Hosting Ahmadinejad

Lebanon offered a hero's welcome to the Iranian president on Wednesday. But the outward signs of support don't tell the whole story.

BEIRUT –Lebanon has spent weeks preparing for a very important guest. On street corners throughout Beirut, posters featuring the smiling face of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomed him to the city in both Arabic and Farsi. Those who might have disrupted the feel-good atmosphere were silenced: Lebanese authorities forced a film festival to postpone the showing of a documentary about the protests following Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election campaign until after the president's visit. The roads linking the airport to the presidential palace and Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs are bursting with Iranian flags.

If Ahmadinejad came to Beirut to plant the Iranian flag in Lebanese soil, there was little need: His allies had already done it for him. Still, the Iranian president, who referred to Lebanon as "the focus point of resistance" before departing on his first official state visit to Lebanon, did not miss the opportunity to emphasize the links between the two countries. "The Iranian nation will always stand beside the Lebanese nation and will never abandon them," he said in Lebanon on Oct. 13. "We will surely help the Lebanese nation against animosities, mainly staged by the Zionist regime."

Despite this superficial display of bonhomie, Lebanese citizens are deeply divided over the Iranian president's visit, which comes at a moment of high tension for the country. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, established to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is increasingly being assailed by those opposed to the investigation; Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah referred to it this summer as an "Israeli project."

With Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik, refusing to disavow the tribunal, Hezbollah is hoping to use Iran's outspoken support as leverage to undermine the tribunal. Many fear that Hezbollah, which is part of Lebanon's unity government, will seize on the momentum from Ahmadinejad's visit to coerce Hariri to give in to its demands. If he refuses, the Party of God could organize street protests designed to topple the government and replace Hariri with a more pliant prime minister.

So the reception for Ahmadinejad was arranged not only because the Lebanese wanted to be good hosts, but as a statement by Hezbollah and its ally, the predominantly Shiite Amal Movement, of their political weight. Hezbollah and Amal lobbied thousands of their supporters to stand for hours on both sides of the airport road to welcome the Iranian president upon his arrival -- a show of allegiance to Iran, which supported Hezbollah in its July 2006 war against Israel and helped rebuild towns and villages after the conflict.

"This is a visit from Heaven," said Mohammad, a resident of the southern suburbs. "If it wasn't for Iran, we couldn't have achieved our victory in 2006. God bless him. As [Hezbollah leader] Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said earlier, those who are supporting the international tribunal are Israeli and American tools, and Ahmadinejad is coming to tell them that Iran will not allow them to hurt Hezbollah and the resistance."

But not all of the Lebanese Shiite community has been swayed by the manufactured jubilation that welcomed Ahmadinejad. "It is just a visit from a president of a country to another country. Why do we have to make a big deal out of it?" wondered Mohammad's cousin, Hadi, who lives in the south Lebanon village of Adloun.  

Hadi is a strong supporter of Hezbollah, but did not attend Ahmadinejad's welcoming ceremony along the airport road. However, he left no doubt that he would certainly attend the evening rally at south Beirut's al-Raya Stadium. But it was Nasrallah, not Ahmadinejad, of whom he hoped to catch a glimpse. "They say Nasrallah might speak live this time, and I really do not want to miss that," he said.

But beyond the pomp and circumstance, there are bigger plans for Ahmadinejad's two-day trip, ranging from investments in energy and development to military and humanitarian aid. On Oct. 6, Iranian Energy Minister Majid Namjou met with his Lebanese counterpart, Gebran Bassil, and offered $450 million for investment in electricity and water projects. Tehran has also offered to help build oil refineries and to export gas to Lebanon via a pipeline that would run through Iraq and Syria.

Thirteen other agreements, of varying degrees of plausibility, were also signed on Oct. 13. But many believe that these deals are more political than practical. "It doesn't matter if the Lebanese accept these offers or not; it is just a message to the West," said Lokman Slim, a Shiite activist who works in the southern suburbs. "These agreements will be used by Hezbollah as a counterbalance against other agreements Lebanon had previously signed with other countries, namely with the West."

Despite Ahmadinejad's best efforts, however, not all Lebanese are convinced that he has their best interests at heart. Of course, members of the pro-Western "March 14" alliance, which emerged with a slim majority in last year's parliamentary elections, have been critical of the visit. But even the views of Lebanese Shiites, who should be Ahmadinejad's natural constituency, are more complicated than generally appreciated. "Ahmadinejad did not come to Lebanon as a guest. He came here as a military leader, to tell the West and the Israelis that Iran is here now," said Hussam, a middle-age man from the south Lebanon city of Nabatieh.

Hussam fought against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s, but today he does not see Hezbollah as a resistance movement. "Hezbollah is using the resistance as a tool to serve the Iranian agenda in Lebanon."

These are the voices that the Iranian president will work hard to marginalize when he visits south Lebanon on Oct. 14. While there, he will open a public garden built with Iranian funding and also reportedly visit the Hezbollah strongholds of Qana and Bint Jbeil, where he will deliver a speech.

But beyond the pro- and anti-Iran voices, many Lebanese are simply fearful that Ahmadinejad's visit will exacerbate divisions in the country and even lead to a renewal of violence with Israel. The statement by an Israeli Knesset member that the Israel Defense Forces should kill Ahmadinejad if he visits the Israeli-Lebanese border is just the sort of threat that worries the many people who are still rebuilding their lives after the ruinous 2006 war. They wonder whether they will ultimately pay the price for Ahmadinejad's attempt to bolster his political fortunes by asserting Iranian primacy in Lebanon.

Iranian inducements have so far proved sufficient to muster an outwardly impressive public display of support for Ahmadinejad, but the true feelings of the Lebanese are more complicated. "People are not stupid; they know how he suppressed the Green Movement in Iran," said Mona Fayyad, a Lebanese Shiite researcher and writer. "He does not represent a democratic or fair leader for them, no matter how much Iran supported Hezbollah and the resistance." Behind those Iranian flags and posters in Beirut lies no small amount of ambivalence.

Salah Malkawi/Getty Images


Keep on Truckin'

Why fuel supplies hold the key to success in Afghanistan -- but not for the reasons you think.

Over the weekend, Pakistan reopened the Torkham Gate, one of two crossings on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border used by international forces to transit supplies from the port of Karachi to troops in Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities had shut the gate on Sept. 30, citing "security concerns," but it is clear that this action was a response to the tragic but accidental killing of two and wounding of four Pakistani soldiers by U.S. helicopter attack days earlier.

The closing of Torkham left thousands of trucks loaded with fuel and other supplies with no place to go and a great deal more vulnerable to Pakistani Taliban terrorist attacks, which resulted in several deaths and more than 100 trucks and containers destroyed last week alone. The saddest irony is that by closing Torkham, the Pakistani government left its own citizens more vulnerable to attack: All the drivers and workers killed were Pakistani citizens who earn their livelihood delivering essential nonlethal materials on a commercial basis for the fight in Afghanistan.

The daily images of convoys in flames were a stark reminder of the vulnerability of NATO's supply lines through Pakistan across the Afghan border. What is really surprising, though, is that these convoys are not attacked a lot more often. The trucks must journey through dangerous territory in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas -- Pakistan's Wild West -- and around Quetta, where Taliban forces are most predominant. Last year, in researching the opening of new transit corridors north and northwest of Afghanistan, our team was surprised to learn from Centcom officials that the loss rate of goods transited to Afghanistan through Pakistan is less than 1 percent, a loss rate less than in Bayonne County, New Jersey! In the nine years since 9/11, the total value of goods lost to pilferage and attack has been less than $50 million. (For the Pentagon, of course, any loss, not to speak of the human toll, is too much.)

Most of these goods being shipped, more than 85 percent, are "nonlethal" supplies (fuel, sustainment, construction materials, etc.) carried by commercial truckers, not specially protected military convoys. The more interesting question to ask is how and why such a high percentage of these supplies get through safely to their final destination. The simplest answer is that people on both sides of the border are making money to support themselves and their families. If the incentives for locals are greater to facilitate transit than to attack and/or steal, chances are the materials will get where they are supposed to go. This is especially important on the Pakistani side of the border, which does not benefit from many of the assistance and development efforts, including the Commanders' Emergency Relief Program, on offer in Afghanistan. The subcontracting process wisely ensures some financial benefit for local trucking firms; otherwise, if all the transit fees were centralized in Islamabad and Karachi, that would reduce the incentives for local populations along the transit route to provide safe passage.

Many criticize this pragmatic approach, arguing that the Taliban is basically being paid off to let the supplies go through, and no doubt there is some truth in this. But the more important point to focus on is the fact that the vast bulk of the goods designed to support the defeat of the Taliban are getting through. The commercial transit of military supplies is also a jobs program providing income to thousands of individuals and families in Pakistan who desperately need the money.

The big and obvious lesson from this is that income-producing jobs are the best incentive to dissuade local populations from becoming or supporting insurgents. After reading Bob Woodward's portrayal of the Obama administration's lengthy review of U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, I concluded that if only it had devoted 5 or 10 percent of its time and resources to developing a coherent economic strategy designed to produce sustainable jobs, whatever battlefield success U.S. troops have in the short and medium term will have a much greater chance of enduring and stabilizing Afghanistan.

The Northern Distribution Network

Two years ago, a similar shutdown of the Torkham Gate accompanied by an uptick in attacks on trucks in Pakistan would have been a much bigger headache for the Pentagon. At the time, U.S. forces in Afghanistan were entirely dependent on Pakistan for transit of nonlethal goods. This critical vulnerability moved Gen. David Petraeus and his staff at Centcom, in cooperation with other government entities, in the summer and fall of 2008 to explore alternative routes. The possibility of a significant surge of U.S. troops made the task of creating additional transit options all the more urgent as the Obama administration came to office in January 2009. In the spring of 2009, military logisticians were expecting an increase in demand of two to three times the amount of materials delivered to U.S. forces in 2008. Another powerful motivation for additional transit corridors was to provide some healthy competition to Pakistani port operators and shippers, who are not known for their efficiency and professionalism.

The result of these efforts was the creation of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to send U.S. supplies of nonlethal goods through Europe, Russia, the Caspian basin, and Central Asia, in essence utilizing much of the same transit infrastructure that the Soviet Union used to support its forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, about half of nonlethal goods and 37 percent of all goods supporting the much larger NATO military footprint in Afghanistan are conveyed via trains, trucks, and planes over the several routes that comprise the NDN. The U.S. Defense Department continues to explore additional options, and though these routes are more expensive than conveying goods through Pakistan, costs have been driven down considerably. Creating these routes in such a short period of time was a considerable diplomatic achievement, as many of the states transited along the way are hardly traditional U.S. allies. Although some states -- notably Georgia -- certainly see supporting the NDN as important for strengthening security ties with Washington, probably the most important incentive is economic.

The truth is that landlocked and distant Afghanistan is actually more accessible than we might have thought. In fact, the biggest obstacles to transit to and through Afghanistan are not a lack of security or weak hard transit infrastructure (the underdeveloped road network or the virtually nonexistent rail network). The biggest contributors to increased costs and lengthened delivery times are bureaucratic, institutional, and political -- what we call the soft transit infrastructure.

That doesn't mean Afghanistan can ignore its isolation. Far from it: Whether it's minerals, agriculture, or any other sector crucial for Afghan's economic growth, improved transit infrastructure will be the "strategic enabler" for all. Afghan industrial enterprises, entrepreneurs, and farmers can only benefit if their goods can reach domestic and foreign markets. Afghanistan's future depends on being a key node in emerging transit corridors linking East Asian, South Asian, Central Asian, Russian, European, and Middle Eastern producers and consumers across the Eurasian continent. This is why President Hamid Karzai gave first priority to the vision of Afghanistan as "the Asian roundabout" in his speech at the Kabul conference in July.

The attacks on trucks and containers in Pakistan are disturbing and tragic, and they naturally lead most Americans to be more pessimistic about the prospects for success in South Asia. Burning fuel trucks make for dramatic photos, but the more important lesson comes from examining the reasons why efforts to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan, just about the toughest logistical challenge one can imagine, are so successful.

A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images