Recently Pakistan agreed to reopen the supply routes that connect Afghanistan with NATO supplies from the Arabian Sea. The decision was made after US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apologized for US airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers seven months ago. The announcement seems like a ray of hope after a line of scandals that have marred the US-Pakistan relationship. But in many ways, this is just an upturn in an otherwise vicious cycle: America’s very dependence on Pakistan is the key source of regional instability. The only way out is to find an efficient alternative.
After the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, Pakistan became America’s main overland link to Central Asia. As a result, Washington has relied on Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s military headquarters, for access to Afghanistan. In fact, this dependence has existed for decades, from America’s efforts to balance, and later fight, the Soviets until today’s war in Afghanistan.
The problem is that Rawalpindi makes use of America’s dependence on its geography to secure economic and military aid, while surreptitiously backing the militants it is supposed to be fighting – from the Taliban to Lashkar-e-Taiba and even segments of Al Qaeda. The existence of these groups, in turn, forces America to rely on Pakistan even more. Along with fears about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, this dependence limits Washington’s ability to decisively deal with the Pakistani military’s double game.
As Hussain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, has written, as far back as 1947, Pakistan’s leaders saw that “Pakistan could extract a good price from the United States…in view of Pakistan’s strategic location.”
Rawalpindi’s stance is unlikely to change, as the Pakistani army also supports these militants in an effort to ensure Pakistan’s domestic cohesiveness. The Baluch, Pashtun, and Kashmiri ethnic groups straddle Pakistan’s borders with Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Their calls for self-determination challenge Pakistan’s internal security and national defense.
To divert the groups from their demands for independence, Islamabad has lent logistical, military, and ideological support to pan-Islamic militants in those regions – using an ideology of "pan-Islamism" that would unite all of these ethnic groups under the banner of Islamic Pakistan. This redirects the groups' revolutionary fervor toward external enemies.
Thus Washington’s dependence on Pakistan effectively amounts to American support for a Pakistani military-economic complex that churns out terrorists that are used as strategic weapons. The same complex is the world’s most flagrant nuclear proliferator. American backing – $25 billion in (mostly military) aid over the decade since 9/11 – also reinforces the domestic dominance of the Pakistani military, which pursues confrontation with India, quashes domestic dissent, and lionizes Islamists at the expense of domestic development.
A military “alliance with the United States,” Mr. Haqqani wrote, “became as important a part of…consolidating the Pakistani state as Islam and opposition to Hindu India.”
After 10 more turbulent years in the region, it remains unclear what benefits Washington’s indiscriminate support has produced. When Islamabad closed its supply routes to NATO several months ago, Washington was finally forced to face facts: Based on little common ground, the relationship is mutually destructive.
Seeking a backup, NATO expanded its use of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a northern route from the Baltic and Black Seas, across Russia through the Caucasus and Central Asia to Afghanistan. This shift reduced Washington’s dependence on Pakistan for over 70 percent of its supplies and fuel in previous years to less than 30 percent by the end of 2011.
But Russia and Kyrgyzstan have already threatened to close their supply lines seeking political concessions, while the northern route forces Washington to turn a blind eye to some of Central Asia’s most unsavory dictators. And because supplies have to cross thousands of miles and dozens of borders over a mix of road, rail, and sea, the northern route can cost more than five times shipping via the Arabian Sea.
Not to mention, the last time Washington abruptly abandoned Islamabad – in 1990, after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan – it was forced to return, hat in hand, to resume its geographic dependence on Pakistan in 2001, lacking a viable alternative.
Yet there is an important means of accessing Central Asia that is noticeably absent from this calculus: the Chabahar Road, which connects the Gulf of Oman to Afghanistan’s relatively stable western border. The Indian-constructed Chabahar Road and burgeoning railway end Pakistan’s monopoly on Afghanistan’s seaborne trade, which has been a key enabler of Islamabad’s malicious influence in Kabul.
Owing to Pakistan’s closed borders, India has used Chabahar to ship aid to Afghanistan (including 100,000 tons of wheat in April), purchase and transport minerals from the Hajigak mine in Afghanistan, and even serve as a counterweight to China’s regional presence. At 135 miles in length, the road is much shorter and more stable than any of the routes in Pakistan, making it perhaps the most efficient means of reaching Afghanistan.
Then why doesn’t NATO use this route? Because the Chabahar road lies in Iran, a country with which Washington does not have particularly warm relations. In fact, Washington and its allies are looking to further isolate, and are even prepared to attack, rather than engage with Iran. This approach is in many ways futile: Countries like China, India, Turkey, and Russia continue to trade with Tehran, whose influence throughout Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, South Asia, and elsewhere has by some accounts expanded, in spite of Washington’s 30-year cold shoulder.
US-Iran relations – including the recent P5+1 dialogue in Moscow – have focused on Iran’s nuclear program and relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia. But Washington appears to have forgotten that, in the wake of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran ensured the cooperation of its local allies and provided intelligence to the United States.
And the two countries’ interests, particularly in opposing the Taliban and enhancing trade in Central Asia, align almost perfectly. Individual NATO countries have begun bilateral discussions with Iran on employing the Chabahar route for the Afghan campaign, but without American support, they are unlikely to go very far.
Admittedly, given domestic and international political constraints and Washington’s singular drive to curb Iran’s nuclear program, an understanding of this sort appears improbable. But the next round of talks with Iran ought to consider a surprising reality: By weaning Washington off its dependence on Pakistan and even reorienting Afghanistan’s future, Iran may be an important solution to the problems that cost America blood and treasure.
Neil Padukone is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution and the author of a forthcoming book on the future of conflict in South Asia.