The battle for Afghanistan may well be won or lost in Uzbekistan. With the Taliban making it increasingly difficult to re-supply NATO and US troops in Afghanistan via Pakistan, Tashkent offers the easiest solution to a vital logistical dilemma.
Another complication, at least until recently, was tension in relations involving Washington and Brussels on the one hand and Uzbekistan on the other. The sides had a falling out over the Andijan events of 2005, when hundreds if not thousands of Uzbek protesters were gunned down by security forces. Little has changed to reconcile the differences connected to the Andijan events. But the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has prompted both sides to start working again with the other. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Without US-EU-Uzbek cooperation, any West-East resupply route would not be feasible, as Uzbekistan controls the only rail route into northern Afghanistan, crossing the border over a bridge at Termez.
Following weeks of secretive negotiations in the spring, Tashkent granted NATO access to Uzbekistan's railway system, and eased air-transit restrictions. Significantly, Tashkent made the decision to open its railway system for NATO cargoes without consulting its partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), including Russia. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since NATO's April summit in Bucharest, Uzbekistan has repeatedly demonstrated its political and economic independence from Russia, most recently by discontinuing its membership with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Community. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite securing Tashkent's cooperation, however, the Eurasian transit corridor has been slow to materialize, mainly due to the political fallout associated with the Russian-Georgian conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Moscow had given tentative approval to a transit corridor that would have traversed Ukrainian and Russian territory before passing through Central Asia to Afghanistan. But Russia only assented to the transport of non-lethal supplies, and, now, mutual suspicion is running higher than at any time since the Soviet collapse of 1991.
Meanwhile, the need for another secure resupply route seems to be growing by the minute. At present, the bulk of supplies that keep NATO and US military operations going in Afghanistan, arrive via Pakistan. The Taliban, well aware of the strategic importance of the supply line, have focused much of their energy on destroying trucks and intimidating drivers. For example, a raid on a supply convoy in early November at a key border crossing in the Khyber Pass linking Pakistan and Afghanistan brought deliveries to a halt for a week.
Under the present circumstances, US and European strategic planners are looking to open a different West-East route, one involving greater cost but which avoids having to pass through Russia. The route would start on Georgia's Black Sea coast and head across the volatile Caucasus by rail to Azerbaijan. There, supplies would have to be loaded on to ships for passage across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan. Once in Central Asia, the supplies would again be transported via rail to Termez in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek leaders are reportedly seeking a high price for their cooperation, even though Tashkent is eager to see the Taliban threat contained. According to some local experts, Uzbek officials are trying to obtain a security guarantee for President Islam Karimov's administration, along with an expansion of military assistance and economic cooperation. They want all these benefits despite the fact that Tashkent has made scant progress on improving a woeful human rights record. Both Washington and Brussels are on record as insisting on human rights improvements as a condition for closer cooperation.
NATO seems determined to pursue the Central Asian re-supply route project despite the costs, especially given the US President-elect Barack Obama's pledge during the recent presidential campaign to focus additional resources on Afghanistan.
Seeming to confirm the new NATO approach on the resupply issue, Kazakhstan in early November ratified two long-dormant bilateral agreements with the United States that covered the transit of military supplies across Kazakhstani territory and airspace. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
If the Caucasus-Central Asian-Afghanistan route proves feasible, Germany likely would proceed with plans to extend the Termez-Khairaton railroad link - which presently goes only three kilometers into the Afghan territory - by another 67 kilometers to Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan's key strategic city. Whatever the case, a solution to the existing resupply conundrum seems to be months, if not more than a year away.