The United States and Kazakhstan are exploring the idea of expanding the amount of military cargo passing through Kazakhstan into and out of Afghanistan. The focal point of the discussions is the Caspian port city of Aktau.
Kazakhstani authorities want to turn Aktau into a major regional transit hub, enlarging the port, expanding the municipal airport’s cargo capacity and constructing new rail routes to Turkmenistan and Iran. They are also intent on integrating their vision for Aktau into the US-backed concept of a New Silk Road, which aims to build up a regional transit network that would help stabilize Afghanistan following the pullout of US and NATO troops.
Kazakhstani leaders see US military cooperation, under the auspices of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), as a means of achieving that goal, Birzhan Keneshev, the deputy governor of the Mangystau Region (which includes Aktau), said in an interview. “This is a good opportunity for the US military to send goods through our sea port [and] airport. … We will get good experience in organizing multi-modal transportation businesses, which we have not had until now in Kazakhstan,” Keneshev said. “It's a good way to set up some joint ventures with the American side, with logistics companies, and get this experience. They can transfer experience, transfer technology, set up IT systems, train people.”
American diplomats, when discussing the New Silk Road project, frequently cite India's prime minister, who is said to have quipped; “I dream of a day, while retaining our respective identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul.” Kazakhstan's ambassador in Washington, Erlan Idrissov, has adapted that phrase, imagining a day when one can have "breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Aktau and dinner in Dusseldorf."
President Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration is presenting Aktau as a better alternative for NATO than a proposed transit hub at the Russian city of Ulyanovsk. “The closest way to Europe [from Afghanistan] is through Aktau,” said Keneshev. “It's a long way to Ulyanovsk,” and by using Aktau, the United States “can save a lot of money.”
A Kazakhstani Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment directly on the negotiations concerning Aktau. But the ministry provided a statement to EurasiaNet.org: “During 2009-2011, 15,430 containers have already been shipped through Aktau port from the United States and Europe to Afghanistan, i.e. the majority of the cargo passing through NDN.”
“Kazakhstan is ready to contribute to implementing the [New Silk Road] initiative in the form of some new projects. One of them is the Transportation and Logistics Center (TLC) in Aktau Sea Port,'” the statement continued. “It can be an integral part of the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Afghanistan route as part of the New Silk Road connecting Central and South Asia.”
Pentagon planners have been actively seeking to expand their options on the NDN, as problems with transit through Pakistan and, to a lesser degree, Uzbekistan, have caused delays and interruptions with existing transit routes. Among options under consideration are potential hubs in Russia and India. Taking geography and the fickle nature of Uzbekistan's particpation in the NDN into account, it would seem any expansion of goods going to Aktau would mean an increase of transit traffic through Turkmenistan into Afghanistan.
US officials have declined to provide details of the negotiations with Kazakhstan over NDN transit. “We're eager to talk to any governments in the region about options and opportunities that increase access for US and allied throughput into and out of Afghanistan, and that would include Aktau,” US Army Col. Robert Timm, the defense attache at the US Embassy in Astana, said in an interview.
“They have a plan to develop this multi-modal transit hub out there,” Col. Timm added. “Insofar as the development of that creates opportunities for us, we're interested in looking at that.”
US diplomats have long seen potential in Aktau, even before the development of the NDN. One 2009 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks was titled “The Strategic Importance of Aktau Seaport.” Another, from 2008, compared Aktau's role on the New Silk Road to that of Samarkand on the original Silk Road: “Aktau is still a sleepy town in comparison with Almaty and Astana. Its growth potential, however, is significant, particularly when oil from Tengiz and Kashagan is shipped westwards. The Kazakhstanis see Aktau as a potential "capital city" of the Caspian region, the central point for transportation, regional educational cooperation, and even tourism. If the cross-Caspian route is the new Silk Road for Central Asia, Aktau may yet prove to be its Samarkand.”
Joshua Kucera is the editor of Eurasianet's Bug Pit blog who also writes on military security issues elsewhere. This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.