But even in light of the planned total withdrawal of American troops, the expansion of transit routes in and out of Afghanistan is still critical to US interests. All combat troops are scheduled to leave the country by 2014, provided that Afghan forces are ready to take over, and for these reasons both US and NATO forces are highly sensitive to any threat to the transit process. Thus, the US is looking for more help from the Afghan supply spur in the Caucasus; Azerbaijan and Georgia will play a key role in supporting the stabilization process in Afghanistan as well as providing transit routes.
While Azerbaijan has played a certain role as part of the Caucasus supply route, it has retained a broadly cautious approach in its interactions with NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, as far as Baku is concerned, the use of Azerbaijani territory in the supply route to Afghanistan underscores its strategic position as a gateway to Central Asia, as well as its support for the struggle against international terrorism. The participation of Azerbaijan and Georgia in the Afghan peacekeeping mission following 9/11 strengthened their sovereignty and independence; forging links with major powers outside of the neighborhood has proved valuable in this geopolitically complex environment.
Since the start of the war, tens of thousands of military flights to Afghanistan have passed through Azerbaijani airspace, according to Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense. An estimated 100,000 troops flew through Azerbaijani airspace in 2010 alone. The crash of an Azerbaijani cargo plane headed for the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan on July 5, 2010, served as a reminder of Azerbaijan's contribution not only in terms of its troops on the ground, but also its civilian presence through ground transportation and airspace. Furthermore, in recent years, Azerbaijan has attempted to contribute to the stabilization of Afghanistan in other ways, such as education, combating terrorism, etc. At the International Foreign Ministers' Conference on Afghanistan held in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 5, Azerbaijani Minister of Foreign Affairs Elmar Mammadyarov emphasized Baku's new strategies in the Afghan stabilization: “Azerbaijan is contributing to non-military cooperation with Afghanistan. Practical projects are being implemented to train civilians and servicemen in Afghanistan. The Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) held mine-clearance training for Afghan specialists in both Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.” This action illustrates how over the past 10 years Azerbaijan has moved from being just a transit country to participating actively in the stabilization process. The government in Baku has also announced its readiness to participate in projects such as anti-drug trafficking.
Now, Azerbaijan's increasing importance in Afghanistan is dependent on two factors:
First of all, Karachi, Pakistan, the port considered to be the main supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan was blocked by the Pakistani government on Nov. 26, 2011, following a NATO air strike. Additionally, this route was at risk during the aftermath of the elimination of Osama bin Laden.
Secondly, NATO is becoming increasingly dependent on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which goes in two directions. NDN North starts in Latvia and crosses through Russia-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan. This route is expensive as well as risky; in November, Moscow's NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, declared that Russia would block the route if NATO failed to compromise on its missile defense plans. Dependence on this route is therefore ill-advised. The potential termination of the NDN North route leaves NDN South, which runs from Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Afghan-Uzbek border.
Following the Azerbaijani foreign minister's December 2011 declaration regarding Azerbaijan's vision for Afghanistan, Commander of the US Transportation Command Gen. William Fraser, visited Baku to thank Azerbaijan for its role in providing transit for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Baku is committed to pursuing humanitarian issues in Afghanistan and doesn't want to be known as the US' partner in intelligence and security issues due to the fragile situation in region. At the end of December 2011, NATO asked Azerbaijan and Georgia for the use of their airspace for flying Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes to Afghanistan. Georgia said yes; Azerbaijan said no, which gave rise to discussion in the international media about its commitment. I would argue here that Azerbaijan does not like to appear to be providing intelligence to foreign powers or making its resources available for intelligence gathering.
Meanwhile, South Caucasus experts have been discussing Russia's maneuvering. If Moscow closes its borders, the NDN North route will cease to function; will this provide an opportunity for economic diversification by means of transit fees for Georgia and Azerbaijan? In this case, there will be a chance to open up trade links between Georgia, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan, as well as to increase leverage for future integration into NATO.
World Trade Organization (WTO) statistics show that increased traffic through the NDN South route could provide economic benefits for both Georgia and Azerbaijan. According to these statistics, Georgia has seen an increase in import and export transportation, while Azerbaijan has seen an increase in import transportation. Thus, Georgia and Azerbaijan could benefit if Russia decides to cut off the NDN North transit route.
In this context, Azerbaijan's support for economic and political stabilization in Afghanistan is of increasing importance, and the focus of the original mission has shifted. Today, Baku is keen to develop the education of Afghan servicemen and to support ongoing humanitarian projects, as well as to make clear its readiness to invest. It is likely that the short term outcomes will depend on other regional developments; notably, Baku will be assuming greater responsibility with regard to international security cases as a recently elected non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.