As our sister blog The Bug Pit reported this week, speculation is mounting that a November 17 “terrorist attack” that knocked out a rail line connecting Uzbekistan with southern Tajikistan may not be all the Uzbeks say it was. One doesn’t have to look hard to find a motive for sabotage. Certainly, the episode seems to have limited archrival Tajikistan’s ability to supply NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
For Uzbekistan, perhaps the most significant aspect of the rail line in question is its complete irrelevance to its own economy, and to its role as the hub of the Northern Distribution Network that is essential for supplying NATO troops. The damage occurred on a section of track after the NDN freight turns off to Afghanistan, in the desert before crossing into Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has no other use for this line and appears in no hurry to see it repaired.
Tajikistan is connected to the outside world by three rail lines. All cross Uzbekistan: one in the northern Ferghana Valley; one near Dushanbe; and the one in question in the south, abutting the Afghanistan border. While not completely insignificant, it is the least important for Dushanbe. Before the damage, it mainly carried in fuels and some food products, and carried out migrant laborers headed for Russia. It does not, as some might expect, carry equipment for the Rogun hydroelectric dam project, which Uzbekistan vigorously opposes. The heavy equipment needed for Rogun travels on the second line through Dushanbe and is processed at the nearby (former) industrial hub of Vakhdat, the closest terminal to the dam and the only one equipped with the 300-ton crane needed to lift massive generator turbines. Thus, this incident is unlikely to have any direct effect on work at Rogun.
Tajik Railways has rejected Uzbekistan's offer to reroute cargo to Dushanbe, claiming that there is no capacity to process additional freight in the capital, and that the costs would be prohibitively high. A lack of capacity is unlikely the case. In May, the operations director of Dushanbe-II told me the station was operating at less than 50 percent capacity, mostly processing imported furniture, consumer products and foodstuffs. Cargo bound for southern Tajikistan could easily be offloaded to trucks here, but costs would certainly be higher than shipping by rail directly into southern Tajikistan over the allegedly destroyed track.
Here’s where suspicion might focus: Tajik rail officials claimed to handle some humanitarian aid bound for Afghanistan, and expressed interest in expanding collaboration with NATO on the NDN. Other terminal operators in Tajikistan made the same pitches, including officials at the largely abandoned freight terminal at Kurgan-Tyube, and at a small fuel terminal in Kolhozabad, both on that southern, now-incapacitated, line close to the Afghan border. Officials at all three terminals claimed to have spoken to western military and logistics officers about beefing up collaboration. “Military guys have come here a couple of times,” an official at Kurgan-Tyube told me. “They were looking into investing in this facility. We told them that we were ready to expand.”
The Tajiks claimed that diverting NDN supplies through Tajikistan would allow NATO to expand its capacity. Currently, the vast majority of NDN supplies rely on the Termez-Hairatan “Friendship Bridge” linking Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Allowing some of that freight to be off-loaded in southern Tajikistan and trucked over Tajikistan's new American-built bridge to Afghanistan would, they argue, relieve congestion at Termez.
Of course, diverting more NDN traffic through Tajikistan would offer a financial benefit to the impoverished country. Yet according to the zero-sum political calculations often made in Central Asia, Tajikistan's gain would be Uzbekistan's loss.