Hakimullah Mehsud makes an eloquent practical argument for development of the East-West Corridor that runs from the Black Sea to the Caspian, across Georgia and Azerbaijan.  His Taliban guerillas are attacking NATO supply convoys traveling from Pakistan to Afghanistan and they recently struck a major logistics depot in the Pakistani town of Peshawar. 

“The supply line issues are quite serious,” said General David Petraeus, Commander of United States Central Command.  So US and NATO officials are looking for alternatives to Pakistani supply routes.

Three quarters of the supplies for NATO’s 53,000 troops in Afghanistan now land at the Pakistani port of Karachi.  From there, most supplies are trucked 850 kilometers, north to Peshawar, west across the Khyber Pass and on to Kabul and beyond.  About 150 trucks make the trek each day.

They encounter trouble in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a patchwork of rough territories nominally overseen by Islamabad-appointed officials, but effectively controlled by tribal chieftains and warlords with various ties and loyalties.

“Escalating violence on the Khyber Road,” write Richard Oppel and Pirzubair Shah in the New York Times, “has paralleled the rise of Hakimullah Mehsud, a young Taliban commander.”  Attacks on convoys are routine and, on December 6, Mehsud’s fighters ransacked the NATO supply depot in Peshawar.  “In all, 145 vehicles, trailers, containers and two armored personnel carriers were destroyed” reports The Guardian.

NATO officials downplay the attacks on alliance logistics routes.  Nonetheless, considering Pakistan’s faltering capability to control the situation and the expected 2009 surge of NATO troops in Afghanistan, the alliance is looking for alternatives to Pakistani roads.

Since the Islamic Republic of Iran, to the west, is unlikely to assist the US and NATO, the only alternative routes into Afghanistan are from the north, through the Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are pivotal.

Unfortunately, with a disastrous blend of human rights zealotry and strategic autism, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005 got the US booted from its ideally located logistics base at Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan.  Now, Tashkent is signaling its willingness to discuss renewed US supply routes on its territory—but only if overall relations with Washington improve.

America must repair its relationship with Uzbekistan and forge stronger links to all the Central Asian countries.

That said, the Central Asian countries are landlocked, and there are only two ways in: through Russia and across the South Caucasus.  Regrettably, NATO is already well along the wrong rail.

At NATO’s April Bucharest Summit, Russia agreed to allow transit of some alliance non-military supplies bound for Afghanistan.  At the same time, NATO denied Georgia a Membership Action Plan, encouraging Russia’s August assault on Georgia and—make no mistake—on the East-West Corridor.

The western alliance reacted by suspending the NATO-Russia Council, canceling some joint military activities and refraining from business as usual—without knowing just what that meant.  That left Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, to tell The Times that it meant no transit through Russia to Afghanistan.

In late autumn, NATO foreign ministers again denied MAP to Georgia; however, they resumed “conditional and graduated engagement” with Russia—without knowing just what that meant.

To Russia, it meant splitting NATO by dealing with individual allies, just as it splits the European Union with one-off energy deals.  “To negotiate an agreement,” NATO Spokesperson Carmen Romero told RFE/RL, “26 is more complicated.”

Accordingly, on November 6, Russia had already concluded a bilateral agreement with Spain to transit non-military goods to Afghanistan, and on November 10, it made an agreement with Germany to transit even military equipment.

Moscow is developing another western-perceived need—like Russia’s modest help on terrorism and nuclear proliferation—that it can manipulate.

Western leaders must awake to the truth that if Moscow shared our interest in Afghanistan, it would help, not haggle over who can roll what on its rails.  With eyes wide open, NATO should explore any opportunity to transit Russia and to improve relations with Moscow.

However, NATO’s greater strategic interest is in the South Caucasus East-West Corridor, which, some commentators have said for years, is much more than three energy pipelines.

With NATO allies Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey on the western and southern shores of the Black Sea, Georgia, on the eastern shore, is the natural gateway to a corridor that connects Europe to Afghanistan.  Indeed, America and Georgia should explore the feasibility of securing a logistics node at, say, Batumi.  Baku, fast developing as the east-west hub, would become the fulcrum of the corridor.

Georgia and Azerbaijan offer reliable, enduring east-west transit based on genuine shared interests—both have contributed forces to NATO in Afghanistan.  Investments in the East-West Corridor would support near-term requirements in Afghanistan and would be down payments on the future.

There is a call from Peshawar to Batumi—it is time to realize the East-West Corridor.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.  This column originally appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.