The Pentagon is going local in Central Asia, seeking to increase the role of regional long-haul trucking firms and food producers in supplying US troops in Afghanistan. Local economies stand to benefit from new business opportunities, officials in Washington say.
Though happy to have the business, truckers complain the increased American traffic is driving up the price of the kickbacks that they must pay en route. The supply line takes them through some of the most corrupt countries on the planet.
In July, US military officials launched the Surface Tender CENTCOM Region (STCR) program. Designed to support the procurement of goods in Central Asia and the south Caucasus for US bases in Afghanistan, the project is boosting traffic on the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a web of rail, air and trucking routes connecting Western Europe and Afghanistan. Pentagon officials, announcing that many of the products would be sourced in Kyrgyzstan, describe STCR as “one of the most important ventures within [the] region.”
But between Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan lies Tajikistan.
Temirbek Shabdanaliev, chairman of the Carriers’ Association of Kyrgyzstan, a lobbying group, complains that as Washington increasingly relies on the NDN, Tajikistan’s notorious customs officials and traffic police are becoming greedier. The global watchdog group Transparency International ranks Tajikistan 154th in its latest Corruption Perceptions Index of 178 countries; Kyrgyzstan places 164th.
“In Tajikistan the payment rate depends on the value of the goods you’re carrying,” Shabdanaliev told EurasiaNet.org. “Prior to the increase in [NDN] business last year, the rate was 100-200 som [$2-4]. Payments are also demanded more frequently now. Drivers used to be stopped about three times during the journey through Tajikistan. Now they are stopped ten times.” Shabdanaliev calculates a trip that last year cost 300-600 som ($7-14) now costs 3000-5000 som ($70-110) thanks to the growth in American traffic volume.
Washington has long complained that American contractors inflate costs for servicing the Afghan war. Policymakers see the STCR as a money-saving initiative, as described in an internal military memo dated April 26, 2011, which CENTCOM made available to EurasiaNet.org. The memo complains that American contractors employ “elevated transportation rate structures above commercial market pricing” by subcontracting local firms. STCR, then, will be “beneficial to local economies” by cutting out middlemen.
In October 2010, NDN was responsible for 30 percent of all non-lethal military cargo bound for Afghanistan. By the end of 2011 the Pentagon hopes the NDN will carry 75 percent of such supplies. So far, most of this business has gone to international firms shipping goods from Europe and further afield.
A CENTCOM spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org that a trial run of the STCR this summer “went well” and that the Defense Department expects to tender four new transport contracts in October. CENTCOM would not comment on the final scale of the program, but US military officials said the the goal was to “maximize … the transportation of locally purchased goods,” contingent on US government demand.
The STCR seeks to foster the development of transit and services companies in Kyrgyzstan “to become more competitive,” said Mirsuljan Namazaliev, director of the Central Asia Free Market Institute, a think-tank in Bishkek. “The image of the United States could improve because of the involvement of local firms, and Kyrgyz companies will be cheaper than their international counterparts -- even if they do have to pay bribes to cross Tajikistan.”
For their services, Kyrgyz haulers can expect to be paid approximately $4,400 per shipment, said Shabdanaliev of the Carriers’ Association. Out of this come expenses, including diesel fuel, visa fees and whatever payments they are required to make on the road. Given Shabdanaliev’s allegations of bribe paying, CENTCOM appears to be shifting responsibility for dealing with graft onto local firms.
After expenses, Carriers’ Association drivers report that they net $250-300 for each round trip. So roughly $110 in bribes to Tajik officials represents a significant bite out of their income. But that’s not the only problem drivers face. “The last year has been a learning process for local firms. They know how to handle transit through Tajikistan – it’s simple, because they know whom to pay off. In Afghanistan it’s much harder because people shoot at you with automatic weapons, but the drivers are getting used to this too,” Shabdanaliev said.
Matthew Stourbridge is the pseudonym for a journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs.