Thus far, nearly all of the ground traffic on the Northern Distribution Network has gone by railroad. But the U.S. is trying to increase its use of trucks to ship military cargo from Europe to Afghanistan, according to a Defense Logistics Agency press release:
U.S. European Command has successfully tested a truck route from Germany to Afghanistan.
The trial run, also called a proof of principle, consists of two trucks carrying two 20-foot containers each from Germany to Bagram, Afghanistan. The first phase of the test, completed in September, used an international carrier that used drivers and equipment from several of the transited countries to move the cargo.
The release doesn't specify which route the trucks took, but says the trip took 49 days and that the DLA identified "some areas for improvement that could reduce the delivery time by another 19 days." (Let's hope that doesn't include bribery, which some western logistics companies have proposed as a timesaver on the NDN.)
The second phase of the test is planned for next month, and will "entail moving cargo from several different countries in a single convoy." Just as long as they watch out for those Uzbek smokeys.
Iran's defense minister Ahmad Vahidi has completed a visit to Azerbaijan, and apparently mooted the idea of joint naval exercises between the two countries (and possibly other coastal states Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia). Azeri Press Agency reports:
Iran may hold military exercises together with Azerbaijan and other littoral states, Defense Minister of Iran, General Ahmad Vahidi said at the press conference on the outcomes of his visit to Azerbaijan, APA reports.
Iranian Minister said such exercises aim at maintaining peace and stability in the region.
There was no immediate response from any of the other countries about whether they would be amenable to that.
Vahidi did acknowledge that Iran has been building up its military capacity in the Caspian...:
To APA’s question whether Iran’s strengthening its military forces in the Caspian Sea with the new ships will influence the balance of forces in the region, Minister said it will not violate the stability in the Caspian region.
“Iran considers the Caspian Sea the sea of peace, security and friendship. We have got good relations with the littoral states and these steps have been agreed with all,” he said.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the Caspian Sea as the sea of peace and friendship and believes that the sea should remain unmilitary."
At the same time, the deputy foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states met in Baku and worked on a draft security strategy for the sea, in advance of a November summit (also to be held in Baku).
With the votes counted in Kyrgyzstan and furious behind-the-scenes coalition building underway, the question no doubt on the minds of many in Washington, Moscow and elsewhere is, "What does it mean for Manas?" The question of the airbase -- whether or not to raise the U.S.'s rent for it, or evict the Americans altogether -- featured in the campaign, so we have some idea of the parties' positions on the base.
Five parties crossed the threshold and will be represented in the government. Two, broadly speaking, are thought to be pro-Russia and therefore anti-Manas, Ar-Namys and Republika. Two represent the current leadership and are more pro-Western and so more accommodating to the base, the Social Democrats and Ata-Meken. And the fifth, top vote-getter Ata-Zhurt, is Kyrgyz nationalist, and so will likely be sensitive to questions of Kyrgyzstan's sovereignty vis-a-vis the base. I asked a couple of experts on the topic for their takes, and they broadly agreed that the need to build a coalition will force a compromise between the hardline anti-base elements and the more accommodating parties. And that means that the presence of the base is likely to remain secure, but there may be fierce negotiations over the terms.
Alexander Cooley, a professor at Columbia and military basing expert:
U.S. military officials like to say that the Northern Distribution Network is necessary to get "essential" equipment to troops in Afghanistan. But, as anyone who has experienced the all-you-can-eat bounty of a modern U.S. military base can attest, there is a lot shipped to the war zone that is far from essential. In The Guardian, Pratap Chatterjee points out some examples:
An Easter menu I picked up a military base in 2008 offers soldiers Cornish hen, grilled trout and chocolate-covered bunnies. Mark Larson, a military blogger who recently returned from Afghanistan, wrote that "Camp Phoenix is known for its large PX and barbecue tent that serves everything from steak to ribs daily on a very nice outdoor patio. And after dinner, soldiers can wash down their meal with a smoothie at Green Beans Coffee."
1942:A German Panzer Division needed from 30-70 tons of supplies per day.
1968: A North Vietnamese Army Division needed less than 10 tons of supplies per day.
2010: An American Army Division needs in excess of 3,000 tons of supplies per day.
I don't know what the equivalent figure would be for a Taliban unit, but it seems a fair bet that it's several orders of magnitude smaller. Given the outsized importance that the NDN has assumed in U.S. policy toward Central Asia, those statistics are worth keeping in mind.
When one Kyrgyzstan politician promised, should his party get elected this weekend, to raise the rent the U.S. pays for the Manas air base, the AP headlined the story "Kyrgyz candidate warns of rent hike for US base." Pretty straightforward.
But it's the right of individual newspapers to pick whatever headline they want and one newspaper, the Washington Times, got a little more creative, and headlined the piece "New Kyrgyz regime likely to raise U.S.'s rent."
The word "regime" is a pretty loaded one; as English language pundit William Safire put it, “a regime is a government you don’t like.” The U.S. State Department uses that word for only a handful of countries, like North Korea and Burma -- and Iraq, before that notorious "regime change." Kyrgyzstan's past record of human rights abuses and corruption rarely earned it "regime" status. Would Kyrgyzstan demanding an extra $40 million in annual rent, as the politician proposed, put Kyrgyzstan in that category?
Of course, we shouldn't read too much into a headline written by a likely overworked copy editor at one newspaper. (Especially since the same newspaper -- for which I used to write regularly -- once headlined a story I wrote about Montenegro "Voters move Macedonia a step closer to independence." Macedonia had been independent for ten years.)
China's performance in the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization exercises in Kazakhstan suggests that Beijing is preparing its military to be able to intervene unilaterally in Central Asia, says Roger McDermott. He also notes that China seemed to be showing off equipment and capabilities that were domestically produced and which Russia, in particular, lacked:
Intervention during a crisis in Central Asia appears more plausible, though it remains unclear whether the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the SCO might offer a viable multilateral framework in such circumstances, or if a bilateral agreement would be preferred resulting in a unilateral operation...
As the PLAAF develops its air combat group, integrating combat, early warning command, long-range strikes, escort and cover, and in-flight refueling, Peace Mission 2010 was confidently used to demonstrate advances made towards carrying out independent long-range precision strikes. The PLAAF was evidently practicing offensive air operations in an informatized network-centric context. The underlying message appeared to be that the PLA stands out among the SCO forces for its growing power projection capabilities.
Since the other members of the SCO currently lack network-centric capabilities, it is revealing that China chose to demonstrate these power projection levels during a multilateral exercise. The reasons underlying this show of genuine military strength are rooted in the dynamic tension that exists within the competitive and cooperative Sino-Russian strategic partnership. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis and China’s emergence as the second strongest world economic power, many perceive that Beijing is willing to raise its defense profile internationally...
The problems with U.S. military supply lines in Pakistan have raised the possibility that the U.S. and NATO will be forced to increase their use of the Northern Distribution Network, as EurasiaNet's Deirdre Tynan reports today. A spokeswoman for U.S. Transportation Command says the problems in Pakistan won't force a significant increase in NDN traffic. But some disagree; one company put out a press release touting the new opportunities provided by the Pakistan closure:
WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 /PRNewswire/ -- FMN Logistics today responds to Pakistan's closing of its border and transport routes by bringing attention to the availability of the Northern Distribution Network as a safe and reliable route for transporting cargo into Afghanistan.
"With the recent developments in Pakistan it is vital that a safe alternative for supplying FOB's and organizations operating within Afghanistan exist. The NDN offers a series of commercially-based logistical arrangements connecting Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus," said Harry Eustace, Jr. CEO of FMN Logistics.
"FMN has been on the ground since the beginning of the NDN and we have just completed our 1,000th container shipment using this route. In fact, FMN has delivered more consignments to NATO and US Forces than any other freight forwarder operating on the NDN. As concerns continue to grow about the Pakistani supply routes, the NDN and FMN's capabilities there are crucial to the continuing support of United States and NATO Forces and their prime service contractors," Eustace continued.
FMN is the only full-service, American-owned and managed logistics provider with boots on the ground in all of the former Soviet Stans as well as Afghanistan.
Some top Georgian officials are in Washington today to meet under the auspices of the formal strategic partnership they agreed last year. And if the opening remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Georgian Prime Minister Nikoloz Gilauri are anything to go by, the U.S. could be softening on the question of the U.S. arming Georgia.
The United States remains committed to Georgia’s aspirations for membership in NATO, as reflected in the Alliance’s decisions in Bucharest and Strasbourg-Kehl. We strongly support Georgia’s efforts related to its Annual National Program, which promotes defense reform and guides cooperation with NATO. And we continue to support Georgia’s efforts on defense reform and improving defense capabilities, including NATO interoperability and Georgia’s contributions to ISAF operations in Afghanistan.
(Emphasis added) Of course, that's a pretty subtle statement, but it does seem to stand out recently from other administration officials saying Georgia is "not ready" for new weapons.
And, according to the strategic partnership agreement, the Georgians do have a point. In the text of the charter, equipping the Georgian military is explicitly mentioned:
1. Working within the framework of the NATO-Georgia Commission, the United States and Georgia intend to pursue a structured plan to increase interoperability and coordination of capabilities between NATO and Georgia, including via enhanced training and equipment for Georgian forces.
So look out for possible policy changes after these meetings...
With the deaths of five Georgian soldiers in Afghanistan, there are rumblings of discontent among Georgians: Georgia's press feels like they aren't getting enough information about their country's military deployment, reports media.ge:
The Georgian International Association of Military Journalists having expressed deep condolences over the killing of Georgian military servicemen in Afghanistan calls upon the government to provide full information on the activity of the Georgian military subdivision in Afghanistan, the causes of death of the militaries and the number of the injured, reads the special statement released by the Association notifying that the authorities withhold detailed information on the aforementioned facts which is conducive to generating various rumors.
"...Thus far, the authorities, in particular the Ministry of Defense, has not disseminated the information on the circumstances of the death of Georgian militaries in Afghanistan. This silence incites various rumors and political speculation that the Georgian government hides the real facts of the case and withholds information on the actual number of the wounded. Distorted news first of all humiliates self-sacrificing deeds by the Georgian militaries and disgraces the importance of the whole Georgian mission and tasks," reads the statement.
Meanwhile, in Tajikistan, the government is accusing the press of taking the side of the Islamist militants who have been causing trouble recently:
Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloev has accused independent newspapers of sympathizing with the Islamic militants who ambushed an army convoy in late August, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.
The Islamist militants who have been wreaking havoc in Tajikistan have been driven there by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan tells Newsweek:
Taliban sources in Afghanistan say jihadist allies from Central Asia have started heading home. Though the exodus is being encouraged by relentless American drone attacks against the fighters’ back bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas, it’s not necessarily good news for U.S. forces. The dislodged jihadists aren’t quitting the battlefield; on the contrary, they’re expanding their range across the unguarded northern Afghan border into Tajikistan to create new Taliban sanctuaries there, assist Islamist rebels in the region, and potentially imperil the Americans’ northern supply lines.
The Central Asians retreated to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late 1990s after failing to topple their home governments. Now they seem ready to try again, using guerrilla tactics and know-how they’ve picked up from the Taliban about improvised explosive devices. Small groups of Tajik and Uzbek militants began moving into Tajikistan in late winter 2009, says a Taliban subcommander in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. In Kunduz they joined up with fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a Qaeda-linked group active there and in Tajikistan. “Once these first groups made it back safely [to Tajikistan], they signaled to militants here in Kunduz and even in Pakistan’s tribal areas that the journey was possible,” the subcommander, who didn’t want to be named for security reasons, tells newsweek.
Another commander largely confirmed that account, though estimates on how many fighters have gone from Afghanistan/Pakistan to Tajikistan vary from 70 to 150.