Afghanistan’s Dual Supply Problem

Presidents Obama, Karzai, and Zardari briefly appear for a photo op at this weekend's NATO summit. Source: AFP

Afghanistan will face two major issues this year. The more publicized issue is Pakistan’s refusal to open up their supply routes into Afghanistan for NATO use. The lesser known issue is the devastatingly poor poppy harvest. Both of these problems will create unique challenges for NATO forces. A brief examination of the problems will show points of concern that need to be addressed.

The first problem is Pakistan’s stubborn refusal to give NATO access to its shipping routes. Pakistan shut them down last November when U.S. forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. U.S. forces came under fire at the border and called in an airstrike, mistaking the Pakistanis for Taliban. Pakistani leaders moved quickly to condemn the attack and close its ports. At its height, two-thirds of NATO supplies came through Pakistan’s ports in Karachi, then moved by truck up to Afghanistan. With the Pakistan routes closed, NATO was forced to use the far costlier Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that goes through Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. Although it is expensive now, the real problem with the NDN is yet to come:

“The cost and difficulty would increase exponentially as the United States and its coalition partners begin to remove equipment as the coalition withdraws combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.”

NATO leaders have been hoping to reach an agreement to reopen the supply routes through Pakistan for the past couple of weeks. However, this past weekend’s NATO summit proved that wouldn’t happen right now. President Obama made it a point to sideline Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari at the meeting for his failure to be reasonable in his terms for an agreement. The Pakistanis’ conditions to reopen their borders are an unconditional apology from America for the airstrike and a payment by NATO forces of $5000 per truckload (previously $250 per truckload) for supplies. Obama refused to hold a meeting with Zardari and even omitted Pakistan from his thanks of non-NATO countries present:

“I want to welcome the presence of President Karzai, as well as officials from central Asia and Russia — nations that have an important perspective and that continue to provide critical transit for ISAF supplies.”

The Northern Distribution Network. Click to view full size. Source: National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

Pakistan’s stubbornness might seem illogical, given that they are the ones that could be making money from ISAF supplies. However, the civilian government may be using a two-fold strategy. The first aspect: they gain some power over the military. The Pakistani army controls 30% of NATO oil tanker contracts, so draining money away from the military means gaining some control. Second: general elections will take place next year and they don’t want to lose any power:

“A member of Mr. Zardari’s political party said the government, facing the prospect of a political backlash and protests over reopening the routes, was hoping that a rich deal with the United States would cool tempers at home, and give the president political breathing space.”

It is very unlikely that President Zardari’s stubbornness will work for very long. Eventually, he will strike a deal that will be satisfactory to NATO and will allow him to look like a good guy back home.

The second major problem facing Afghanistan is the failed poppy harvest. After a devastating blight, severe winter, and sporadic rains, the vast majority of poppy farms yielded nothing. Since the Taliban receive a surge of money from the harvests, their spring offensive will be severely limited. However, this is a mixed blessing. The local economies in the Helmand, Kandahar, Farah, and Uruzgan provinces will be significantly disrupted (90% of the harvest comes from these four provinces).  In these southern regions,

“a majority of area residents are effectively indentured servants of the Taliban, beholden to insurgent drug lords through the credit system established by the Akhundzada family during their rule of Helmand in the 1980s and 1990s. Farmers receive start-up capital in the form of money, goods, and services that enable them to feed their families while cultivating a poppy crop. After the harvest, the borrowers owe a certain yield to the creditors, regardless of weather, the health of the crop, or other factors. If this debt is not repaid, the farmer falls further into debt or can be subject to beatings and even murder. The locals’ resulting servile fear of the Taliban makes cooperation with Americans and the Afghan government security forces an untenable proposition… winning the hearts and minds isn’t really going to happen here.”

The farmers will likely see few reasons to cooperate with ISAF forces over ”the militants they see as protectors of their economic interests.”  The disruption in the economy ”is also certain to bankrupt thousands of ordinary farmers, possibly pushing them to join the insurgency.” A poor harvest will likely mean a deadly fighting season. 2010 also saw major blight-induced crop failures (though less so than now) and it was the deadliest year in the war.

NATO forces will have to quickly address and seek to resolve these two major supply issues. The Pakistani supply route issue will likely be resolved soon, while the poppy harvest creates a large problem that may not have any short-term solutions. If we haven’t been able to resolve the local economy issues over the past decade, it’s unlikely that a quick fix will appear in the near future. Both issues effect the war in very different ways, however the poppy harvest problem is more pressing. The Afghan government will need to tackle this problem head-on if they want to exert control beyond Kabul in their security takeover next year.

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