Before the "New Silk Road" was ever official U.S. policy, there was talk among Washington wonks and U.S. policymakers of transforming the military Northern Distribution Network -- the system of supply routes the Pentagon uses to get its equipment to Afghanistan -- into a civilian, commercial trade network. But when the U.S. State Department rolled out its New Silk Road Initiative last year, there was never any connection made between that idea and the NDN.
That looks like it's changing, however. In a speech last week, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, made that connection explicit:
[W]e should not overlook the economic potential of the NDN. The existing infrastructure and transit routes used to transport military cargo can and should be used by the private sector to continue trade across the region, where there is ample opportunity for growth. The economic potential of a more open and integrated region – full of untapped human and natural resources – is virtually unlimited.
And at an event last week at the Open Society Foundations Washington office, Blake's deputy Lynne Tracy made the same point, calling the NDN a "proof of principle" for the New Silk Road.
Georgia's new defense minister nominee Irakli Alasania has said that he wants to decrease the size of the country's military, making it leaner and quicker:
“We need a very small but highly mobile army that will be able to stand up to new threats” such as terrorism and extremism, said Alasania, leader of the Our Georgia-Free Democrats party, in an interview with RIA Novosti.
This is standard 21st century defense ministry rhetoric around the world, and it's especially something that U.S. defense advisers work on with partner post-Soviet militaries, which inherited a legacy of poorly trained but large armed forces, focused primarily on territorial defense.
But Georgia is an interesting case, since it does have a territorial dispute with Russia and the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Jane's Sentinel (full entry subscription only) notes that Georgia had been on the path to a smaller, leaner armed forces, but that that was derailed by the 2008 war with Russia:
The Georgian Armed Forces (GAF) are currently in the midst of wide-reaching reforms. The Strategic Defence Review (SDR) of 2007 set out a restructuring programme for the period to 2015 that ultimately sought to develop relatively small, numerous and more deployable brigades within a joint forces command structure that would ultimately do away with separate combat naval and air forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly canceled his visit to Pakistan last week, but ties between the two countries nevertheless appear to be growing as a result of the Kremlin's fear of instability in Afghanistan.
Putin was supposed to be in Pakistan last week for the Dushanbe Four summit, a grouping that includes Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But he canceled at the last minute; foreign minister Sergey Lavrov went instead and Pakistan's chief of army staff, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, visited Moscow at the same time. And despite Putin's cancellation, analysts in Russia, Pakistan and India all seem to agree that Russian-Pakistani relations are nevertheless destined to get stronger.
Part of this seems to be a very slow post-Cold War geopolitical realignment, and part is motivated by specific worries about Afghanistan. Russia and India have strong relations, especially military-to-military ties, a vestige of the Cold War when India was a Soviet ally and its enemy, Pakistan, was supported by the U.S. But India is now seeking to diversify its relations, including strengthening ties (including in defense) with the U.S. That has led some in Moscow to want to send India a message, said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and an analyst well connected to the Russian Ministry of Defense, in an interview with Kommersant:
“India remains Moscow’s most important partner in the area of [military-technical cooperation], both in terms of volume and potential. Yet Delhi’s attempts to diversify its supplies of new weapons – increasingly from Western countries – are making Russia flinch. Moscow has explained to Delhi, in no uncertain terms, that it can also diversify its military-technical ties by means of a rapprochement with Pakistan."
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, and U. S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez at a ceremony at the opening of a U.S.-funded bridge connecting Afghanistan and Tajikistan in 2007
An underreported and underappreciated aspect of international security in Central Asia is the fight against drug trafficking. As everyone knows, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, and it reaches world markets through Central Asia and Russia. Central Asian countries' western partners have been increasingly focusing on drug trafficking in their security assistance to the region, but thus far to little effect.
In a paper presented on Friday at a conference at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, Sebastien Peyrouse divided the Central Asian drug trade into three types: "green" refers to trade by Islamist networks to raise money for militant activities, "black" refers to small-time criminals who smuggle drugs on their person to supply local markets, and "red" describes the trade by large, organized crime networks, with the collaboration of government officials. Peyrouse notes that Central Asian governments, in their rhetoric to the international community, focuses on the green and black drug trade, while by far the greatest amount of trafficking is red. But the international (US, European, UN) efforts tend to follow the lead of the Central Asian governments, focusing on the small-scale trafficking while ignoring -- and even unintentionally abetting -- the red trade.
An efforts by U.S. lawmakers try to block the Pentagon from doing business with Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport has stalled, and likely will remain so until after the elections in November. But Russian officials are arguing that the fact that the U.S. military wants to buy helicopters from Russia, in spite of politicians' wishes, is "the best advertisement our helicopters can get."
Last year, the Pentagon awarded Rosoboronexport a contract worth nearly $1 billion to supply Afghanistan's armed forces with Mi-17 helicopters. U.S. defense manufacturers complained that the Pentagon was giving business to Russia that could be awarded to American companies. But the Pentagon's reasoning was that Russian helicopters are cheaper, and more importantly were already in service in Afghanistan, meaning that Afghanistan's pilots, maintenance crews, and so on, wouldn't have to learn an entirely new system.
Last month, though, the House of Representatives stepped in to try to put the kibosh on that contract. On a 407-5 vote, representatives voted to ban any funding for the contract. The Senate is unlikely to take up the issue before the election, but U.S. military are still advocating against it. That prompted one Russian defense official, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military-Technological Cooperation, to brag a little bit:
"Despite this resistance, American military officials have made it clear that they need our helicopters, which are reliable and meet all of the requirements. This is the best advertisement our helicopters can get," Dzirkaln said.
Security in Afghanistan topped the agenda as Vladimir Putin, inaugurated as Russian president a month ago, visited Tashkent on June 4, holding late-night talks with his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov.
According to a Kremlin transcript, Karimov used the visit to expound on Uzbekistan’s “serious concern” about the dangers of security threats from Afghanistan spilling over its borders after the drawdown of NATO troops, scheduled for completion by 2014. He warned against “complacency” that everything will go to plan.
Karimov, whose country shares a southern border with Afghanistan, said Russia “has never been indifferent to the problems of Central Asia,” and he was counting on “Russia’s interest in resolving the serious, quite acute problems that will arise in the Central Asian region” with the NATO withdrawal.
Putin characterized cooperation with Uzbekistan as “extremely important” in light of the drawdown, which he described as linked to “security inside the Russian Federation itself.”
Putin and Karimov met the same day NATO announced it had secured agreements with Uzbekistan and two Central Asian neighbors -- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – to use a key transport route to return equipment from Afghanistan to Europe. NATO already had a deal with Russia to use the Northern Distribution Network for reverse transit out of Afghanistan.
NATO reached an agreement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan through Central Asia, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reported today:
We also reached agreement on reverse transit from Afghanistan with three Central Asian partners: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These agreements will give us a range of new options and the robust and flexible transport network we need....
With Russia we have a transit arrangement, a reverse transit arrangement already, and the fact that we have now concluded a transit arrangement, three concrete transit arrangements with Central Asian countries at the Chicago Summit, will make the use of the Russian transit arrangement even more effective.
In response to a question on payment for the reverse transit, he implied that there was some, but wouldn't specify: "I do not comment on details in the transit arrangements, but it goes without saying that we have concluded agreements that are of mutual satisfaction of the involved partners."
Meanwhile, he said negotiations with Pakistan on reopening those lines of communication continue: "I'm not going to comment on details in negotiations with Pakistan. I'll just reiterate that I still hope that a solution can be found in the very near future."
These NATO deals are not related to separate deals the U.S. has reached. Obviously the U.S. is a member of NATO, and it's not clear if this new NATO deal now covers all NATO member countries besides the U.S., or what.
The most interesting subplot here is what this means for Pakistan. The AP story on Rasmussen's comments had an intriguing bit of analysis:
German troops in Afghanistan may soon have to go without mustard for their weisswurst. According to Russian media reports, a resupply truck convoy carrying food for German soldiers is experiencing a major delay at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
According to Zakir Tilenov, chief of the Kyrgyz Border Guard Service, the resupply trucks bound for the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif cannot pass through the Karamyk crossing into Tajikistan due to an existing bilateral treaty provision that allows only Kyrgyz and Tajik carriers to use that particular route. The trucks have been stuck for more than a week now.
The Interfax News Agency reports that the German Embassy in Bishkek sent an official letter to the Kyrgyz Parliament asking for help in resolving the issue. Tokon Mamytov, the chairman of parliament’s Committee on Defense and Security, has expressed support for amending the treaty to enable freight carriers involved in the Afghan War resupply effort to use the crossing. In the meantime, Mamytov and other members of the Defense Committee want the government to take action.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan participate in the Northern Distribution Network, a web of air, road and rail links in Central Asia and have emerged as the primary resupply line for US and NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan. Using the Karamyk checkpoint could cut up to 200 miles off a transit route for NDN-related, Afghan-bound haulers that passes through Tajikistan, according to a report in the Russian newspaper Vzglyad.
A new report by the United Nations drug agency sheds light on the nuts and bolts of narcotics transit from Afghanistan through Central Asia, highlighting the former Soviet republics’ lackluster efforts at interdiction.
The 106-page report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), released this month, describes how smugglers traffic heroin and opium from Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer, to Russia, the world’s largest consumer. Ninety tons of highly pure heroin, roughly a quarter of the substance exiting Afghanistan, passes through Central Asia annually. Yet in 2010 authorities in the region seized less than 3 percent of it. And despite international efforts to help, that number keeps falling.
Central Asia’s entrenched corruption makes the region a perfect smuggling route, says the report. Senior officials are complicit in the trade, or at least take bribes to look the other way, especially in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A lack of cooperation among neighbors also offers a boon to traffickers.
The stakes are huge.
“UNODC estimates that in 2010 drug traffickers in Central Asia made a net profit of $1.4 billion from heroin sales. Much of this profit was likely incurred by Tajik traffickers, given that Tajikistan is estimated to handle most of the flow,” said the report. They profit by marking up the heroin by as much as 600 percent once it gets to Russia. Between 70 and 75 percent of the drugs travel by road, leaving a trail of new addicts across Central Asia.
Pakistan has agreed to reopen its border to U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan, charging more than it did before -- and presumably taking money out of the pockets of Afghanistan's neighbors to the north, who were filling in while Pakistan implemented its blockade.
The new agreement with Pakistan will cost the coalition in Afghanistan an additional roughly $365 million a year, McClatchy reports, citing unnamed officials. Just days before, a U.S. senator, Claire McCaskill, reported that Pakistan's refusal to allow NATO transport to Afghanistan -- which it did in retaliation for a strike killing several Pakistani soldiers -- was costing $38 million a month. It's not clear whether those two numbers are commensurate -- as the blog Danger Room reported, the U.S. has been keeping cost figures of Afghan transit close to its vest, because it doesn't want to give Pakistan information that would allow it to drive a harder bargain. But assuming the numbers are commensurate, the new deal with Pakistan would save the U.S. a bit of money -- $8 million a month -- from what it had been paying on the NDN. $38 million times 12 also comes pretty close to the figure of $500 million per year that Deirdre Tynan reported the U.S. was paying to the NDN countries. But the Pentagon hasn't provided many details of that, either, so it's also not clear whether this is the same figure McCaskill cited.