The US administration is moving forward so quickly with its plans for Afghanistan and Iran's role in keeping supplies running that, before President Barack Obama and his First Lady took off for the G20 summit in London and their first European tour Tuesday, March 31, the agreed supply routes had had their first fine-turning.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources (updating their first disclosure last week: Obama Proposed a US Military Supply Route to Afghanistan via…Iran), reveal that US defense secretary Robert Gates, Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and transport command chief Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, have already laid before the president an amended and improved plan for US military supplies and personnel to reach Afghanistan through Iran. It eliminates most ground routes and makes do with sea and air routes only.
The US Air Base at Al Udeid in Qatar would remain the main hub for the air corridor: US transport planes would head out over the Persian Gulf, cross the Iranian border and fly over southern and central Iran up to their destination, the US airbase near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan – as we reported last week. (See attached updated map – http://debka-net-weekly.com/pics/Iran_Route3.jpg).
The main innovation is a new US new sea route hinging on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' main naval base at Chah-Bahar, which is situated on the Arabian Sea near Iran's border with Pakistan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources note that Chah-Bahar has two sections, a small, run-down civilian harbor for small craft arriving from India and Pakistan, and a spanking new, modern military facility, home to Iran's main submarine force.
The US planners found this section of Chah-Bahar ideal as a port for US provisions to reach Afghanistan by a predominantly sea route. From this Arabian Sea port, consignments would head north through Iran's Sistan-va-Baluchistan up to the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan border intersection and then turn east by convoy to their destination at Kandahar.
Hillary Clinton hints at deeper contacts
This would leave only one overland route from southern Iran to southern Afghanistan.
Our Iranian sources stress that the American planners would not have confirmed these alterations without direct discussion with – and feedback from – their Iranian counterparts. Furthermore, the highly strategic, classified status of the submarine base at Chah-Bahar is such that all such plans would have to be cleared at the highest level by supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Hence the optimistic tones of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton Tuesday, March 31, when she remarked that US and Iranian representatives at The Hague conference on Afghanistan had had a “cordial exchange” and agreed to stay in touch.
“In the course of the conference today, our special representative for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, had a brief and cordial exchange with the head of the Iranian delegation Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh“, she told a press conference.
This was but a brief glimpse at the hectic activity going forward on the behind-the-scenes Washington-Tehran track.
Our Iranian sources note that Akhundzadeh was both more direct and more abstruse than Clinton in his comments on Afghanistan: “The people of Afghanistan know their country better than anybody else does,” said the Iranian official, then added for the benefit of his US listeners: “The presence of foreign forces has not improved things in the country and it seems that an increase in the number of foreign forces will prove ineffective, too.”
His second comment was taken as a diplomatic nudge from Tehran advising Obama to abandon his plan to send an extra 17,000 troops to Afghanistan by August.
“Let's declare victory and go home”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington and Tehran sources did not take this comment as an Iranian dig to needle the Americans over their military difficulties in Afghanistan, but rather as encouragement for the trend developing in President Obama's immediate circle of advisers to cut short the Afghanistan War. Tehran is believed to have obtained hard intelligence on this evolving trend from Afghan informants in Kabul and Pakistani sources in Islamabad.
That this view has drawn a responsive chord in the Oval Office was indicated by the important omission in the review of US Afghanistan strategy delivered by Obama Friday, March 2: He referred to the consignment of 4,000 American military personnel to help train Afghan security forces, but uttered not a word about the deployment of any more combat troops, i.e. the aforementioned 17,000.
The impression gained in Washington, Tehran, Kabul, Islamabad and Brussels was that the American president would like to reverse his early decision and back out of the announced Afghanistan “surge.”
This impression is fed by the talk heard increasingly these days in circles close to Obama that the US military predicament in Afghanistan needs to be solved by means other than increasing the number of boots on the ground. One idea is to go for a low-level battle victory to give the president an opening to declare that the Afghan war is won and US forces can start pulling out.
Obama's advisers are warning him to avoid falling into George W. Bush's fatal error of getting bogged down in an agonizing, protracted public debate over whether or not to withdraw from Afghanistan. Far better to go for a quick, surgical resolution before the administration's political and military opponents can draw battle lines for this debate, they say.
One group of White House advisers advises cutting and running from the troubled country without even waiting for a low-level victory; “the successful containment of terrorist activities,” would suffice, they say.
The Great Afghan War debate may not have begun publicly in the United States, but enough uncertainty is generated from the White House to sow some confusion. Obama's “new Afghanistan strategy” speech last Friday had too little content to qualify as a clear policy.