Oil and Afghanistan Mean That the United States Has Little Leverage Over Pakistan

We need to keep the troops in Afghanistan supplied, Robert Bryce writes.

A Pakistani tribal man walks past burning oil tankers parked near the Torkham border, the bordering area of the troubled Khyber tribal region where Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents have carried out a series of attacks.

A Pakistani tribal man walks past burning oil tankers parked near the Torkham border.

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In the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the U.S. government is pressuring Pakistan to investigate the incident that left more than 170 dead in India's largest city. After arriving Thursday in Islamabad, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded that the Pakistanis provide "robust" cooperation with the Indians to find the perpetrators. There has also been talk that the United States might suspend aid to Pakistan.

Don't believe it. America has little—if any—leverage with the Pakistani government. The weakness of the U.S. bargaining position can be summed up in two words: "fuel" and "Afghanistan."

According to the latest data from the Defense Energy Support Center, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. military is now consuming about 575,000 gallons of fuel per day in Afghanistan. And about half of that fuel is coming via truck from refineries in Pakistan. According to a presentation made by Army Col. Mark Olinger at the Defense Energy Support Center's biannual conference in Crystal City, Va., last April, the U.S. military in Afghanistan buys fuel from four different countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan. But it's the Pakistani refineries at Lahore, Karachi, and Attock that are the most essential.

"The fuel flow into Afghanistan is like the supply coming in through the Burma Road," said Olinger, referring to the transportation challenges the British had during World War II in moving war materials into China via a treacherous mountainous road from Burma (now Myanmar).

Indeed, the logistics line that carries fuel from neighboring countries into Afghanistan is a critical weakness for American forces. And the fuel flow from Azerbaijan is particularly precarious. The fuel originates at a refinery in Baku, where it is loaded on rail cars that are then put onto barges that cross the Caspian Sea. When the cars land in Turkmenistan, they follow a circuitous rail route through Uzbekistan before they arrive at the Afghan border. The fuel is then transferred to trucks. In all, the fuel travels about 1,000 miles.

The fuel lines from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are recent additions to the U.S. military's supply routes for Afghanistan. For many months, the U.S. military had to rely on just two sources for fuel: Azerbaijan and Pakistan. And while the addition of the two "stans" is a positive development in terms of fuel security, both countries have uneasy relationships with the United States. The U.S. military was kicked out of Uzbekistan in 2005 and was allowed to return only earlier this year. Hydrocarbon-rich Kazakhstan has long attracted western interest, but the United States has been careful not to appear too accommodating to the country's autocratic leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The Pakistanis fully understand the importance of the logistics line that carries fuel, food, and other supplies into Afghanistan. According to Olinger, all of the fuel trucked into Afghanistan goes through the northern Pakistani town of Peshawar, on the eastern side of the Khyber Pass. And the truck convoys out of Peshawar are a rich target for the warlords and other groups—some of which are allegedly linked to the Taliban—that operate in the region. In early November, 60 gunmen hijacked more than a dozen trucks carrying supplies for the U.S. military near the Khyber Pass. In September, according to Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper, the Pakistani government temporarily stopped all truck traffic on the road through the pass, citing security concerns. In April, a fuel truck wired with a bomb exploded near a customs post at Torkham on the Pakistan-Afghan border. And in March, a bomb attack destroyed 40 tanker trucks in the Khyber Agency near the border.

The U.S. military in Afghanistan would have a huge problem if the Pakistani government decided to close the supply route through the Khyber Pass or, perhaps worse, allowed local warlords and Taliban-affiliated groups to operate unfettered, thereby giving them license to hijack truck convoys at will.