The United States intends to expand security cooperation with Central Asian states, US diplomats say. One means to do so, they add, is increasing the capacity of the Northern Distribution Network, which ships military cargo bound for US and NATO forces overland through Central Asia to Afghanistan.
The United States now can ship over 1,000 containers per week to Afghanistan via the NDN, said David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. “And we expect to increase this figure even further in the coming months,” he added. About 98 percent of that traffic passes through Uzbekistan, he said November 17 at a hearing of a House of Representatives hearing, titled The Emerging Importance of the U.S.-Central Asia Partnership.
“We must increase our engagement with Central Asia at all levels— working in the short term to expand logistical flows and, in the long term, expanding and deepening our relations from a DoD perspective, particularly in the security sector. Such engagement will help give our partners in Central Asia the support they need as we all work to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda,” Sedney said at the hearing.
Gen. James Mattis, the commander of US Central Command, was traveling through Central Asia, including visits to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. According to the US Embassy in Tashkent, Mattis signed the “2011 Program of Security Cooperation between USCENTCOM and the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Uzbekistan,” which it said was similar to the previous year's agreement.
“Through this increased engagement, we have seen an improved relationship with Uzbekistan, but many challenges remain,” said Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, who also testified at the hearing. “We continue to encourage the Uzbek authorities to address significant human rights concerns such as ending forced child labor, opening up the media environment, and demonstrating greater tolerance for religious activities. We are also encouraging building an investment-friendly business environment to enhance economic opportunities for American businesses and for the benefit of the Uzbek economy.”
The NDN could help expand Central Asia's economy, Sedney said in his written statement for the hearing. “By expanding trade linkages, the NDN has the potential to one day reconnect Central Asia to India, Pakistan, and other formerly closed markets, in a direct land route from the heart of Asia to the heart of Europe,” he said.
Both Sedney and Blake addressed the recent instability in Tajikistan, but neither appeared to endorse the Tajikistan government's explanation that transnational Islamist terror groups were behind the violence. “In 2010, Tajikistan experienced a number of security challenges that the government told us originated with extremist elements,” Sedney said. Blake identified those fighting the government only as “former civil war combatants.”
Blake praised the performance of Kazakhstan as the chair-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “We think that Kazakhstan has done a very credible job,” he said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the OSCE summit in December in Astana, and the U.S. wants the OSCE to adopt an action plan at the summit to focus on improving border security, countering trafficking and promoting legal commerce in Central Asia, Blake said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.