Monday, November 24, 2008

Trouble on the Khyber Pass

Daniel Larison draws our attention to the supply chain issues facing the United States military in Afghanistan and how our prickly relationship with Russia is complicating matters. First he quotes The Asia Times,

A Washington Post article of November 19 detailed these obstacles, focusing on Taliban attacks on the supply route into Afghanistan from Pakistan. But that’s only a part of the problem. The other was caused by the Bush administration. “We should have alternative supply routes through the north and not have to rely on the roads from Pakistan,” a senior serving army officer says, “but we can’t get a northern route because the Bush administration pissed off the Russians in Georgia.”

Negotiations with the Russians over a northern resupply route that would be place the 67,000 US and NATO soldiers at the end of “a secure tether” have been stalled, according to this officer. “This is typical of the White House, they can’t see beyond tomorrow. They have never been able to plan ahead, to think through the consequences of their actions. They’re so proud of themselves, and we’re the ones who suffer.” He adds: “They can’t be gone soon enough.”

Larison concludes,

This is worth remembering. In order to pursue a useless and provocative policy of NATO expansion and democracy promotion in post-Soviet space, Washington is jeopardizing a potentially very valuable relationship with Moscow that could contribute directly to the security and greater success of our soldiers in Afghanistan. As the hijacking of a supply train in Pakistan in recent weeks should remind us, U.S. and NATO forces are being resupplied along a route that has become less reliable and secure.

White House political malfeasance aside it's interesting that the Khyber Pass is again proving to be the bane of an invading army. The Khyber Pass has been at the center of history in the region since the Persians in the 6th century BC. Alexander the Great fought his way through the Khyber Pass to India in 326 BC. Gengis Kahn was drawn through the Khyber Pass in pursuit of Jalal Al-Din in 1221. Our recent travails in the pass though remind me most of the fate of the British in the 19th and early 20th century Afghan Wars.

The First Afghan War - In the late 1830's the British became obsessed with the possibility of a Russian invasion of India via Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass. The British succeeded in reaching Kabul via the Khyber Pass and installing a friendly Shah. Shah Shujah though proved unpopular and ineffectual (sound familiar?) and the British were forced to keep their military in Afghanistan to prop up the Shah. The British had to pay the tribes along the Khyber Pass in order to keep it open to their supply lines from India. This arrangement held for some 2 years before the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated to the point that the British garrison was completely under siege in a small encampment in the capital of Kabul. The British brokered passage out of Kabul,

"With the positions now desperate, the Afghans allowed the British to vacate Kabul and to begin the journey to India via Jalalabad and the Khyber Pass. They did not, however, give any guarantees for safe passage of protection.

The march out of Kabul began on January 16, 1842. With the Afghan tribes intent on blocking their progres, the prospects looked grim as the long convoy set off at the height of the vicious Afghan winter. The catastrophe was total. On January 13, a wounded and exhausted Dr. Brydon staggered into the British camp at Jalalabad on a horse that was barely alive, bringing news of calamity. He was almost the sole member of a the column of 16,000 soldiers, families and camp followers to reach safety at Jalalabad and had been allowed to escape alive only to report the disaster to his countrymen. [The British] had been comprehensively destroyed as they struggled through the snowy passes, decimiated by sniping Afghan tribesmen and the frozen weather. As the convoy gained distance from Kabul, it began to lose any semblance of order or discipline, and stragglers fell behind, only to be picked off with ease. Over the next few days, the column broke up into isolated fragments that became even more vulnerable targets for the Afghans. From the hills about the road the tribesmen used their [muskets] to ruthless effect, cutting down soldiers and wives without fear of retaliation. Alongside the jezail, the talwar - the powerful curved sword of the region - became especially feared among the British. "
- "The Khyber Pass: A History of Empire & Invasion", Paddy Docherty page 205

And so began 70 years of brutal war involving the British, the Afghans and the Khyber Pass. It's important to note too that Britain was reacting out of fear of a militant and expansionist Russia. Here we are 160 years later and the United States military supply lines are being threatened in the Khyber Pass and a militant Russia lays at the heart of the current crisis facing the invading army.

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