We’ve talked about logistics a couple times here. One of the terms of art in logistics is “Lines of Communication.” When you and I say communication, we generally mean telephone access or internet or what not. When the military says it, they mean supply lines.
After the success of the surge in Iraq, there were predictable calls for a surge in Afghanistan. And indeed, at the recommendation of GEN Petraeus, we expect to see US troop numbers in Afghanistan almost double. Part of the reason there have been so few troops in country has been the strain of operations in Iraq. But that’s only part of the reason. The other, probably bigger reason has been that the lines of communication to Afghanistan have been tenuous at best. Let’s take a look at the two different theaters.
First up, Iraq:
A quick glance at the map shows the main road networks of Iraq run north and south along the river valleys, where, not surprisingly, most of the population lives. There is also a significan network extending west to Syria and Jordan. For a logistician, Iraq isn’t a huge challenge. Supplies can come in via ports on the Persian Gulf, either at Basra or through Kuwait. They can then be trucked or trained north to Bagdhad or points further north. Alternatively, there is a supply chain that can run through friendly ports in Turkey and be shipped down from there to the northern border of Iraq. In pinch, supplies could be sent through Jordan. Overall, there is a well established infrastructure with ports, trains and developed road network that gives logisticians options for supplying forces in the field. Insurgents in the past spent considerable effort on attacking these supply convoys, but there was never any real threat that they could stop the flow of supplies.
Afghanistan is a slightly different matter:
The first thing you’ll notice is that Afghanistan is a land locked country. That quite obviously means that supplies have to transit another nation. That’s something logisticians don’t like, because of the potential for those nations to shut down access. Secondly, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has virtually no infrastructure such as a well developed road network. Afghanistan Shrugged has a pretty good picture showing what passes for a highway over there. Let’s just say it isn’t the I-90.
Currently, the main supply route for Coalition forces in Afghanistan runs through Pakistan and over the mountain passes into Afghanistan. This poses a couple issues that concern logisticians. One, while Pakistan is a nominal ally in the GWOT, just how dedicated the current regime is remains a matter of some conjecture. Secondly, there is pretty much only one road, which has a limited throughput in the best of times. Given that this road also goes through chokepoints such as mountain passes that are vulnerable to attack by insurgents, that worries logisticans no end. There’s only so many troops you can support via one road, and if the road is closed, what do you do with the troops who have been cut off? Airlift could probably keep them alive, but not well enough supplied to conduct operations.
There is some good news however. Hot Air brings us news that an agreement has been reached with Russia and other Central Asian nations (often referred to as “The ‘Stans”) to open up a second supply route. Many of the commenters there advise against trusting Putin, and wonder what the quid pro quo was. Fair questions. The answer to the first part is that no one is going to trust Putin to act in anything other than his own best interest. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it wasn’t an excercise in imperial expansion, but rather a fundamentally defensive operation. The Soviet Union was gravely concerned with Islamic unrest, given that huge swaths of their southern territory are primarily Mulim. It was the impending collapse of the Afghani government and probable descent into Islamic fanaticism that prompted them to act. The revolution in Iran certainly did nothing to ally their fears. And those fears are still with Russia. To a goodly extent, the ‘Stans are either autocratic regimes facing the same problem of potential unrest, or have aligned themselves with the West to such an extent that they generally wish to hold onto whatever modernizations that alignment has given them. So for them to have the US and its NATO allies suppressing extremism in Afghanistan for just the price of letting them use their territory as a supply line, well, that’s cheap at twice the cost.
As for a quid pro quo, no details have been released, but most of the supply chain will actually be operated by host nation civilian personnel. That means we will be contracting and hiring locals to drive the trucks and move the supplies. And that is a direct injection of hard US currency into the region, something that is almost always welcome.
For the logistician, two routes are always better than one. For our politicians, it also provides flexibility. Pakistan can no longer threaten to cut off our troops in theater, since there is an alternate route, on that is a good deal more secure than through the tribal areas of Pakistan. Conversely, should Russia and the ‘Stans try to unduly influence operations by “managing” the supply chain, we still have the Pakistani option.
Something makes me think that some loggies are gonna sleep a little better soon.