Map of NDN routes, including those through Russia. (photo: U.S. Transportation Command)
Russia does not intend to block U.S. and NATO military transit routes to Afghanistan, President Vladimir Putin said, in spite of the recent spike in tensions with the West.
The U.S.'s Northern Distribution Network has been the quiet success of U.S.-Russia relations over the past several years; as of last year 100,000 containers of U.S. and NATO had been shipped to and from Afghanistan through Russia (and Central Asia and the Baltic states). The U.S. set up the route so as to not be dependent on its volatile relations with Pakistan, a decision that was vindicated in 2011 when Pakistan -- shut down its territory to U.S. and NATO military cargo. And even while NATO and Russia have suspended nearly all cooperation, the NDN keeps operating.
The head of United States Central Command has visited Uzbekistan as the U.S. works to "rebalance" its policies toward Central Asia, a policy which officials increasingly admit has been excessively focused on security.
General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, visited Uzbekistan and met with President Islam Karimov among other officials. There was no official word on what the visit was about. Voice of America Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova, who has good sources on these issues, says that her sources say the visit was "purely maintenance" and included "no basing talk."
That didn't convince everyone, and the Uzbekistan news website uzmetronom reported that Austin was in Uzbekistan to negotiate a new U.S. military base there, and that the U.S. was offering Tashkent a billion dollars a year for the privilege, and that Germany was opposing it behind the scenes. That's all pretty unlikely, but it's interesting coming from uzmetronom; the site is well connected to the country's security services and in Uzbekistan there are obviously strict limits on what can be published. Whatever the reason, the report was of course eagerly picked up by the Russian media.
In March, Austin testified to Congress about the U.S. military's posture in the CENTCOM area, and said this about Uzbekistan:
U.S. General Paul Selva gets a tour of Tbilisi's historic sites during a visit to discuss broadening Georgia's role in U.S. military logistics. (photo: USTRANSCOM)
The United States's top military logistics official has visited Georgia to discuss the country becoming a bigger part of U.S. military transportation network.
General Paul Selva, the head of U.S. Transportation Command, took a three-day trip to Georgia last week and met with President Giorgi Margvelashvili, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and military and defense ministry officials. Garibashvili discussed with Selva the "modernization plan of Georgian railway, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars and Anaklia port projects. As the head of the United States Transportation Command, General Paul Selva said during the meeting, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway gives the new opportunities for shipment by railway," according to a release from Garibashvili's office.
In May, Georgian officials said that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, currently under construction by Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, would be finished by the end of 2015, several years behind schedule and seemingly too late to get much business from the U.S./NATO "retrograde" transit out of Afghanistan. Azerbaijani and Turkish officials have blamed Georgia for the delay. In late May, Turkey's Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communications, Lutfi Elvan said that "although the work on the railway's Turkish section has been completed by over 80 percent, work in the Georgian territory is delayed," Trend.az reported. "In particular, delays are observed in the construction of 2,700-2,800 meters long tunnels in Georgia," Elvan said. "He went on to add that Azerbaijan and Turkey have called on Georgia to complete the work in its territory."
A 2012 Georgian postage stamp celebrating the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The new deadline for a new railway line that would connect the Caspian Sea to Turkey appears to be delayed yet again, making it highly unlikely that Georgia and Azerbaijan will profit much from U.S. military transportation business.
The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey met in Tbilisi on Wednesday, and the focus was "joint energy and transportation projects, among them Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway." This is the railroad that last year the three countries had been promoting as the centerpiece of their proposal to gain a significant share of the "retrograde" transit of U.S. military equipment out of Afghanistan and back to Europe and the U.S. The idea would be to ship equipment through Central Asia, over the Caspian Sea, and through the South Caucasus. The railroad was "the vital missing link which will be operational soon," said Batu Kutelia, deputy secretary in the office of national security, said at the time. A senior Turkish official said the railroad would be operational by the end of 2013 and that "taking into consideration the reverse transit process, we wanted to accelerate the process."
This would be a geopolitical winner from the Pentagon's perspective, as it would decrease the U.S.'s reliance on the mercurial Pakistan and the new enemy, Russia. As an analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation wrote this week:
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, visits Hairatan in 2010. (photo: ISAF)
Since the rail line between the Uzbekistan border town of Hairatan and Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, opened in 2011, news about its operations have been hard to come by. But it is apparently running in relative safety (contrary to some previous suggestions) and under Uzbekistan's control. That's according to a dispatch from Hairatan by American newspaper Fayetteville Observer, the local paper of some of the U.S. Army reservists who are managing the rail line (and flagged by the excellent Railways of Afghanistan blog).
The railroad, recall, was built by Uzbekistan Railways with money from the Asian Development Bank after American military logisticians identified the Uzbekistan border as the most troublesome bottleneck in getting supplies into Afghanistan.
Since then, Uzbekistan and the Northern Distribution Network generally have declined in significance to the U.S. military, which now relies much more heavily on Pakistan. But, as one U.S. soldier told the Observer: "This gives us an alternative in case Pakistan closes... It gives us negotiating leverage in Pakistan. If you guys don't play ball with us, there is another way out." Still, about 4,600 rail cars ply the Hairaton-Mazar route every month, and about 90 percent of the fuel used by coalition forces in Afghanistan travels on the rail line.
Three years after opening, Uzbekistan still operates the railroad, the piece reports:
[T]he railroad between Uzbekistan and Mazar-e-Sharif is operated by Uzbekistan as part of an agreement between that country and Afghanistan. It was built by the Asian Development Bank using donations from across the world, and the Uzbek government - not Afghanistan - collects money from the imports.
In both the U.S. and Russia there has been a fair amount of talk about the possibility that as U.S.-Russia relations deteriorate, Russia could block the U.S.'s transportation of supplies to its forces in Afghanistan. But experts in Russia tell The Bug Pit that there is little incentive for the Kremlin to take such a step.
U.S. military planners say they have already been making contingency plans in case Russia shuts off the Afghanistan transit routes, known collectively as the Northern Distribution Network. In an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow was asked about the possibility of Russia shutting down the NDN. "We hope that Russia, which has an interest in the long-term stability of Afghanistan, will continue cooperation on transit." And jingoistic Russians are licking their chops. "They understand this in the Kremlin: the agreement over the 'Northern Distribution Network' at NATO's disposal is one of the strongest trumps that Russia has in its conflict with the West," the website Military Review recently wrote.
An American MRAP is loaded on to a Russian An-124 aircraft at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 2012. (photo: U.S. Air Force 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)
Russia's potential blockage of the U.S. military's transportation corridors to Afghanistan has received a fair amount of attention as the U.S.-Russian relationship has collapsed over the crisis in Ukraine. Behind the scenes, however there is also discussion of suspending the substantial commercial cooperation that the U.S. military has with Russia over transport to and from Afghanistan.
At issue are the massive Antonov An-124 aircraft, the largest cargo plane in regular use. There are only three companies in the world that operate the 20 An-124s in commercial use, and only two of them -- the Russian company Volga-Dnepr and the Ukrainian company Antonov -- conduct military business, according to a 2012 article by Defense Media Network: "In the last dozen or so years, Russian and Ukrainian commercial carriers have flown thousands of missions in support of American and allied military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all over the globe." The aircraft are useful in particular for carrying the Mine-Resistant, Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles in heavy use by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Volga-Dnepr has ten An-124s and Antonov seven, and Volga-Dnepr's director of North American operations, Colon Miller, said business is booming: “We’ll go from an oil mission out of Houston, Texas to something out of Africa, or a mission to Central Asia, then to Europe and back to the United States, a military mission leaving Charleston Air Force base, head over to CENTCOM area, offload its cargo in Afghanistan, pick up additional cargo while it’s there and fly it back to Kuwait and then reposition to South America for an oil job back to the United States, then Indonesia, Australia, Russia. They’re hot moving, pretty much all the time.”
A cake commemorating the Northern Distribution Network at a 2013 ceremony in Riga, Latvia. Might the Russian flag be removed from future cakes? (photo: The Bug Pit)
The U.S. is already making plans to redirect cargo to Afghanistan if Russia no longer allows the Pentagon to use its territory, a top U.S. military official has said. And it appears that Georgia and Azerbaijan may be poised to benefit if that happens.
U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva is currently the head of Air Mobility Command and the nominee to be the new chief of U.S. Transportation Command, which operates the Northern Distribution Network of supply lines through Russia and other former Soviet states. General Selva had his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and among the issues he was asked about was contingency plans for the NDN.
"In light of what's happening in the Ukraine, we are -- the president, many of us -- are pushing us for further economic sanctions, other types of sanctions against Russia for their invasion of Crimea," said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from New Hampshire. "And if the Russians were to take retaliatory action as a result of that to shut down the Northern Distribution Network... what impact would that have to us and how would we address it?"
"That is a priority," Selva said. "If the Russians were to take action to constrain our access to the Russian segments of the Northern Distribution Network, we have other options to move that cargo in and out of Afghanistan," he said. "I'm told about 20 percent of the subsistence cargoes [e.g. food] move through that network, so we'd have to use another option to get it in. We do have several options in the Northern Distribution Network that do not include transiting Russia."
With the crisis in Ukraine showing no sign of abating, the U.S.'s ties with Russia are at their lowest level since the Cold War. But some in the U.S. military are apparently advocating restraint in dealing with Russia for the sake of Afghanistan military logistics. That's according to a piece in the Christian Science Monitor, which quotes U.S. military officials discussing the potential impact of political problems with Russia on the transit to Afghanistan.
The U.S.'s military transit route through Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, has been a key backup to the shorter, cheaper land routes via Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, the NDN has become a much less busy route over the last year or so. There have been various figures given for the percentage of cargo now transiting Russia from Afghanistan (including as little as less than one percent). But even at a small volume, the NDN plays an important role:
As the US military prepares to draw down in Afghanistan, the NDN – through which some five percent of US military materials are currently being moved out of the country – likely will continue to grow in importance, particularly if President Obama pursues a “zero option” and pulls all US troops from the war by the end of the year.
“That’s why we want to keep the NDN open,” [a] senior defense official says. “We can surge more material up and out through the network if we need to do that.”
However, Russia maintains a financial interest in keeping the NDN going, even despite political problems:
In a time of economic uncertainty, the NDN offers Russia a considerable source of income, in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year.
The U.S. Congress has again given the State Department the go-ahead to give military aid to Uzbekistan in spite of concerns about the country's poor record on human rights, a State Department official has told The Bug Pit.
Congress imposed restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan in 2004 after the country's government failed to implement promised political reforms. Those restrictions remain in place today. But two years ago Congress, at the urging of the Obama administration, agreed to allow the Secretary of State to waive those restrictions if it were necessary for national security reasons. That waiver needed to be renewed every six months, and the ability to waive expired in October 2013. But Congress renewed the provision and last month the waiver was exercised again, a State Department spokesperson said.
"This waiver will allow the United States to provide assistance to the central government of Uzbekistan, including equipment to enhance Uzbekistan's ability to combat transnational and terrorist threats," the spokesperson said in an email to The Bug Pit. "Examples of this equipment include night vision goggles, personal protective equipment, and Global Positioning Systems. Enhancing Uzbekistan's defensive capacity improves the security of the U.S. supply transit system to Afghanistan and our ability to support our troops there." The new authority to waive will expire September 30, 2015.
The equipment in question includes not just the examples the spokesperson noted, but also tactical surveillance drones. Uzbekistan is also lobbying for some of the used mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles the U.S. is looking to offload as it pulls its troops out of Afghanistan.