The United States is exploring the idea of expanding the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a supply line for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, by adding a Chinese branch. Sources familiar with the NDN tell EurasiaNet that US officials are also considering the possibility of seeking a sea-and-land route utilizing ports in the Russian Far East.
A representative for the State Department told EurasiaNet; "The Department of Defense (DoD) has considered multiple supply routes to ensure the steady delivery [of supplies] to Afghanistan. And in that context the State Department has discussed possibility of supply routes in several countries, including China."
"Secretary [OF State Hillary] Clinton has said that the violence that threatens the people and government of Afghanistan also undermines the stability of the wider region, and all who have shared futures at stake must take responsibly for securing them," the US diplomat continued. "We are not in the position to discuss the status of ongoing diplomatic negotiations."
The Chinese route would be used to transport "gear and vehicles," Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dowd, US Central Command's director of logistics, told Military Logistics Forum magazine in November.
"As you well know, logisticians like to have as many routes available as possible. That way if the enemy cuts one of the [lines of communication], we can use the others to keep the stream of supplies steady," he added.
Meanwhile, a much-touted agreement between Washington and Moscow on facilitating the airborne transport of military cargo to Afghanistan through Russian airspace is not meeting expectations, in part because of the lack of necessary over-flight consent from Kazakhstan.
The agreement providing for over-flights of American troops and weapons with Russia was signed last July. However, Kazakhstani diplomats say US officials did not approach them to obtain a similar arrangement until November.
"A transport corridor for the transit of US cargoes to Afghanistan via Kazakhstan's air space was opened in 2001 as part of our contribution to international efforts to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. In this particular case, we are speaking about an additional air corridor from Russia to Afghanistan over the territory of Kazakhstan. A request to open it was received from the American side last November," Foreign Ministry spokesman Askar Abdrakhmanov said at a press briefing in Astana on January 21. A treaty is still in the process of being drafted, he added.
The US Embassy in Tashkent is refusing to comment on whether the Uzbek government has granted the desired over-flight rights. "We cannot comment on over-flight issues," an embassy representative said in response to questions from EurasiaNet. The United States, via Korean Airlines, has an air transport hub in Navoi, Uzbekistan. According to Dowd, supplies that are flown to Navoi are off-loaded and trucked into Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On land, the NDN also appears to be experiencing some problems. Although the US Department of Defense insists the NDN is running at top capacity, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's mischievous envoy to NATO, told the Russian news paper Izvestia on January 26 that "there are some technical problems associated with an overload on one of the railway routes." [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Experts caution that additional land routes, whether routed through China or eastern Russia, could ultimately face the same problem -- a bottleneck in Uzbekistan. "The problem isn't the route to Central Asia, it is getting across Uzbekistan [to Afghanistan]. So you can have 10 ways to get to Termez, but what's the difference?" a well-placed source told EurasiaNet.
Until major upgrades are completed at the Termez-Hairaton border crossing, and action taken to contain corruption and red tape, Uzbekistan is likely to continue to act as a choke point for US and NATO supplies bound for Afghanistan, the source added.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Affairs