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.
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.