The Khyber Pass, through which 70% of US military logistic needs for troops in Afghanistan and enough food to keep Kabul from crippling famine passes, was closed again Tuesday. By my count, that makes the fifth time since the 30th of December. Militants blew up a key bridge, which was apparently unguarded at the time, only a few miles from the Pakistani regional capital of Peshawar, home to the main military garrison for the entire border region.
It was not immediately clear whether supply convoys could reach Afghanistan through alternative, smaller routes in the region. An official in the area, Fazal Mahmood, said repair work had begun on the bridge.
The top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan said traffic was already flowing again after the attack. "They made a bypass," Col. Greg Julian said.
Hidayat Ullah, a government official in the Khyber tribal area, said the 32-foot-long (10-meter-long) bridge was about 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of the main city of Peshawar.
Pakistan has dispatched paramilitary escorts for supply convoys and cracked down on militants in Khyber, but attacks have persisted in an area that up to three years ago was largely free of violence.
Col. Julian, Petraeus' spokesman, also made much of Petraeus plans for an alternative route for supplies through former Soviet states. Petraeus had last month described such a deal in very 'slam-dunk' terms, but there's an unforeseen problem. As I wrote was likely back in mid-January, Kyrgyzstan's president has announced, via the Russian press, that the US airbase in his nation is to be closed.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev spoke on a visit to Moscow minutes after Russia announced it was providing the poor Central Asian nation with billions of dollars in aid.
Bakiyev said when the U.S. forces began using Manas after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the expectation was that they would stay for two years at most.
"It should be said that during this time... we discussed not just once with our American partners the subject of economic compensation for the stationing (of US forces at the base)," he said on Russian state-run TV. "But unfortunately we have not found any understanding on the part of the United States.
"So literally just days ago, the Kyrgyz government made the decision on ending the term for the American base on the territory of Kyrgyzstan," he said.
General Petraeus may have been blindsided by this news. He had previously claimed that the US airbase in Kyrgyzstan would play an important part in plans to develop a new supply line into Afghanistan, but that seems to have been well before Russia began pressuring the Kyrgyz government. His spokesman today dismissed the Kyrgyz leader's announcement as "political positioning".
That might be true. If so, the question former diplomats I've been talking with are asking is: "what does Russia want in return for an Afghan supply route?"
Interestingly, Afghan president Karzai was reported recently as considering a deal with Russia for military assistance. For Russia, Afgfhanistan is strategically placed between potential competitors and potential allies and Russia has always been interested in a military presence there if it could be accomplished without the kind of armed resistance that led to its withdrawal in the '80s. But there could be bigger prizes to seek too - like a new START agreement.
The Great Game continues with some new players and as ever one of the most powerful hands is held by whoever can open or close the Khyber - whether by direct action or deliberately looking the other way while local "armed entrepreneurs" do it for them. (I mean, really - a crucial bridge utterly unguarded only 15 miles from Peshawar?) Whoever has the Pass has the gorah by the short and curlies. As it stands right now, Pakistan is only reminding the US and its allies of that eternal truth. But with a US troop surge into Afghanistan in the offing and Pakistanis increasingly irate at airstrikes into their territory, the ability to cut off fuel and food to those troops and to the Afghan capital is a powerful potential weapon
Of course, as I noted last month too, there's already a perfectly good brand-new alternative road and rail route into Afghanistan...through Iran.
Crossposted from Newshoggers