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A Passage Through India?

Colonel Harinder Singh is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 21, 2010

    It is virtually a cliché that fighting insurgencies is more a function of time and space rather than tactics and technology alone - a doctrinal tenet that the ISAF and NATO are yet to fully absorb in Afghanistan. Interestingly, the inadequacies in the West’s counterinsurgency campaign till now were seen to be playing up only at one level - a shifting strategy and an insufficient footprint. The failure to put adequate military boots on the ground to wrest control of ungoverned spaces from the resurgent Taliban is a well known and much critiqued fact. An issue that previously had not caught much attention of analysts and commentators is now adding to the ISAF’s woes - the security and reliability of the supply chain.

    The counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan is logistically supported through two major lines of communications – the Northern and the Southern Lines of Communication (referred to as NLOC and SLOC). The NLOC is essentially an air-cum-land bridge connecting the logistic takeoff points located in the United States and Europe to the several ISAF garrisons in Afghanistan. The loads are shipped by air to select destinations in Central Asia and thereafter moved by road to various locations in northern Afghanistan. The NLOC reportedly accounts for some 20 per cent of the logistic traffic to Afghanistan. Though technically very reliable, this mode of transportation is exorbitantly expensive and limited in capacity, and above all, at the mercy of the transit points located in Central Asia. It is therefore no surprise that the Americans have had to rely heavily on the SLOC for sustaining their forces in Afghanistan. The SLOC, comprising Karachi as the port of entry and the twin routes passing through Torkham and Chaman in NWFP and Baluchistan respectively, were until recently reasonably safe.

    The issue heated up when the NATO commanders in southern Afghanistan in an attempt to test the Pakistani reaction to an aerial hot pursuit action mistakenly killed two Pakistani Frontier Corps soldiers at a border outpost. Shortly thereafter, a few hundred fuel trucks were set on fire (reports indicate some 150 trucks) and the border crossing at Torkham closed on instructions of the Pakistani “deep state”. It is reported that the closure affected the movement of some 6,500 load carrying vehicles. Prior to this episode similar disruptions had occurred on a few occasions without really impacting the efficacy of the military operations. Frank Ruggiero, the Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the US State Department, in a briefing held at Washington DC on October 19, 2010 obliquely hinted at this fact when he stated, “I think that the actual impact of that ten day closure was pretty minimal. But we are in discussions with the northern supply network as well, so I think our military planners look at various contingencies on how to keep the Afghan theater adequately supplied.1 However, if these closures were to become a recurring feature then the consequences could be serious.

    Most importantly, if the United States were to downsize its troop presence with effect from July 2011, and consequently the Taliban gained greater control over much of southern Afghanistan, the task of maintaining the residual force levels could become an operational nightmare. In the given circumstances, does the American military have any options to re-set their southern lines of supply chain? The answer is unclear. They could turn to either Iran or India for alternate lines of supply. However, given the state of the US-Iran relationship, the first option is simply not politically feasible. The United States might consider it blasphemous to approach Iran for an alternate land route to Afghanistan; not that the regime in Iran too has any incentives to oblige the United States. Might India then be of some assistance? In some quarters any Indian move to support American military logistic needs in Afghanistan - via a combination of sea, land and air routes – would be politically unacceptable. Nevertheless, a dispassionate view would reveal that any offer from India to service part of the military logistic requirements in Afghanistan could serve as a good diplomatic move. Of course, in order to placate particular domestic audiences, this arrangement will have to come with several caveats and concessions.

    The caveats are likely to be threefold: logistical support would have to be treated as a pure commercial enterprise; that it would be a pay and use relationship without any hint of defence cooperation and/or an alliance-type relationship; and that there would be no military basing facilities offered at the port(s) of entry and operation. Though conditional in several ways, this option could offer the United States a fairly cost effective land-cum-air logistic route to Afghanistan. The less volumetric loads could move by road to suitable destination(s) in Northern India and from where a secure air bridge based on heavy lift fixed wing aircraft could be deployed to deliver the sensitive or time-critical logistic loads into Afghanistan. Obviously the suggested route cannot be a full fledged replacement to the existing lines of communication passing through Pakistan. Nevertheless, it could be a viable low to medium capacity alternative to move time-critical logistical needs to Afghanistan.

    At yet another level, the concessions will have to be fairly lucrative and worthwhile from an Indian point of view. These again could be at three levels: one that this arrangement enables India getting a high seat in various international fora and bodies; two, that the United States reviews the equipping of Pakistan’s armed forces that enables their conventional parity with Indian forces; and three, that the United States ceases to draw attention to the Kashmir issue. An arrangement that is possibly underpinned by these caveats and concessions could be a reasonable trade off for allowing the Americans to re-route some of their logistic needs through Indian territory and air space.

    Any such development would surely make China and Pakistan furious, and to a certain extent Russia irritated. However, there is no reason that the likely diplomatic fallout, especially with Russia, cannot be managed. The impending visit by President Obama may well bring up for discussion the fragility of the southern lines of communication passing through Pakistan and there lies an opportunity to offer a passage through India as a meaningful (though fractional) alternative.

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