When the U.S. ships military goods through Central Asia to Afghanistan, who gets paid? That's a pretty simple question, but several years after the establishment of the Northern Distribution Network, we still don't know. The Pentagon uses private companies to ship its equipment through Central Asia, but which private companies? How much do they get paid? People in Uzbekistan were asking these questions two years ago, and we still don't have answers.
Investigations into murky contracting practices around the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan exposed that relatives of two successive presidents were getting rich from base-related business. That resulted in a greater degree of transparency around Manas contracts. But as Jeff Goldstein, a policy analyst at the Open Society Institute, writes, the White House and Pentagon have actively sought to block measures that would illuminate who is getting paid on the NDN:
To their credit, U.S. officials drew the appropriate lessons and, among other things, created a website that provides basic information to the public on all contracts related to Manas. Unfortunately, they have not done the same for the even larger contracts related to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), over which supplies are moved through Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistanto U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Given the corrupt nature of the ruling regimes in all three countries -- they rank 120th, 152nd, and 177th respectively out of 183 countries in the most recent Transparency International Corruption Perceptions rankings -- locals can't help but believe that some of this money is enriching key regime insiders. It would behoove the United States, therefore, to start providing greater transparency regarding NDN contracting, just as it already does for Manas.
To take it a step further, the United States should get serious about NDN-related corruption. Last year, when Congress bowed to pressure from the Obama administration to allow it to resume assistance to the Uzbek government -- despite the country's failure to address long-standing human rights concerns -- Congress did require that the executive branch provide regular reports on any indications that this assistance or NDN-related funding were fueling corruption in Uzbekistan. Recently, the administration provided its first report, but classified it and made it unavailable to the public. To assure U.S. taxpayers that their money isn't being wasted and Uzbek citizens that the United States isn't covertly paying off key Uzbek officials and their kin, all future versions of this report should be unclassified. The Pentagon should make clear to NDN contractors that they will seriously investigate and, if warranted, prosecute any violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act funded by taxpayer dollars. Moreover, the United States should re-emphasize the fact to regional governments that the NDN should be treated as a project of mutual strategic interest, not a cash cow.
(Disclosure: OSI, of course, pays the bills for EurasiaNet and The Bug Pit.)
I might quibble with that last point: if the NDN partner countries don't see it as part of their strategic interest, there's not much the U.S. can do about it. If they see it as a cash cow, OK -- but if we knew where the cash were going, it would either mollify skeptics who assume that the money is enriching presidential families, or expose that the money was in fact enriching presidential families, and force the U.S. to improve its practices. As long as the contracts are opaque, it's hard not to assume that the U.S. has something to hide.