter of terrorism in the world.

Identification of Af-Pak as the stronghold of terrorism is substantiated by its geography, topography, history and tradition. The fierce and tenacious tribesmen have, for centuries, remained insulated against external intrusions owing to very favourable topography and landscape. Perched on mountain heights and slopes, they have always taken the maximum advantage in taking on the intruders who usually moved war supplies through valleys and gorges only to find to their surprise that they were exposed to the lethal attacks of tribesmen.

American and NATO forces were obliged to use the Karachi – Peshawar-Khyber as transit route for moving men and material and civilian supplies to nearly 2 lakh troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine.  Islamabad would extract its pound of flesh in obliging the allies to move their materials for safe trans-shipment of materials. Much of this money went to the Pushtun warlords guarding the historic pass. Even then the convoys came under assault and some lives were lost and materials looted. Most of these attacks are engineered by Pakistan’ intelligence agencies.

With Washington revisiting the entire gamut of US-Pak relations, and convinced of Pakistan’s duplicity in so-called war on terror, it has rapidly shifted priorities, both on the war front as well as in logistics. The major shift is foreseeable in overland connectivity based on the perception that a bulk of US-NATO supplies meant for Afghanistan and the war front should be diverted, sidetracking Pakistan.

This makes Washington concentrate on the northern route involving Central Asian States particularly Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. President Obama recently had a telephonic conversation with Uzbek President Islam Karimove despite temporary freeze in their relations on human rights issues in Uzbekistan. After concluding her two day visit to Kabul and Islamabad, the foreign secretary sent a threadbare message to Pakistan to dismantle terrorist structures within days and weeks.  Her mission in Central Asia is to secure agreement of concerned CARs to a viable and uninterrupted transit route for transshipment of supplies to Afghanistan whose northern borders touch with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.  The US has already constructed a strong bridge over the Oxus in southern Tajikistan which is far safer in terms of security and logistics than the Tirmiz connection.

Confirmation of this route will entrench the newfound idea in think tank circles in Washington that the myth of Pakistan’s indispensability to the US interests has to be blasted at its bottom.  This concept has now been concretized as Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that takes into account various ramifications of new strategy. In particular, it gives a broad foothold to the US in Central Asia, and more especially in Uzbekistan where two militant organizations, namely Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizbu’t-Tahrir which had almost got entrenched but for the strong anti-terrorist action by the Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Ferghana and Andijan. Hizbu’t-Tahrir is a powerful Islamic intellectual movement hibernating in Central Asia but dynamic in some western countries with strongest base in London.

Isolating Pakistan in more than one way appears to be the new manta of American think tanks, lately adopted for implementation in the region. A strong congressional lobby insists on positive results favouring US of enormous monies invested in Pakistan.  Although the White House had tried to play down the choler exuded by the outgoing Commander Mike Mullen against Pakistan Army and ISI, yet more recent events seem to have vindicated the General.

US-NATO supplies to troops in Afghanistan via Karachi-Peshawar-Khyber conduit have already been cut short to one-fourth of its original size following attack on a NATO convoy in recent months ahead of Peshawar.  With the re-activating of Central Asian road link to Trance-Caspian region and then to Europe via Dardanelles, even Iranian influence, lately menacingly palpable in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, will also be contained. Furthermore, it also provides for watch over Chinese hobnobbing in Gilgit-Baltistan area in the southern proximity of Kyrgyzstan.

However in pursuing the new connectivity agenda, the US will have to have some sort of understanding with Moscow.  Obviously Moscow has stakes in Central Asian affairs and it would not look passively at any move that could impinge upon its sovereignty or sphere of influence or balance of power. Moscow has good relations with Iran and also would not want to lose semblance of relationship with Islamabad where she is getting interested in some joint ventures. It depends on negotiating skills of US stakeholders how they would try not to neutralize but socialize Moscow in their contemplated ventures in Central Asia.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).

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