The opening of the US- and NATO-backed Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a second resupply route for coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan, may be a mixed blessing for Central Asia. On the one hand, it has the potential to ease a logistics bottleneck, but it also threatens to become a magnet for Islamic militant violence.
Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, examined the NDN's prospects during a recent round-table discussion hosted by Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York.
According to Quinn-Judge, the nascent NDN is an inviting target for Islamic militants, especially those from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), elements of which are believed to be filtering back to Central Asia after a prolonged stay in Pakistani training camps. "The problem with the Northern Distribution Network is obvious -- it turns Central Asia into a part of the theatre of war. It refocuses attention among Islamic radicals onto the region again," Quinn-Judge said.
The supply network delivers both lethal and non-lethal goods by train, truck and plane through various routes in Central Asia to points in northern Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The initiative started to take shape in January, brought into being by the repeated Taliban raids on the main supply route for Afghan forces, which originates in Pakistan and heads through the Khyber Pass. The attacks were often responsible for lengthy delays in the delivery of equipment and supplies needed by coalition forces.
Quinn-Judge cautioned that the destabilization trend in northern Afghanistan could eventually spread into Central Asia. He pointed to evidence of a militant migration, in which Central Asian fighters were returning home from Pakistan, via Afghanistan. "One can well assume that the IMU will be encouraged by its former hosts in South Waziristan [Pakistan] to go back and take the war to Central Asia," Quinn-Judge said. "I would not be the least bit surprised to see some form of military action on the part of insurgents [in Central Asia] in the next few months."
How much havoc the IMU can create remains an unknown factor. Gauging the IMU's capabilities is difficult, Quinn-Judge stressed. "If the IMU has indeed increased its strength to several thousand -- as some analysts would claim, on what grounds I don't know -- I think the countries of the region could be in for a really rough time," he added.
Heightening his concern about Central Asia's future, Quinn-Judge suggested that not a lot of contingency planning seems to have occurred. "At this moment I don't see much thinking in Washington about an appropriate response, which leads me to believe the response will be somewhat improvised," he said. "Therefore, I fear we're very much facing a situation in which, if we do indeed encounter a worst-case scenario, we will see the NDN becoming the catalyst for the expansion of chaos in Central Asia at a date earlier than some of the more pessimistic people like myself expect this to be."
Even a best-case scenario for the NDN appears to have a big downside: the supply route's existence encourages the US government to overlook the authoritarian practices of Central Asian leaders. Any impulse for Washington to criticize the conduct of Central Asian governments is tempered by the strategic necessity of keeping regional leaders happy and the NDN functioning.
"As it looks like it's going to be a short-term policy, the United States will leave without achieving any fundamental [democratization] change in the region," Quinn-Judge said, adding that a muted response to serial rights abuses carried out by regional governments will indelibly stain Washington's reputation in the eyes of average citizens.