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[Dehai-WN] Foreignpolicy.com: Northern Distribution Nightmare

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Thu, 8 Dec 2011 23:59:44 +0100

 
<http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/12/06/afghanistan_resupply_nato_
ndn> Northern Distribution Nightmare


Tensions in Pakistan are running high. So, to resupply U.S. troops in
Afghanistan, Washington’s having to cut deals with some very unsavory
regimes.


BY DAVID TRILLING | DECEMBER 8, 2011


On Nov. 17, a railway bridge
<http://www.fergananews.com/news.php?id=17660&mode=snews> reportedly blew up
in southern Uzbekistan, near the Afghan border. A few days later, the
state-controlled media tersely
<http://www.uzmetronom.com/2011/11/19/podryv_na_zheleznojj_doroge.html>
blamed the explosion on a terrorist attack, but gave no details on who may
have carried out the strike or why. Local officials have kept mum ever
since. Meanwhile, freight bound for neighboring Tajikistan, which depends on
Uzbekistan for all its rail connections with the outside world, has been
piling up -- more than 320 cars
<http://news.tj/ru/news/yug-tadzhikistana-do-sikh-por-otorvan-ot-vneshnego-z
heleznodorozhnogo-soobshcheniya> at last count. The backlog smacks of déjà
vu: Uzbekistan has <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/61678> regularly blocked
rail shipments to Tajikistan. But never so dramatically.

While Washington may once have considered this an obscure regional conflict,
the urgent need for supplies to the war in Afghanistan has upped the
international stakes considerably. In order to transport people and goods to
the theater of operations, NATO must play ball with former Soviet republics
whom the Center for Strategic and International Studies has called
<http://csis.org/publication/northern-distribution-network-and-afghanistan>
"unwieldy and volatile partners" beset by "persistent tensions, mistrust,
paranoia, authoritarianism, and a near-exclusive focus on ‘regime
preservation.'" Of these, Uzbekistan plays the most crucial role. The
damaged bridge leading to Tajikistan was not a key part of the transport
route to Afghanistan, but it shines a sinister light on the weak links in
NATO's vital supply chain.

How did Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan become all that stand
between G.I. Joe and his Jambalaya meal-ready-to-eat? Apart from geography,
it was Pakistan that heightened their role: Infuriated by a
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/afghans-say-unit-was-attacked-before-ai
rstrike/2011/11/28/gIQAX6ZY5N_print.html> NATO attack that killed 24
Pakistani soldiers on Nov. 26, Islamabad has blocked Western convoys from
traveling on its supply routes into Afghanistan. Now Tashkent, Dushanbe,
Moscow, and Bishkek must provide safe passage for troops, contractors, food,
fuel, prefabricated buildings, vehicles, and more. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
are both corrupt dictatorships that wrangle incessantly over water,
<http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/5105> boundaries, and ethnic minorities,
with periodic shoot-outs on the border. Russia's interactions with NATO are
often marked by suspicion and short-sightedness, as Moscow seeks to
reestablish influence in in Central Asia. And Kyrgyzstan, where rioters have
chased out two presidents since 2005, is not a consistent partner. NATO will
be hard-pressed to navigate these shoals.

Any military logistician since Alexander the Great could tell you that
landlocked Afghanistan is not an easily accessible destination for material.
In 2008, Pentagon strategists, seeing an uptick in violence against their
cargo and fuel trucks in sometime ally Pakistan, began looking for an
alternative route. What they came up with is the Northern Distribution
Network (NDN), a transport web through the former Soviet Union, with
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as its penultimate stopping points. The route has
been operating since early 2009, and though U.S. Transport Command says the
trip through Central Asia costs twice as much per shipping container as
going via Pakistan, over
<http://www.stripes.com/news/military-looks-at-supply-routes-away-from-pakis
tan-1.161855> 50 percent of non-lethal goods destined for NATO troops have
passed along the NDN in recent months. Washington had hoped that figure
would reach <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63425> 75 percent by the end of
the year. With Pakistan out, the only other option would be expensive
airlifts.

Most supplies on the NDN begin in the Baltic Sea port of Riga, Latvia, where
they're shipped from suppliers around the world. From there, they take about
ten days to transit Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan by rail, crossing
into Afghanistan over the Friendship Bridge at Termez. Another branch of the
route completely bypasses Russia, starting at the Black Sea port of Poti, in
Georgia, snaking across Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan, then
funneling into southern Uzbekistan. The two routes come together at Termez,
creating a <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/61427> bottleneck where supplies
can languish for over a month.

The potential for increased traffic on the NDN has Tajikistan eager for a
bigger piece of the pie, with its attendant foreign investment, prestige,
<http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64330> and bribes. But growing tensions with
Uzbekistan could snuff those dreams. The Nov. 17 railway blast was on a line
the <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64628> Tajiks say could handle more NDN
traffic. With the link severed, all rail traffic to southern Tajikistan has
<http://news.tj/ru/news/yug-tadzhikistana-do-sikh-por-otorvan-ot-vneshnego-z
heleznodorozhnogo-soobshcheniya> stopped, inflicting a mounting economic
toll domestically and increasing NATO's dependence on Uzbekistan. Tajik
officials have complained that Tashkent has been inexplicably slow in
repairing the bridge. From the Tajiks' perspective, Uzbekistan's intent is
clear.

"Tashkent sees in Dushanbe another competitor for this business, and makes
every effort to deprive Tajikistan of additional income and keep all the
business in its own hands," Abdugani Mamadazimov, head of Tajikistan's
Association of Political Scientists,
<http://www.avesta.tj/goverment/10426-tashkent-zakuporil-zheleznodorozhnuyu-
arteriyu-dushanbe-nichego-lichnogo-eto-biznes.html> told Dushanbe's Avesta
news agency on Dec. 2.

For NATO, there is now no alternative to Uzbekistan, which has proven a
fickle partner and forces Washington to choose between ideals and
realpolitik. The United States had an airbase in the country from 2001 to
2005; when Washington criticized President Islam Karimov for
<http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/05/11/uzbekistan-6-years-no-justice-andijan-vi
ctims> massacring hundreds of anti-government demonstrators at Andijan, he
ordered the base closed. Karimov, 73, in power since before independence in
1991, has
<http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&year=2010&country=7946> one of
the worst human rights records on the planet. Now, Washington's dependence
gives him a sense of international prestige and legitimacy.

"For Karimov the benefit of the NDN is not really the transit fees, but the
leverage in his foreign policy. He gets to show the Russians that he's
important to the West," said George Gavrilis, a political scientist who has
<http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item1175718/?site_locale=en_GB>
written extensively about Central Asian borders. In return, the West looks
the other way when he
<http://www.hrw.org/features/uzbekistan-crackdown-human-rights-defenders>
jails critics, forces
<http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=37881>
children to toil in cotton fields, and allegedly
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/may/26/nickpatonwalsh> boils people
alive. As Washington increasingly relies on the NDN, U.S. criticism of
Uzbekistan has dwindled. In September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
commended Karimov for <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64237> "progress" on
human rights and traveled to Tashkent in October to thank the dictator in
person for his cooperation.

With Washington preparing an exit from Afghanistan, and the NDN
<http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64591> expected to help with the withdrawal,
it's now more important than ever to keep Uzbekistan happy. The
<http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/11/21/propagandastan?page=full>
Pentagon is whitewashing the Karimov regime's abuses with propaganda
targeted at the region. And during a visit to Tashkent late last month, Lt.
Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of the Third Army,
<http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:crJSXBWC-scJ:www.dvids
hub.net/news/80595/third-army-commanding-general-visits-uzbekistan+&cd=1&hl=
en&ct=clnk#.TtjSJHMxBWo> suggested that excess, non-lethal U.S. equipment
from Afghanistan could be left behind in Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, Barack
Obama's administration is trying to
<http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/17/obama-cozies-central-asian-dictator>
lift restrictions on military sales and aid to Karimov.

Washington's exit strategy for Central Asia has focused lately on the
so-called
<http://oilandglory.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/11/06/new_afghan_exit_strat
egy_when_in_doubt_call_it_the_new_silk_roadhttp:/www.eurasianet.org/node/644
19> New Silk Road, which would aim to stabilize Afghanistan by putting it at
the center of a network of trade routes between Europe and Asia. But many
experts have expressed well founded skepticism. The routes would have to
cross Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whose porous borders are a disaster, and
Uzbekistan, which has shown no interest in such integration, as its own
economy is propped up by its tight control over borders and limits on free
trade. (Tashkent was <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64437> notably absent
from last month's Istanbul meeting on the future of Afghanistan, attended by
regional foreign ministers.)

"There is no chance that you can get anything resembling a regional free
trade system where goods flow across its borders through these nice new silk
roads. The concept attacks the very core of how the Uzbek state is set up,"
said Gavrilis.

Kyrgyzstan and Russia have also shown themselves to be unpredictable
partners in the NDN. In Kyrgyzstan, where good roads are scarce, the biggest
contribution to the war in Afghanistan has been the
<http://www.eurasianet.org/taxonomy/term/2687> Manas airbase, operational
since hostilities began in 2001. These days, almost every U.S. soldier
entering or leaving the operating theater transits Manas, only an hour and a
half flight from Afghanistan's Bagram Airbase. But since the base opened,
two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan have toppled leaders accused of colossal
corruption; their misdeeds included <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/60966>
personally gaining from Manas-related fuel contracts, making the U.S.
presence a delicate subject politically. The last of the ousted presidents
threatened to shut down the base, supposedly at Moscow's behest, forcing the
U.S. to up its annual payments to the Kyrgyz government by tens of millions
of dollars. Newly elected Russia-friendly president Almazbek Atambayev has
said he will seek to close Manas when the current lease expires in 2014,
just as the last U.S. troops are theoretically set to leave Afghanistan.

Moscow, meanwhile, occasionally uses its cooperation on Afghanistan as a
bargaining chip: On Nov. 28, for instance, its envoy to NATO, Dmitri
Rogozin,
<http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204753404577066421106592452.h
tml?mod=wsj_share_tweet> threatened to cut NATO supply lines if Washington
doesn't compromise on missile defense. At the same time, Russia has genuine
commercial and security concerns in the region. With its state-run gas
monopoly now profiting from <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64232> fuel
supplies to Manas, Moscow appears less eager to see the base closed. It also
seems that Russia, with its own painful memories of Afghanistan, fears the
fallout from the impending U.S. pullout.

"We do not want NATO to go and leave us to face the dogs of war after
stirring up the nest," Rogozin
<http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2011/09/16/01003-20110916ARTFIG00671-l
-otan-refuse-de-surmonter-l-heritage-de-la-guerre-froide.php> told Le Figaro
in September.

Tajikistan -- which shares a drug-riddled, 1,300-kilometer border with
Afghanistan -- contends with more problems than its ongoing frictions with
Uzbekistan. It is the poorest of the post-Soviet republics and seems the
<http://www.crisisgroup.org/%7E/media/Files/asia/central-asia/tajikistan/162
_tajikistan___on_the_road_to_failure.pdf> most likely to fail. President
Emomali Rakhmon assumed power after a five-year civil war in the 1990s that
left some 50,000 dead, decimated industry, and forced most educated people
to flee. His country's economy relies on
<http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/july-dec11/efp_09-29.html> drug
trafficking and <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64641> exporting labor to
Russia. Sporadic outbursts of regional, possibly Islamist violence are not
uncommon, while Rakhmon's heavy-handed methods of dealing with growing
Islamic piousness ( <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63996> banning children
from mosques,
<http://www.economist.com/node/18898024?story_id=18898024&fsrc=rss>
harassing men with beards, and
<http://www.rferl.org/content/tajikistan_28_jailed_for_supporting_terrorist_
group/24389753.html> rounding up Muslims for mass terror trials on flimsy
evidence) look more likely to spawn an indigenous insurgency than to keep
Afghanistan-based Islamists at bay.

While Tajikistan plays an important role in supplying NATO troops, it has
little leverage to demand a bigger role. The small quantities of supplies
transiting the country by truck are difficult to increase due to poor roads
and dangerous entry points into Afghanistan. Expanding rail links is
impossible without Uzbekistan. Despite the minimal overland routes,
Tajikistan provides NATO with two important services: It hosts a
<http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav051809.shtml>
French contingent at its main civilian airport and allows daily,
round-the-clock U.S. troop transports and mid-air refueling tankers to pass
through its airspace to and from Manas, immediately to the north.

The reported bridge explosion is just the latest reminder of tensions that
have been building between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for years as Dushanbe
plans to build the world's tallest hydropower dam at
<http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav031309f.shtml>
Rogun, upstream from Uzbekistan. Tashkent fears that would allow Dushanbe to
control the region's limited supplies of fresh water, crucial to
Uzbekistan's thirsty cotton crop. Independent analysts have linked
Tashkent's <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/60959> vigorous opposition to
the project with its regular blockages of rail traffic to Tajikistan.

While Uzbekistan remains silent about the bridge blast, ignoring Tajik
requests for answers, at least three theories are circulating. One posits it
was an act of terror. If that is the case, the terrorists weren't very
sophisticated; a few more kilometers up the line they could have disrupted
almost all NATO supplies going into Afghanistan. Another theory is that
local groups competing for influence over trade routes inflicted the damage.
And the third theory, which has gotten the most traction among regional
analysts, is that the <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64617> Uzbeks
incapacitated the bridge on purpose, a scenario that would certainly be
compatible with Tashkent's past behavior. Whatever the truth, the
interruption in traffic has both reinforced Uzbekistan's key role in the NDN
and delivered an economic blow to Tajikistan.

A
<http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-zRMgPKI_AEs/TtegnKQXR2I/AAAAAAAACKg/AbI5SM_cWOM/s
1600/NDN_Afghanistan.jpg> look at the map shows the NDN is the least bad
option in a region of lousy choices. Transiting Iran is impossible; wildly
isolationist Turkmenistan, which also borders Afghanistan, professes
neutrality. So NATO is forced to depend on countries that don't get along
and on rulers who preside over breathtaking human rights abuses, corruption,
and crime. But without Pakistan in the picture, the costs of transport
skyrocket.

"The chief disadvantage to relying solely on the NDN is that there is a
limit to how much it can carry and how quickly," said Deirdre Tynan, my
colleague at EurasiaNet.org, where she investigates U.S. government
contracting and activities in support of the war in Afghanistan. "The NDN,
if it is the only available land option, will have to be supplemented by
costly airlifts. There is no other answer."

Though Washington can probably continue to cajole Central Asia's
vainglorious leaders into cooperating, the NDN has some permanent flaws.
With the risks of overreliance so high, it's natural to recall
<http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/july-dec10/pakistan2_10-22.html> the
words of the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke: "There is no solution in
Afghanistan unless Pakistan is part of that solution."

 




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