Instability along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is making alternative supply routes for NATO troops increasingly necessary.

  There are now two main routes through Central Asia that are being considered:  a northern corridor that starts in Riga, Latvia, and continues through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan as well as a second path that starts in the Georgian port of Poti and goes through Azerbaijan into Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  The second of these would be far more beneficial for the Alliance’s interests.

Some progress on both of these corridors has already been made.  During President Medvedev’s visit to Spain in March, Russia signed a deal allowing the transport of Spanish military equipment to Afghanistan using Russian territory.  Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have agreed to allow the transit of non-lethal, non-military goods.  The President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, stated that his country also intended to allow goods to be supplied to Afghanistan.

However, U.S. engagement in the region also faces challenges; Russia is also active in the political-military life of Central Asia.  Kyrgyzstan’s recent decision to close down Manas airbase following an offer of $2 billion in financial assistance from Russia is one example of Moscow’s activities.  The Collective Security Treaty Organization and the recent decision to establish Rapid Reaction Forces deployable in the territory of all CSTO members is indicative of Moscow’s efforts to create a regional security regime that would exclude any outside powers.

Once Manas is gone, Russia can use its monopoly over the transit routes the way it uses its nearly monopolistic position in Europe’s energy security.  Russia opposed any energy supply routes through Central Asia to Europe that would bypass its territory.  This does not, however, mean that Russia should be excluded from the U.S. regional efforts to stabilize Afghanistan; the country is a key component in the overall security landscape of the region.  The Obama administration’s current efforts to normalize U.S.-Russia relations provide a good framework for engaging Russia in the strategically important region of Central Asia.

What is important, though, is a viable alternative to the Russian transit corridor to avoid excessive reliance on Moscow.  The plan to use the Georgian port of Poti, the Azerbaijani port of Baku, and then Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan should be kept in mind.  This situation is reminiscent of the energy issue.  The energy supply corridors of Georgia and Azerbaijan (namely, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines) proved to be reliable and stable; they now provide Europe with an alternative to Russian energy supply routes.

The lessons learned from Russia’s behavior when supplying oil and gas should be kept in mind when considering new supply routes for Afghanistan.  There are several unresolved issues between Russia and the United Staes, including NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, the coming negotiations on START-3, efforts to bring Turkmen gas to Azerbaijani facilities, U.S. plans to set up a ballistic missile defense infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic to name a few.  Over-reliance on Russia for supply routes will give the Kremlin an opportunity to press the United States for more flexibility on these matters.

Having the Georgia-Azerbaijan-Central Asia supply route as an alternative to the Russia-Central Asia supply route is advantageous to the U.S. for several reasons.  First and foremost, using alternative supply routes will preclude Russia from exerting pressure on the U.S.  This will indirectly help avoid unnecessary tensions between the U.S. and Russia.  Second, Georgia and Azerbaijan have long been tested for their reliability as credible supply corridors; this is evident in their cooperation and work on providing energy supply routes to Europe.  Third, there are similarities between certain security threats in Azerbaijan and Afghanistan-Central Asia.  Azerbaijan’s expertise in these law enforcement and security issues could be a valuable asset to consider for future training of Afghan officers.  The fourth and final advantage is Azerbaijan’s ability to provide locally produced commercial goods for Afghanistan and the troops deployed there, especially when the latter grow in number.

Tamerlan Vahabov, a graduate student at Georgetown University’s Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, has served as an analyst with the Interpol General Secretariat and Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.