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.
The rail line at Hairatan, Afghanistan, on the border with Uzbekistan, through which U.S. and NATO military cargo to and from Afghanistan flows. (photo: Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mayes, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division Public Affairs)
Policymakers from the U.S., Europe, and Central Asia gathered last week in Riga to discuss the "commercialization" of the Northern Distribution Network, the military transport routes that ship military goods from the West into Afghanistan via the ex-Soviet states. The idea that the NDN can be converted into a "New Silk Road" of commercial Eurasian trade has been around for some time. And it's been debunked for about as long. But it's still kicking, and in fact now has become part of the State Department's talking points.
What became clear at the conference, though, is that while the NDN may have been a military logistics success, and while there is in fact a great deal of momentum towards transcontinental Europe-Asia land transportation, those two things have little to do with one another. There was occasional political rhetoric connecting the two: Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said that he was "confident that the Northern Distribution Network has the good potential of becoming a commercially viable, long-term transit corridor also after 2014." And Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynne Tracy spoke of "the transition of these transport corridors from the success of carrying cargo supporting operations in Afghanistan to realizing their full potential as commercially competitive and efficient routes." But for the most part, the two conversations -- about the NDN and about commercial transcontinental transit -- were entirely separate.
Turkey is promoting its eastern cities of Trabzon and Erzurum as potential transit hubs for U.S. and NATO military cargo being shipped out of Afghanistan. With its proposal, coordinated with Georgia and Azerbaijan, Turkey joins a crowdedfield of competitors for the potentially lucrative reverse transit business -- at least $6 billion -- as coalition forces start pulling out of Afghanistan.
At a conference on Afghanistan military transit and broader Eurasian transportation prospects in Riga this week, the head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Department of Relations with Caucasus and Central Asian countries, Yavuz Kül, said that Turkey was opening its territory to both lethal and non-lethal equipment. Trabzon, he said, is about 1,750 miles from Kabul and has good air- and seaport facilities. Erzurum, meanwhile, is only 1,400 miles from Kabul and "at the center of the Turkish rail network," Kül said. With the completion of the Baku-Kars railway project, cargo flown or shipped into Baku will be able to travel by rail to Turkey. "We hope that this will be a hub in the future for reverse transit," he said.
The Baku-Kars project has been consistently delayed: this news story from 2007 said it was supposed to be completed by 2008. But Kül spun it differently: "We are planning to finish by the end of this year. Of course, the initial project was for 2015. However, taking into consideration the reverse transit process, we wanted to accelerate the process," he said, adding that they will "coordinate with our Georgian and Azerbaijani friends."
From the June 11, 2013 ceremony in Riga of U.S. and Baltic country officials celebrating the 100,000th container to pass through the Baltics en route to military forces in Afghanistan. (photos: The Bug Pit)
The U.S. embassy in Riga held a ceremony on Tuesday celebrating the 100,000th container to be shipped through the Baltic states en route to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network. The ceremony featured an NDN-themed cake, speeches by top officials from all three Baltic states and a formal "christening" of the 100,000th container by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Lynne Tracy. It spoke to the fact that unlike many of the Central Asian countries, which tend to try to keep their cooperation with the U.S. military quiet, the NATO members on the other end of the NDN -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- are proud of their role in the NDN.
The day after the ceremony, the Latvian foreign ministry held a conference devoted to the NDN and broader Eurasian economic and transportation integration. The Bug Pit was lucky to have been in Riga at the time, and the event was a terrific opportunity to learn more about how this less famous end of the NDN works. And one of the major messages of the conference was how the Baltic countries are hoping to use their role in the NDN to deepen ties with their former compatriots in Russia and Central Asian countries.
Once-flourishing Uzbek-German trade is nosediving. German businessmen are coming forward with horror stories about doing business in Uzbekistan, a country where powerful, voracious families often seize profitable businesses or simply fail to pay for services rendered. But Berlin – eyeing a retreat from Afghanistan through Uzbekistan – is in no position to protest.
"The German private sector, statistics show, is losing faith in Uzbekistan," Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) reported on February 28. “German companies have filed complaints of stolen shares, missing payments and frozen profits.”
Bilateral trade fell 30 percent between 2010 and 2011, from 759 million euros to 518 million euros, the broadcaster said. Germany's Economics Ministry predicts a further 20 percent decrease in 2012.
More than twenty German construction companies, for example, built the Palace of Forums in the capital, Tashkent, in 2009. They are still owed some 60 million euros. "In total, experts estimate that up to 500 million euros are being withheld from German companies by Uzbek partners," DW concluded.
The Swiss-registered Zeromax conglomerate, widely believed to have been linked to the president's daughter Gulnara Karimova, was behind the Palace of Forums and other major construction projects. The company went bust in 2010, leaving behind huge debts. It’s unclear if Karimova suffered, or divested just in time.