The Northern Route to Afghanistan


The road passes a shimmering green mountain pasture, then dips steeply to a new US-built bridge. Across the languid Panj river is Afghanistan and the dusty northern town of Kunduz. On this side is Tajikistan, Afghanistan's impoverished Central Asian neighbour.

It is here, at what used to be the far boundary of the Soviet empire, that the US and Nato are planning a new operation. Soon, Nato trucks loaded with non-military supplies will start rolling into Afghanistan along this northern route, avoiding Pakistan's perilous tribal areas and the ambush-prone Khyber Pass.

This northern corridor is essential if Barack Obama's Afghan-Pakistan strategy is to work. With convoys supplying US and Nato forces regularly attacked by the Taliban on the Pakistan route, the US is again courting the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Nato has already signed a transit deal with Tajikistan. It says it expects bilateral agreements with Uzbekistan "within days" and Kazakhstan "within weeks". Pakistan will remain the primary route. But the sleepy Tajik-Afghan border crossing at the village of Nizhny Panj will become a focal point of Obama's Afghan push.

"We used to cross the river by boat. Then the Americans built a bridge," Rasul Nematov, 35, who lives in Nizhny Panj said. Next to his front garden, past a line of washing and a trailing vine, is a Tajik sentry tower. The Pentagon has given Dushanbe, Tajikistan's attractive capital, $10m to beef up security on its mountainous border, a key conduit for Afghanistan's biggest export, heroin.

Currently, only a few dozen Afghan drivers cross the bridge every day. From here they proceed to Dushanbe, filling up their Kamaz trucks with sugar and other goods. They then head home. The route goes past fields of cotton, donkeys, small boys selling fish, and willow and poplar trees, their blossom now floating across a fragrant spring landscape.

"This road to Tajikistan is good. It's safe, quiet," Said Muhammed, 54, an Afghan truck driver from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif told the Guardian. He added: "The problem is with the road south from Kabul to Kandahar. I don't drive it. It's dangerous. The Taliban dragged my friend out of his truck and set it on fire."


There is more.

The Taliban appear to be concentrated on the Kabul-Kandahar route as well as the route through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass. They do not have the capacity to attack the northern route at this point and they also see the other routes as more strategically important. They are probably right in that assessment. That is why it is important for the government and our forces to make those routes safe. That will require more troops and Obama's halfway measures might not be enough.


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