India would seem to have built-in advantages in trying to forge close relations with Central Asian states. It has a huge, growing economy, and, geographically, it is a neighbor. It also has historic ties dating back centuries; the Mughal Empire originated in what is today Uzbekistan.
That's the provocative theory that is beginning to circulate, fueled by the Uzbekistan government's refusal to disclose basic information about an alleged attack, and some pointed questions being asked in Tajikistan about who has benefited and who has suffered from a rail bridge explosion near the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border. When the bridge was blown up on November 17, the Uzbekistan authorities called it a "terrorist act" and most observers, not least this blog, speculated that it might be Islamists trying to scuttle U.S.-Uzbek cooperation over the war effort in Afghanistan. Initial reports about the area affected suggested that it could have been on a line renovated by the U.S. for use in its Northern Distribution Network, by which the U.S. and NATO ship military cargo overland through Central Asia to Afghanistan.
But since then, Uzbekistan has said nothing more about the incident. And it's emerged that while the U.S. military traffic to Afghanistan wasn't affected by the blast, shipping to neighboring Tajikistan -- with which Uzbekistan has chronically bad relations -- has been. A Tajikistan rail official complained that: "with the Uzbek railroad’s capacities, they should have been able to repair the bridge within a day. The Tajik railroad had offered to provide any assistance free of charge to speed up the restoration of traffic on the ... line, but had no response from Uzbek authorities, and no indication when repairs would be completed."
A senior Russian official has blamed the U.S. and NATO for the "murder" of Russian peacekeepers during the 2008 war in South Ossetia. The official, Deputy Secretary of the Russian Security Council Vladimir Nazarov, made the comments at a conference in Moscow on Wednesday. From Itar-Tass (in Russian):
"The United States was directly involved in the murder of South Ossetia, Russian peacekeepers, soldiers and citizens," Nazarov said. "We have concrete evidence."
Unfortunately, he declined to present that evidence, so it's not really clear what he's talking about. His further comments suggest he may have been talking about a more indirect involvement, a general backing of Georgia:
“We would like to remind our NATO partners about the role the alliance has played in arming the Saakashvili regime, in pushing Georgia into that war and towards Georgia’s involvement in NATO in 2007 and 2008, at any cost.”
There was a rumor during the war that some African-American soldiers were involved in the war, a rumor furthered by RT. Is that what Nazarov is talking about? Is this some sort of smokescreen intended to divert attention from the embarrassing debacle unfolding now in Tskhinvali? We'll have to wait for him to present his evidence...
Russia has threatened to cut off NATO supply routes to Afghanistan if the alliance doesn't compromise on its missile defense plans, Moscow's NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, has said. From the Wall Street Journal:
If NATO doesn't give a serious response, "we have to address matters in relations in other areas," Russian news services reported Dmitri Rogozin, ambassador to NATO, as saying. He added that Russia's cooperation on Afghanistan may be an area for review, the news services reported.
This is just the latest in several headaches that the U.S. has had to deal with over the last couple of weeks regarding its supply lines to Afghanistan. First, there was an explosion in Uzbekistan on a line used by the U.S. and NATO, then Pakistan cut off its supply lines in response to a NATO attack that killed 28 Pakistani soldiers. And the flamboyantly nationalist Rogozin rarely misses a chance to kick the U.S. when it's down. (He also gloated, via twitter, that a somewhat threatening statement by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on missile defense last week forced U.S. officers at NATO to go into work on Thanksgiving.)
An expert quoted by the Journal suggests that this new Russian threat isn't too serious:
Ivan Safranchuk, deputy director of the Moscow-based Institute of Contemporary International Studies, said Russia is unlikely to cut off the flow of NATO supplies to Afghanistan as an immediate response to missile-defense decisions. But Russia does want its objections to the missile shield to be taken more seriously, he said.
As a result of a NATO attack that killed as many as 28 Pakistani soldiers today, the Pakistani government has closed off NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. From Reuters:
Hours after the raid, NATO supply trucks and fuel tankers bound for Afghanistan were stopped at Jamrud town in the Khyber tribal region near the city of Peshawar, officials said.
The border crossing at Chaman in southwestern Baluchistan province was also closed, Frontier Corps officials said.
A meeting of the cabinet's defence committee convened by Gilani "decided to close with immediate effect NATO/ISAF logistics supply lines," according to a statement issued by Gilani's office.
It's not clear how long Pakistan will cut off NATO supplies, but they did it for ten days after another NATO attack killed three Pakistani soldiers last year.
According to the latest data from Reuters, NATO supplies into Afghanistan are roughly divided into thirds: a third goes overland via Pakistan, a third by air and a third overland via the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan. The U.S. had already been trying to increase their share of cargo shipped via the northern route, worried about the reliability of Pakistan. And now with the Pakistan route cut off indefinitely, that will put immediately more pressure on the northern route and Uzbekistan.
That seems unlikely, but it's a possibility that some Russian analysts have been discussing lately, as discussions between Turkmenistan and its would-be European partners over the pipeline have advanced.
For example, in an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta and translated in Itar-Tass:
The building of TCP will mean de-facto the recognition of the division of the Caspian Sea into sectors. This is absolutely unacceptable for Russia, and it will have to take action, similar to the operation for the compelling of Georgia to peace. “This time it will have to compel Ashkhabad and Baku to observe international law, probably, with the help of air strikes, if they do not understand any other language. Remembering what NATO did in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, Russia has no barriers, moral or legal ones, for the use of force in the Caspian Sea,” [Mikheil] Alexandrov [of the Institute of CIS Countries] believes.
And News.Az interviewed Konstantin Simonov, director general of the Russian National Energy Security Fund:
Many people call me a hawk, but I do not deny that this is a matter of prestige of the state – whether Russia is ready to tolerate such an outright move of disrespect. If Russia’s allows to treat itself in a way Tajikistan did a couple of days ago trying the crew of the Russian aircraft, the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline will become possible.
But what we see today is that Turkmenistan, despite the support from Washington and Brussels, is not ready to risk yet. I am very doubtful that Russia will tolerate it. Moreover, the reaction can be very hard up to some sort of military conflict in the Caspian Sea.
Is Turkmenistan ready for this? I have great doubts in this regard.
Ancient Persia was a heavily trafficked corridor on the Silk Road, the transcontinental trade route between China and the West that flourished centuries ago. But in Washington’s imagining of a 21st century version of the Silk Road, Iran seems set to be bypassed.
Azerbaijan seems to be looking seriously at rejuvenating its air force with Chinese-Pakistani fighter jets, the state news agency APA reports. They cite a source from the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, one of the builders of the aircraft, at the big Dubai air show:
Members of the Azerbaijani delegation watched the JF-17's demonstration flights at the airshow, the PAC officials said.
They said that several rounds of discussions had been held with the Azerbaijani side, but that talks had yet to reach the purchase and sale stage. They said that the initial size of the order had been determined, however. PAC is meeting orders from Pakistan’s Air Forces at present and would be able to meet an Azerbaijani order in the next few years.
This is not news, exactly; Azerbaijan has been talking about this for at least four years. To quote from a news story then:
In the spring of 2007, at the international military exhibition IDEAS in Dubai, the Azerbaijani side became interested in the multi-functional JF-17 fighter developed and produced jointly by China and Pakistan, as well as small-bore weapons and tanks made in Pakistan...
In 2009, APA was reporting it as more or less a done deal.
The government, sources said, has now decided to go back to Tajikistan and open a military hospital. The original proposal to revive its presence in Tajikistan was taken a year back, but the defence ministry sat on it. With prodding from the security establishment, sources said efforts are now underway to open a field hospital before winter sets in. At a high level meeting a few days ago, the government decided to speed up the plan, a senior source said.
Sources said an Army team has already completed reconnaissance in Tajikistan and has identified a location outside Dushanbe, the capital city. Army has also identified personnel from its medical corps to set up a 20-bed field hospital. "They are ready to leave on a short notice," the source said.
"The proposal (to open hospital) was first mooted when the Army chief (Gen V K Singh) visited Tajikistan last year. But the entire proposal has been pending with the MoD for a year now," a senior source in the security establishment told TOI. The hospital would cater to both civilians and Tajik military, he said. The Tajik Army has for long been engaged in fighting a bloody insurgency. "So, our hospital would be of great assistance to the Tajik Army," the source said.
It's not clear why, exactly, India decided to accelerate the establishment of this hospital, but the news comes as India's army chief is visiting Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (and not Tajikistan) amid what seems to be a push to increase their presence in Central Asia.
But more intriguingly, almost as an afterthought, the report adds this:
An explosion on a railroad on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border was a "terrorist act," according to local media, via RIA Novosti (in Russian). The explosion apparently happened on the line between Termez, at the southern tip of Uzbekistan, and Kurgan-Tyube in Tajikistan, between the Galaba and Amuzang stations. I can't find either of those stations on any map, but the stretch of that route that's inside Uzbekistan is pretty short, and hugs the Amu Darya river, the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The explosion took place the night of November 17, there were no injuries and local authorities are investigating.
There is very little information about this so far, but there hasn't been a terror attack in Uzbekistan for several years. And the fact that it's so near to Termez, the hub of the U.S.'s Northern Distribution Network that carries military cargo through Central Asia to Afghanistan, has to have people worrying in Tashkent and the Pentagon. This line isn't the main line of NDN train traffic, which goes a more northerly route from Termez to Karshi, which would be an argument that it may not be NDN-related. Nonetheless, the location of the (alleged) attack is suggestive. Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov's number one fear is the rise of Islamist extremism in his country, and so if this does turn out to be NDN-related -- meaning that cooperation with the U.S. has brought terrorism back to Uzbekistan -- expect discussions between the U.S. and Uzbekistan over the NDN to get a lot more difficult.
Still, it's too early to jump to many conclusions. We'll see what more information emerges.