It would seem that the Northern Distribution Network, the main supply line for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is soon to become a two-way street.
Commercial logistics companies operating on the NDN are on standby to start moving non-lethal freight out of Afghanistan as soon as the end of this year, according to transport industry insiders.
The NDN -- a network of road, rail and air routes that traverses Central Asia states -- came into being in early 2009. It was developed as an alternative to a Pakistani supply line that had become increasingly vulnerable to ambushes. Despite higher transit costs, the NDN carries close to 75 percent of all non-military items bound for Afghanistan. In addition, more than 60 percent of Coalition Forces’ fuel needs are transited through Central Asia. Pakistan’s decision to close another supply route means that the NDN’s strategic importance is only going to grow in the coming months.
NDN’s looming transformation, should it happen this year or early 2012, underscores the beginning of the US and NATO drawdown in Afghanistan. “It’s public policy. We are out [of Afghanistan] in 2014. Therefore the value of NDN is out, not in,” a source familiar with the development of NDN told EurasiaNet.org earlier in November.
On the political front, US officials are said to have obtained the consent of relevant Central Asian governments to use the NDN for “retro cargo.” Russia is also onboard. Written agreements to that effect are due to be signed in the near future with only Kazakhstan reportedly still haggling over the exact terms and conditions. Uzbek authorities consented “almost straight away” once the United States committed to using Tashkent’s suggested route, which is “the most expensive one,” a well-placed source said.
US State Department representatives neither confirmed nor denied the status of agreements. “We are pursuing active diplomatic efforts with Central Asian partner nations to promote stronger economic ties throughout the region so that goods, capital, and people can flow more easily across borders. We are pursuing these agreements to better support our troops in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's neighbors and the United States all have a common interest in regional stability,” said a State Department representative.
“Any two-way agreements would be for defensive aid such as body armor, Humvees, and other non-lethal equipment,” the American diplomat added.
Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan is emerging as the in-country collection point for freight slated for removal from the country. Balkh’s strategic position has been bolstered by the completion of the rail link from the provincial capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, to Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan border.
A November 14 sources-sought notice posted on the US government’s Federal Business Opportunities website indicates that the German-run Camp Marmal near Mazar-i-Sharif will be substantially enlarged to facilitate a “Northern Distribution Network hub” at a cost earmarked to be between $10 million and $25 million.
Separately, NATO officials are said to be favoring the rapid removal of advanced weaponry, communications and intelligence systems from Afghanistan. Sensitive items would likely be flown out via the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, a US government source suggested. US military aircraft are not subject to inspections at the air base.
The US government’s lease on the Transit Center is good until 2014. US-Kyrgyz negotiations on its future have not yet begun. Kyrgyz President elect Almazbek Atambayev stated the air base will close in 2014 when the current lease expires, until then cash-strapped Bishkek stands to make several million dollars a month from new jet fuel supply arrangements.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based journalist specializing Central Asian affairs.