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.
The U.S. is "appreciative" of Russia's help in transiting military goods to and from Afghanistan, but the Russian (and Central Asian) route is still too expensive, a senior U.S. military officer has said.
The head of U.S. Transportation Command, General William Fraser, gave an interview to Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, and a major theme of the interview was why the U.S. was using the Russian route so little. Fraser said that, for the last several months, less than one percent of U.S. cargo exiting Afghanistan is carried by the Northern Distribution Network through the former Soviet states. By comparison, about 30 percent goes through Pakistan and the rest via air.
And in total, since 2009, 74,600 containers have gone into Afghanistan through Russia, while just 355 containers going out of Afghanistan have passed through Russia. (Note: the U.S. embassy in Riga this summer held a ceremony marking the 100,000th NDN container to pass through that port, and there's no way to get to Afghanistan from Riga without passing through Russia, so...)
Fraser doesn't give specific prices, but says the NDN route is "two to three times more expensive" than going through Pakistan. Nevertheless, he is more diplomatic than was his deputy, who in an interview in October emphasized the excess bureaucracy of Afghanistan's northern neighbors. Fraser makes no mention of that, noting only that since U.S. forces are concentrated in the south and еаst of Afghanistan, the Pakistan route is shorter.
U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
While the U.S. has suspended its military transportation across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that does not have any effect on traffic through Central Asia, a Pentagon spokesperson has told The Bug Pit.
In a protest against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, supporters of Pakistani politician Imran Khan have imposed a sort of vigilante blockade of U.S. and NATO cargo across the border to Afghanistan. "Protesters have taken the law into their own hands deciding who can pass and go on to Afghanistan, and who can't," the BBC reported. "They have been harassing truck drivers and turning back vehicles carrying Nato provisions."
As a result, the U.S. has "voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo" through Pakistan, the Pentagon announced. In the past, that has meant a big boost for Central Asia: when Pakistan closed the border in 2011, it took close to two years to fully restore traffic. In the meantime, the U.S. was paying an extra $100 million a month to ship its goods via the longer, more difficult Northern Distribution Network.
But that's not happening this time (at least yet), Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told The Bug Pit. He said that the small amount of traffic via the NDN has not been affected by this latest move:
U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
The United States military is reducing its usage of Central Asian supply routes for Afghanistan as Pakistan's shorter, simpler routes have again fully opened to U.S. traffic. That's according to the deputy commander of U.S. Transportation Command, Lt. Gen. Kathleen Gainey, in an interview with Defense News. In the interview, Lt. Gen. Gainey declines to give any specific numbers, but it's clear that the Central Asian routes -- known as the Northern Distribution Network -- are too bureaucratically arduous to use regularly, and are useful only as a backup to Pakistan.
Recall that two years ago, Pakistan abruptly shut off its roads to U.S. and NATO transport after a NATO attack over the border from Afghanistan killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers. About a six months later Pakistan reopened the border, but it's taken until now for the Pakistan routes to get fully up to speed. And with that, Central Asia has taken a back seat, Lt. Gen. Gainey said:
Q. Speaking of Pakistan, what’s the current status of the supply routes? How are things flowing in comparison to before the shutdown?
A. We are almost back to normal levels for Pakistan. There are some different processes that we’re using, different security, different customs documentation, different review and screening requirement of excess cargo that’s exiting country, etc. So there are some additional tasks that we have to perform. It’s not as simple as it was before.
Q. Are you continuing to expand the Northern Distribution Network?
U.S. airmen handle cargo en route to Afghanistan at Romania's Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, now reportedly the U.S.'s new troop transit center.
The U,S, is working out a deal to move part of its operations at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, AFP has reported, citing U.S. defense officials. The U.S. was forced to look at options for replacing Manas after the Kyrgyzstan government demanded that the Americans finish up their operations there by July 2014. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is hosting his Romanian counterpart Corneliu Dobritoiu at the Pentagon on Friday, where the issue is expected to be on the agenda. From AFP:
Representatives from both governments in recent months have been negotiating the terms for use of the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in eastern Romania, which would serve as the main hub for flying troops out of Afghanistan back to the United States.
Some equipment also would be flown from Afghanistan to the base, officials said.
Five US military personnel are currently stationed at the air base and the number of American troops and contractors would dramatically increase if the agreement goes ahead. In Kyrgyzstan, about 1,500 US troops and contractors work at the air base.
During a visit to Latvia this week, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov got just what he wanted: recognition from a Western leader and promises of more, without any annoying questions about his well-documented human rights abuses.
Following a meeting with Karimov on October 17, Latvian President Andris Berzins promised that in the first half of 2015, when Latvia holds the rotating European Union presidency, improving relations between the EU and Central Asia would be high on the Baltic nation’s agenda, Latvia's Leta news agency reported.
Berzins also promised to back Tashkent’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.
At least publicly, Latvian officials failed to mention Uzbekistan’s troubled human rights record, instead prioritizing economic and security cooperation. Uzbekistan is critical to the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which NATO uses to supply, and now withdraw from, the war in Afghanistan. Latvia lies at the other end of the vast network spanning the former Soviet Union.
The Baltic nation, a member of both the EU and NATO, has been criticized in the past for offering undeserving prestige to Central Asian autocrats craving attention from Western leaders. Last year Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov met Berzins in Riga. Again, human rights were not publicly discussed. Berzins doubled the tribute with a visit to Ashgabat this year.
Ahead of Karimov's visit to Riga, activists urged Berzins to address human rights.
It may be just an accident: the consequence, for example, of aging infrastructure. But a derailed troop train from Tajikistan passing through rival Uzbekistan is likely to draw scrutiny.
The train carrying almost 300 passengers en route from Dushanbe to northern Tajikistan slipped off the tracks early October 10 in Uzbekistan’s Jizzakh Region, injuring several dozen people, most of them conscripts, Asia-Plus reported. Radio Ozodi reported 52 injuries. There are no reports of fatalities.
Asia-Plus said there were about 200 recruits and several officers on board.
No rail lines connect Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, with northern Sughd Province, which is in the Fergana Valley, forcing all train traffic to pass through Uzbekistan. This arrangement worked fine until the late 1980s, when both countries were constituent republics of the Soviet Union. But today the two independent countries barely speak. Uzbekistan is vehemently opposed to Tajikistan’s plans to build a giant hydropower plan upstream, fearing it will give Dushanbe economic leverage and control over the region’s limited water resources. Uzbekistan's president has said it could lead to war. Tashkent often looks like it is trying to blockade isolated Tajikistan – closing borders, halting freight, turning off gas supplies – in apparent attempts to prevent construction at Rogun.
NATO logistics officers dependent on Uzbekistan’s rail network to haul supplies out of Afghanistan are likely to take notice.
DLA employees in Germany load cargo destined for Afghanistan. (photo: DLA Distribution Europe)
The U.S. military has abandoned plans to set up facilities in Almaty, Baku and/or Bishkek to help get rid of excess equipment from its operations in Afghanistan, saying they were unfeasible. The Defense Logistics Agency, the military organization that handles shipments of cargo to and from Afghanistan, announced a series of tenders (for Almaty, Baku, and Bishkek in March 2013 and then cancelled them in April.
The so-called "retrograde" from Afghanistan is big business, estimated to cost the U.S. up to $6 billion. And along the way, the U.S. will be giving away a lot of the equipment it has, both military hardware and all of the other civilian equipment (e.g. office furniture, air conditioners) that the U.S. has brought to Afghanistan. So far the U.S., however, has not given too many details about how all this will work, what goods are on offer and who will get them. And DLA officials who have spoken to The Bug Pit have said that they are only in the early stages of working this all out, although the pullout is scheduled to start next year.
The DLA solicitations all contained similar descriptions of the work to be done, essentially to set up warehouses/logistics hubs for getting rid of equipment from Afghanistan:
Afghanistan authorities are beefing up security in Hairaton, the border town with Uzbekistan, citing recent attempts by militants to lay mines on a road leading to the bridge to Uzbekistan.
Authorities didn't give details of the mine-laying, or of the increased security measures. The chief of police of Balkh province, Abdul Razak Kadiri said “This city has strategic significance for all countries, so we will continue to strengthen security measures,” according to a report in Afghanistan.ru.
In June, Balkh authorities established a new police post in Hairaton and the deployment of additional police units, also announcing it as an effort to increase security in the border town.
Without knowing too many details it's hard to say what this means, but the major activity in Hairaton is transportation of U.S. and NATO cargo to and from Uzbekistan. While military supply convoys have been repeatedly attacked in northern Afghanistan, as far as I'm aware there have been no attacks in Hairaton (or in Central Asia itself). As usual, we should always look with strong skepticism at any news that comes out of this area, especially with so few details, but if this is true it would certainly be raising some alarm in Tashkent.