Pakistan Catch-22: The Trouble With Wars in Landlocked Countries

Lemar Farhad recently wrote on the relationship of the Pakistani government and the Taliban in “Why Peace with the Taliban Is a Bad Idea”. In it he highlighted specific reasons why Pakistan has been aiding the Taliban against the current U.S. and NATO backed government in Afghanistan. This duplicitous stance by the Pakistan government, which is also our ally in the Global War on Terror, makes the goal of actually defeating the Taliban likely unattainable.

“U.S. policy in particular should be geared at rendering Islamabad either incapable of aiding the Taliban or unwilling to do so.”

While I agree with Farhad’s proposed fix for drying up the support given by Pakistan, the second and third order effects could also cripple our efforts in Afghanistan. His position states that “U.S. policy in particular should be geared at rendering Islamabad either incapable of aiding the Taliban or unwilling to do so. Declaring the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization is the first step. After all, an insurgent force without protected safe-havens, financial institutions, resources, materiel, logistics capabilities, and a host-state will be unable to survive for long.” Such a position would certainly end access to both air and ground routes across the country into Afghanistan.

Since the retrograde of combat forces from Afghanistan in 2013–2014, our footprint in the region has steadily decreased by our own choice and evictions by host nations. This draw-down actually makes Farhad’s suggested course of action more feasible than any time since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). As a landlocked country bordered on the east and west by China and Iran, to the south Pakistan and to the north several former Soviet Bloc states; Afghanistan presents a unique challenge for conducting a war, especially with the current status of U.S. relations with several neighboring countries.

Map of U.S. Military Bases supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001

Map of U.S. Military Bases supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001

At the onset of OEF the U.S. was successful in securing several air bases north of Afghanistan from which combat and mobility operations could be launched. The two main bases were Transit Center Manas in Kyrgyzstan and Karshi-Khanabad Air Base (K2) in Uzbekistan. The other northern countries of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan all granted the U.S. military diplomatic clearance to overfly their countries. More importantly though, the military took advantage of existing infrastructure in the Persian Gulf region from Desert Storm and Operation Northern and Southern Watch. In order to fly from the Persian Gulf bases to Afghanistan, coalition aircraft must transit Pakistani airspace. This long-standing relationship, while strained at times, was key in facilitating the air war since most aircraft involved were based outside of Afghanistan. Loss of this overflight privilege would have crippled the air war and much of the cargo and transportation into and out of theater. Air assets would have to move to northern bases, which wouldn’t be possible due to limited ramp space or would have to fly from bases in Europe into Afghanistan which again was largely unfeasible due to long transit legs and ramp space.

As the war progressed our ability to keep our northern bases open and overflight privileges became increasingly difficult. In 2005 the U.S. was forced to leave K2 and lost most of its overflight privilege after the State Department criticized the government’s actions during the Adijan Massacre.[1] In addition, the Russian government was uneasy with U.S. bases close to its borders and exerted its influence on the region’s governments to complicate our dealings. The situation also progressively deteriorated in Kyrgyzstan as well, with an almost evacuation of the base after a near civil war in 2010. Opposition to air bases continued to grow in the government, which was fueled by Russian influence to close the base as well. In 2012, after Russia pledged over $1 billion in military aid to the country, the government chose not to renew the lease on the air base.[2] I was deployed to the base around this time and the firm decision seemed to have caught the military off guard. The Kyrgyzstan government had for many years threatened to shut down the base as a way to leverage increased rent payments.[3]

Airman salute the last KC-135 to fly combat mission from Manas taxis to park

Airman salute the last KC-135 to fly combat mission from Manas taxis to park

However, this time the decision was final and in the spring of 2013 the last USAF aircraft departed the base. The U.S. also shut down its expeditionary airlift squadron at Incirlik Air Base in the summer of 2012, while standing up a temporary air base in Romania to replace Manas and handle the last of the retrograde from Afghanistan.

With the northern bases closed and Turkmenistan being the only country still cooperating with our war efforts, the routes through Pakistan became even more critical. However, with the retrograde completed at the beginning of this year and the increasingly smaller footprint in Afghanistan the once massive airlift operation has dwindled. When I arrived to my airlift squadron over two and half years ago an airlift mission to anywhere but Afghanistan was rare, now missions to Afghanistan are increasingly rare.

Afghan Resupply Routed (courtesy of NPR)

Afghan Resupply Routed (courtesy of NPR)

In addition to the massive airlift operations that supplied the war and transported personnel and equipment, a large ground transportation network existed as well. Up until 2009 supplies had flowed from the Pakistani port of Karachi, but due to continued loss of supplies by attacks and theft; the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) was initiated.[4] These supply routes proved instrumental when Pakistan closed it’s borders to the U.S. and NATO for 7 months in 2011.

Taking a look at the accompanying graphic you can see that all but one of the NDN routes transits through Russia. Even though tension between Russia and NATO over involvement in the Ukrainian conflict has existed since late 2013; it wasn’t until earlier this year that Russia announced the end of their involvement in NDN routes.[5] It is worth noting that the last NDN route transits the southern Caucasus region which has seen it’s share of Russian involvement. In 2008 Russia showed disregard for Georgian sovereignty when it suited their interests during the Russo-Georgian War.

If the Russians were able to coerce even one of these countries to revoke the diplomatic clearance of military aircraft to overfly their country or close the last remaining NDN route, the U.S. could effectively strand the remaining U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

With regards to the mission in Afghanistan, if the U.S. was to take a hard line approach to Pakistan’s involvement with the Taliban, now would be the most opportune time. However, due to the previously mentioned Russian involvement in the former Soviet states, which was before the recent bold actions in Ukraine and Syria, the U.S. would have to ensure the unwavering support of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. If the Russian’s were able to coerce even one of these countries to revoke the diplomatic clearance of military aircraft to overfly their country or close the last remaining NDN route, the U.S. could effectively strand the remaining U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Looking at the current situation in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I’m not sure presenting Russia with this enticing target of opportunity is a gamble worth taking. With the talks of a potential coalition between Russia, Syria, Iran and Iraq to fight ISIS, the uneasy nature of our relations with Turkey and Russian influence in the northern parts of Central Asia, the U.S. may not be able to afford to strain relations with Pakistan. For the time being we may have to continue supporting the Afghanistan government, realizing the actual defeat of the Taliban might be years away.


Dan Ryan is a U.S. Air Force C-17 Aircraft Commander and an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the USAF, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.


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