Russia and neighboring Central Asian nations have agreed to let supplies pass through their territory to American soldiers in Afghanistan, lessening Washington's dependence on dangerous routes through Pakistan, a top US commander said. Securing alternative routes to landlocked Afghanistan has taken on added urgency this year as the United States prepares to double troop numbers there to 60,000 to battle a resurgent Taliban eight years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani army said Tuesday it had killed 60 militants in a stepped up offensive close to the Afghan border, a lawless region considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders. Washington has long urged Islamabad to take the fight to the insurgents sheltering there. US and NATO forces get up to 75 percent of their "non-lethal" supplies such as food, fuel and building materials from shipments that traverse Pakistan, a volatile, nuclear-armed country. The main road through the Khyber Pass in the northwest of the country has occasionally been closed in recent months due to rising attacks by bandits and Islamist militants.
US Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus said Tuesday that America had struck deals with Russia and several Central Asian states close to or bordering Afghanistan during a tour of the region in the past week.
"We have sought additional logistical routes into Afghanistan from the north. There have been agreements reached," Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, told reporters during a visit to Pakistan.
"It is very important as we increase the effort in Afghanistan that we have multiple routes that go into the country." Petraeus gave few details, but NATO and US officials have said recently they were close to securing transit agreements with Russia and the patchwork of Central Asia states to the north of Afghanistan.
Analysts say the United States' dependence on Pakistani supply routes means it has little leverage to push Islamabad too hard on issues of bilateral concern, such as the campaign against al-Qaida. US officials have said one likely new route is overland from Russia through Kazakhstan and on through Uzbekistan using trucks and trains. Another possible route is through Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to the Kazakh port of Aktau and then through Uzbekistan. Few analysts expect Washington to abandon the Pakistan routes altogether, unless they become impossible to traverse due to security concerns, because they are the shortest and cheapest lines. The goods arrive in Pakistan in the southern port of Karachi. Petraeus met with Pakistan's army chief, prime minister and president on the trip, the latest in a flurry of visits by high-ranking US officials in recent months.
Washington and other Western allies are trying to keep Pakistan focused on the al-Qaida threat as well as defuse tensions with neighboring India over the November terror attacks in Mumbai.