The folly of the Vietnam War was encapsulated in a 1968 comment attributed to an Air Force major, who, referring to a raid on the provincial center of Ban Tre, said: "it became necessary to destroy the town to save it."
Flash forward 41 years and the US war effort in Afghanistan is standing at a crucial junction. US President Barack Obama's administration is making an unusual strategic gambit, calling for a rapid build-up of US troops in Afghanistan while at the same time establishing the starting point of a withdrawal timeline.
The plan may well stretch the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) - a web of overland supply routes that is designed to ferry supplies from Europe to Afghanistan via Central Asia - to its limit. If the NDN buckles under the strain, it could mean the difference between victory and defeat for US forces. But even if the Obama plan succeeds on a military level, politically speaking the NDN could end up becoming a symbol of the folly of US involvement in Central Asia: in the rush to save Central Asia from Islamic radicalism, the United States may be destroying the region's chances for democratization.
With a series of decisions made earlier in 2009, Pentagon officials have made it easy for Central Asian companies to become contractors in the US war effort. Military officials justify their decisions by citing strategic necessity: authoritarian-minded Central Asian nations need to be drawn into closer cooperation with the United States, if the NDN is to function as it should.
"Afghanistan's northern neighbors have enduring interests in, and influence over, particular segments of Afghanistan. They pursue objectives that are not necessarily congruent to ISAF's mission, the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, wrote in his COMISAF report that was released in September. McChrystal was referring to the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), which is headed by NATO.
"ISAF's Northern Distribution Network and logistical hubs are dependent upon support from Russian and Central Asian states, giving them the potential to act as either spoilers or positive influences," McChrystal added.
While the Pentagon position may be based on solid reasoning, some experts believe that relying on local contractors is not only risky business, it undermines Washington's democratization objectives, and possibly creates policy headaches for US officials down the road. Most problematic, experts warn, is that the chances for waste and corruption surrounding the NDN are high, given the supply line's current operating structure. Central Asian states are some of the most corrupt in the world, and the Defense Department does not appear intent on building a strong oversight component into its procurement process, according to documents obtained by EurasiaNet under the Freedom of Information Act.
In its most recent survey of global corruption, the watchdog organization Transparency International ranked Uzbekistan, perhaps the NDN's key cog, 174th out of the 180 nations surveyed, with 1 being the least corrupt and 180 being the most corrupt. Other important transit states also ranked poorly, with Kyrgyzstan coming it at 162nd and Tajikistan at 158th. The least corrupt Central Asian state was Kazakhstan, which still ranked 120th.
Mark Pyman, the director of Transparency International's Defense Counter Corruption Program, said cronyism is a built-in hazard of doing business in Central Asia. He indicated that businesses connected to ruling elites would likely monopolize contracting opportunities without adequate Pentagon oversight. Such a situation, in turn, could cause problems for ensuring the smooth operation of NDN.
"You can require transparency audits but that would be unusual, very unusual, in the region," Pyman said. "But if you have a couple of people to do spot checks on a few contracts, then you can do quite a lot to raise the standard in that country, particularly if you send in your oversight people [in] really early to set an example of what you are expecting."
Pentagon representatives show little interest in establishing a dedicated oversight group to monitor defense contracts handed out to local Central Asian suppliers.
"[The Department of Defense (DoD)] will ensure contracts for goods and services procured locally in Central Asia in support of the Northern Distribution Network are awarded and monitored in a rational way by adhering to the governing statutes, regulations and policies." Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a Defense Department spokesman, told EurasiaNet.
"The Joint Contracting Command Iraq/Afghanistan is well-positioned to insure that the award and administration of contracts in theater are properly executed," Lt. Col. Wright added. "This [NDN] will just be a normal commercial network."
The groundwork for local Central Asian procurement for NDN was laid out in a memo issued in April by the US Central Command, and signed by CENTCOM commander, Gen. David Petraeus. It instructed officers involved in procurement to "make every attempt, within operational, legal and regulatory constraints, to use [South Caucasus/Central and South Asian States'] services and products." Petraeus also gave US procurement officials broad latitude to award contracts based advancing US strategic and operational goals in Afghanistan.
"I challenge our leadership at all levels to be creative and aggressive in carrying out this effort," Petraeus wrote.
In July, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn signed a waiver that provided a legal basis for the fast-track participation of Central Asian suppliers in NDN-related tenders. The waiver lifted the "procurement prohibition" of section 302(a) of the 1979 Trade Agreements Act, which had prevented Central Asian contractors from obtaining Defense Department contracts.
"It is expected that a sizeable, sustained force level will be in place through the next several years and maintaining a viable NDN is in the national security interests of the United States," Lynn wrote in his findings concerning the waiver, which was dated July 9.
"In order for the NDN to succeed, it is imperative that [the Defense Department] be authorized to purchase products and services locally," the findings added.
Local observers are doubtful that the US procurement strategy will work as envisioned. Instead they believe it will do more to reinforce authoritarianism and corruption in Central Asia than it does to relieve the strain on supply bottlenecks. Ultimately, the NDN could help local elites in Central Asia concentrate wealth and power in their hands, one Tashkent-based political observer contended.
"US military contracts for goods and services sourced in Uzbekistan will be subjected to the influence of clans and the large corporations and companies already operating here," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Those contracts will be given to the companies that belong to the ruling elite."
Deirdre Tynan is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.