Sunday, December 07, 2008

Afghanistan swansong

There are only two ways NATO and the US can resupply their forces in Afghanistan - land and air. Air is expensive and bulk material cannot be flown in because aircraft are simply not that big or numerous. Therefore large deliveries of NATO and US kit are moved by sealift to Pakistani ports, and then driven overland to landlocked Afghanistan.


Militants blasted their way into two transport terminals in Pakistan on Sunday and torched more than 160 vehicles destined for U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan, in the biggest assault yet on a vital military supply line, officials said.

The U.S. military said its losses in the raid near the northwestern city of Peshawar would have only a "minimal" impact on its operations against resurgent Taliban-led militants in Afghanistan.

However, the attack's boldness will fuel concern that Taliban militants are tightening their hold around Peshawar and could choke the supply route through the famed Khyber Pass.

Up to 75 per cent of supplies for Western forces in landlocked Afghanistan pass through Pakistan after being unloaded from ships at the Arabian sea port of Karachi. NATO is already seeking an alternative route through Central Asia.

The attack at the Portward Logistic Terminal reduced a section of the vast walled compound to a smoldering junkyard.

Terminal manager Kifayatullah Khan said armed men flattened the gate before dawn with a rocket-propelled grenade, shot dead a guard and set fire to a total of 106 vehicles, including about 70 Humvees.

An Associated Press reporter who visited the depot saw six rows of destroyed Humvees and military trucks parked close together, some of them on flatbed trailers, all of them gutted and twisted by the flames.

Khan said shipping documents showed they were destined for U.S. forces and the Western-trained Afghan National Army.

The attackers fled after a brief exchange of fire with police, who arrived about 40 minutes later, Khan said.

The nine other guards who were on duty but stood helplessly aside put the number of assailants at 300, Khan said, though police official Kashif Alam said there were only 30.

At the nearby Faisal depot, manager Shah Iran said 60 vehicles destined for Afghanistan as well as three Pakistani trucks were burned in a similar assault. It was unclear if one or two bands of gunmen were involved.

A Humvee is worth $150 000. If 160 were destroyed, that attack just cost the US military 24 000 000 dollars. Even more so, when the cost of finding alternate means protecting supply lines is taken into account. And, not to mention, the impact the absence of those vehicles has on operations in a mission that is often described as severely under resourced. The Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan puts a great deal of effort into blowing up well defended NATO, US and ANA vehicles. They may have just found a way to not only destroy materiel, but also seriously threaten Western logistics in Afghanistan. Allies now must find methods of protecting their lines inside Pakistan...which means asking the Pakistan government to either let Western forces or mercenaries inside the country, or use the Pakistan army to protect their logistics.

This might not be an easy task given Pakistani hostility to US raids on their border regions, and the fact that now, the Afghan war has reared its head deep inside Pakistan proper.

So when people like Canadian Gen. Walter Natynczyk say things like -

"Security has not improved, ladies and gentlemen, as the insurgents operated from sanctuaries along the Pakistan border and the attacks this summer became more sophisticated," Natynczyk told a military, business and diplomatic audience.

"Quite simply, there aren't enough troops to secure the entire country," he added.

"The upcoming surge by the U.S. forces is essential to expand the security area, to hold the ground, to enable the Afghans to vote next fall."

The new U.S. administration of Barack Obama has pledged as many as 20,000 new soldiers for Afghanistan.

- he really means unless things suddenly radically change for the better, the mission is fucked.

I would almost bet then, especially in the context of recession/depression, that Canada, and maybe even the rest of the West, will withdraw from Afghanistan before 2011. For countries trying desperately to shore up their economies with dwindling government revenues, money and people spent in far flung wars will be very hard to justify in real terms. It's an optional war, we're losing, it's spreading, and it's growing more expensive by the week. There is no way to parse this.

No matter how emotionally invested in the conflict some are, whether as part of their domestic partisan politics, or because they need to believe their sacrifice meant something, we will leave Afghanistan. And it will not be on ideal terms.

(h/t BCL)

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