The Khyber Pass Jugular Bleeds Again
Only days after the first convoy through the strategic Khyber Pass, a weak point in the resupply of Afghanistan, reports have arrived that another convoy has been attacked. US missile strikes underlined the arrival of a renewed struggle to keep the strategic point open – one that featured Cobra attack choppers and tank columns.
The Khyber Pass links Lahore, Islamabad, and Peshwar to Kabul. It is the point through which invasions in, or out, of the Hindu-Kush generally pass. However important it is, it’s nature as a trade point means that the "Michni Checkpoint," the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is a hotbed of military, paramilitary, and criminal activity. Journalists and foreigners have been warned that the government cannot assure their safety along this corridor. There have been kidnappings and shootings, of foreigners, and those working with them. In 2007 the US delivered Cobras to Pakistan as part of a program to upgrade the Pak military forces and give them greater Air to Surface capability.
However, the Pakistan military has remained below acceptable in its ability to engage in combined operations, and this has meant that US air capacity has been increasingly tied down in ground support missions. Part of the reason that the Indian navy has largely taken the lead on dealing with Somali Piracy.
Expansion of the war in Afghanistan, has already drawn diplomatic warnings, even though Obama committed to it early. However, evidence indicates that supply across the Khyber is already near the breaking point and is offering a target for suicide tactics similar to those used at choke points in Iraq. In these infiltration of criminal and irregular police by assymetrical forces is accomplished, and then activated to create confusion by detonating a carried explosive device. This then allows a larger attack on the whole convoy, with the intent of raiding the supplies that are carried. The new container rules have already proven vulnerable, and as a result armed escort has been increased again. There has been a private admission that the "Khyber Pass problem" has remained not only intractable, but will likely grow worse because of the absence of good tactical doctrine in for this particular mission, and the present confused state of the rules of engagement, which have difficulty differentiating the complex status of the conflict.
Over the last two years, Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan has widened from support of a US mission to facing a domestic insurgency. The ability to flow through the pass, since it is critical to civilian trade, means that an integrated insurgency will have little difficulty in traveling between a war torn failed state Afghanistan, and a destabilizing Pakistan. The opening months of an Obama Presidency may see a "surge" style strategy undertaken in Afghanistan, with the intent of controlling key military centers and the main supply lines. Preparations for this strategy have been rumored to be underway for some time, and some which were mistaken to be preparations for an attack on Iran have, in fact, been bulking up US transport capability for a redeployment of forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. This would also mean further extensions of deployments for National Guard forces currently in Iraq, since they provide a disproportionate share of the Military Police and Security personnel that would be required in a "surge, suppress, stabilize" operational mode.
Further providing cover for the movement of Talib, insurgent, and "global guerilla" forces is the swelling refuge crisis and continued sectarian violence. Further strain on this weak point is being placed by accelerated construction plans for a new tunnel.
The re-appointment of Secretary Gates who has been instrumental in pushing for an escalation in Afghanistan in the belief that it is possible to win there. As 2005 dawned, I predicted that the US was within 18 months of a crisis point in Iraq based on relative casualty rates, and that the outcome would probably be a withdrawal from a de facto partitioned Iraq. The situation in Pakistan-Afghanistan, which now must be regarded as a single conflict in a conflict of conflicts which include Iraq, the Congo, Somalia, the Sudan, and Ethiopia – in that the root cause is the deterioration of control of the Western Indian Ocean power center and over-commitment of both combat ground support capacity and naval power – is far more complex and does not reduce to a simple logistical formula. However supply problems and political destabilization indicate that we may be facing another dark at the end of the tunnel – where the glide path outcome is a negative one leaving the political and security situation in a region in a worse state than a political solution would make possible.
These supply problems are a warning both that there is a military escalation planned, and a demonstration that this escalation, in itself, will increase the level of political instability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Author and former diplomat Rory Stewart outlines how over reach has produced increasing failure in Afghanistan, and warns that further over reach may well produce conditions which will be worse still.