November 20, 2010:
Russia and NATO are increasing their cooperation in dealing with drug production and Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan. This includes establishing a joint anti-terrorism training facility in Russia and increased exchange of intelligence information. There has been a lot of resistance in Russia towards assisting the NATO effort in Afghanistan. But the growing number of Russian addicts to Afghan opium and heroin, plus continuing problems with Islamic terrorists, has changed minds. Russia now sends intelligence officials into Afghanistan to help identify targets, but has made it clear that it will never send troops.
Even more important to NATO is increased freedom to ship supplies via Russian railroads. This is to include the ability to send material back, via Russia, and ship in a wider variety of goods. The U.S. and NATO have been shipping supplies to their troops in Afghanistan via Russian and Central Asian railroads for over four years. Russia has an economic interest in this, as more traffic makes it financially attractive for Central Asian nations to invest in upgrading their rail connections to Afghanistan. Tajikistan, for example, is extending its railroad to the Afghan border by building another 145 kilometers of track. Afghanistan itself has no railroads, mainly because there is not enough economic activity in the country to make this worthwhile. Foreign donors have contributed billions of dollars since 2002 to build more paved roads in Afghanistan. Currently, there are 42,000 kilometers of roads there, but only 29 percent are paved. There are few rivers, much less navigable ones, and no access to the sea. The place has long been a logistical nightmare. Most Afghans recognize that roads will make the country more prosperous, by making it economically feasible to export many commodities, and cheaper to bring in, and distribute, foreign goods. Naturally, the Taliban are opposed to all this road building, as it threatens the poverty and ancient customs that the Islamic conservatives are so fond of. The drug gangs also oppose roads, which make it easier for police to track down drug related operations.
Afghanistan's neighbors are eager to trade, and are using the U.S. and NATO need for more access to upgrade their transport links to the country. For example, last year 90 cargo containers were shipped through the Caucasus, via Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Caspian sea and Kazakhstan, to Afghanistan. It's also possible to ship containers across the Caspian to a port in Turkmenistan, and thence to Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO wants to move up to 50,000 containers a year via these new Russian and Caucasus routes. This makes it economically feasible to ship more civilian goods this way. As the traffic increases, it makes economic sense for Afghanistan to start building rail lines, something most nations began doing over a century ago.
All this effort to make Afghans more prosperous is the key to making it harder for the Taliban and drug gangs to recruit the young gunmen they need to sustain themselves.