Commercial sources familiar with operations on the Northern Distribution Network, a key supply line for the Afghan war effort, say that Uzbekistan is “continuously uncooperative” when it comes to facilitating the shipment of goods to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The hassles are such that some Pentagon contractors now try to avoid dealing with Tashkent when possible.
“Only the very big US government flag carriers are able to operate with any ease or success in Uzbekistan because they have clout and can negotiate with the Uzbek government,” a Washington, DC,-based source said.
Uzbekistan has the most developed railway network of any Central Asian state and thus serves as a hub for Northern Distribution Network (NDN) traffic. At the same time, the country is consistently listed by global watchdogs as one of the most corrupt and repressive states in the world. In late 2011, members of the US Senate Appropriations Committee expressed concern that the NDN was a potential gravy train of graft which enabled Uzbek President Islam Karimov to reinforce his authoritarian regime.
“It’s simpler to use the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan trucking route. In winter, it has its own problems with bad roads and weather conditions, but the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are cooperative,” the Washington source said. “The Uzbek government has cornered any business that’s done on their portion of the NDN for themselves, and they are unpredictable, they could shut down the railroad to traffic without much warning.”
Even Pentagon policy planners appear to be growing weary of the Karimov administration’s fickle behavior. Defense Department solicitations relating to work performed at the Manas Transit Center near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan now contain a clause encouraging vendors not to ship goods through Uzbekistan. Clause H-11, titled “Uzbekistan Shipping Policy,” has appeared in all tenders issued since mid-2011. It cautions; “materials used for the purposes of this contract shall not be shipped through the country of Uzbekistan. The United States Government shall not be liable for any costs or delays resulting from violations of this instruction. Nor shall the Contractor be exempt from any liquidated damages or consideration sought for late deliveries and project completion dates due to the Contractor choosing to ship through Uzbekistan.”
As it gears up for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, US Defense officials are taking a hard look at expanding routes that circumvent Uzbekistan. In particular, Pentagon officials want to develop routes in and out of Afghanistan that will “grow to be larger” than the NDN.
Last summer, at a meeting of the Pentagon’s Third Party Payment System (TPPS) Oversight Council, a pan-military body that monitors payments to contracted shippers, participants discussed the feasibility of opening air corridors that would supersede the NDN. According to the minutes of the meeting; “TRANSCOM and [Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC)] are moving towards Multi-Modal moves in and out of Afghanistan. They are currently working with vendors to have an Air-Lay into Afghanistan. This will grow larger than the Northern Distribution Network. It is the alternate means to moving items into and outside the country.”
Transporting goods by air is generally far more expensive than by ground.
Attendees also explored the “much cheaper” option of trucking goods from Europe to Afghanistan via Turkey. “This will be an alternate to many of the routes,” the TPPS meeting minutes record.
SDDC customer advisories urge transporters to consider using a Trans-Siberian route. “Trans-Siberian Route (TSR): [Points of Delivery] Vostochny, Russia; and Vladivostok, Russia. TSR is a viable option to move NDN eligible cargo from [US Pacific Command Area of Responsibility] and US West Coast,” stated an SDDC advisory on December 13.
The DC-based source said avoiding Uzbekistan “makes a lot of sense.”
“If you can avoid using Uzbekistan then it’s good to do that,” the source added.
Despite a growing distaste for Uzbekistan, contractors say that, given Tashkent’s geographical position, there is no way to marginalize the country entirely. For one, the rail connection between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan is irreplaceable. Some 60 percent of fuel deliveries to US forces in Afghanistan are shipped via the NDN, and the bulk passes over the Termez-Hairaton crossing on the Uzbek-Afghan border. The US Army and Air Force’s requirements for fuel are not projected to decrease in the near future.
Uzbek authorities seem intent on profiting as much as they can from the war effort, while they can. Specifically, Tashkent is set to impose a drastic hike of transit fees for items being withdrawn from Afghanistan. According to the latest NDN transit agreements for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, copies of which were obtained by EurasiaNet.org, Uzbekistan will charge carriers of non-military goods leaving Afghanistan up to 50 percent more than the existing rate for use of the railroad. Carriers also face a level of bureaucracy that is not evident in the agreement signed with Kazakhstan.
Article 13 of the Uzbek agreement, signed on November 17, 2011, states that “the cost for railway services for transportation of transit cargo through the territory of the Republic of Uzbekistan shall be 1.5 times the rate of the International Railway Transit Tariff.”
Earlier transit agreements with Tashkent set rates “in accordance” with the International Railway Transit Tariff.
Carriers must also repeatedly apply for permission to transit goods out of Afghanistan from the Uzbek Ministry of Defense, which will then specify exactly at what time the cargo may be moved.
The Kazakh agreement, signed in December 2011, is significantly shorter and simpler than the Uzbek agreement. It specifies that “the transit of goods through the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan is the subject of export control and should be authorized by the appropriate agencies as stated in Kazakhstan’s Law on Export Control.”
Despite the general perception that Tashkent’s NDN cooperation is grudging, the United States will need to keep Tashkent on board, the source warned. “The decision’s been made not to move vehicles or anything armored through Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, this means it will have to go through Uzbekistan, and most likely through western Kazakhstan for delivery on to Poti,” the source said.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.