As the United States has grown more dependent on the countries of Central Asia for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan, policymakers in Washington have talked up the military’s Northern Distribution Network as the beginning of a “New Silk Road.” The idea is to help the region’s stagnant economies by promoting regional trade and, hopefully in the process, bring stability to Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton trumpeted the idea at a town hall meeting in Dushanbe in October 2011, saying she hoped the New Silk Road would increase “economic opportunity here in Tajikistan so that so many of your people do not have to leave home to find work, that there can be a flourishing economy right here.”
But a new study says these hopes are overly optimistic. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a logistics supply chain that has, since 2009, become the primary overland supply route for the war in Afghanistan, has not helped ease trade or cut corruption throughout the region. Instead, the study, released by the Open Society Foundations on October 19, finds it may be having the opposite effect in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet operates under OSF’s auspices.]
The report, by Graham Lee (a former EurasiaNet contributor), asks four key questions: Is the NDN incentivizing regional cooperation and border reforms? Is the NDN helping to fight corruption in Central Asia? Has the NDN made transshipment through Central Asia more efficient? Are ordinary Central Asian citizens benefitting from NDN trade?
Russia's transit hub at Ulyanovsk is ready to go and is only awaiting NATO, said President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. The facility, which would help NATO move equipment in and out of Afghanistan, has been under discussion since the beginning of this year, and was finally approved by the Kremlin in June. Now it's ready for use, Kabulov said, according to Interfax:
"The Ulyanovsk transit-transshipment point is in principle already ready to handle cargo and transfers," Kabulov said... "We gave the NATO people permission, and now it depends on whether they want to use it."
Kabulov added that the transit through Russia would be more expensive for NATO than through Pakistan, but it would be more reliable: "Everything gets there [via Russia], but there [through Pakistan] it doesn't, as experience shows."
It remains unclear what role Ulyanovsk would play in U.S./NATO plans for Afghanistan transit. Its main virtue is that it is multimodal, meaning that goods can easily be transferred from airplane to truck or train (or vice versa). But the U.S. and NATO already have a backup to Pakistan -- the Northern Distribution Network, set up to ship everything by land via Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. So is Ulyanovsk a backup plan in case things go south on the Central Asian portion of the NDN?
The question of what motivates Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, is key to U.S. policy in Central Asia, which relies heavily on Uzbekistan as a staging ground for military equipment being shipped to Afghanistan. What does Karimov want in return for his cooperation for this Northern Distribution Network? The most plausible explanation is that he is looking for some sort of geopolitical support against Russia, and the military equipment that the U.S. is in the process of giving Uzbekistan is meant as an explicit symbol of that support.
This is in marked contrast to Uzbekistan's neighbors Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, who by all accounts are just out for money, and see military cooperation with foreign countries as a cash cow. Karimov, for all his faults, is generally believed to be relatively uncorrupt (his daughters, of course, are a different story...)
But might Karimov be more motivated by money than we usually think? A reader passes on a very interesting report, which I missed when it was first released (yes, in 2006). The report discusses the fate of the Karshi-Khanabad air base that the U.S. operated in the early years of the war in Afghanistan. And the experience of K2 is probably our best look into what Karimov wants, and doesn't want, out of his military ties with the U.S.
When the U.S. ships military goods through Central Asia to Afghanistan, who gets paid? That's a pretty simple question, but several years after the establishment of the Northern Distribution Network, we still don't know. The Pentagon uses private companies to ship its equipment through Central Asia, but which private companies? How much do they get paid? People in Uzbekistan were asking these questions two years ago, and we still don't have answers.
Investigations into murky contracting practices around the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan exposed that relatives of two successive presidents were getting rich from base-related business. That resulted in a greater degree of transparency around Manas contracts. But as Jeff Goldstein, a policy analyst at the Open Society Institute, writes, the White House and Pentagon have actively sought to block measures that would illuminate who is getting paid on the NDN:
The U.S.'s top diplomat responsible for Central Asia just finished a trip to Uzbekistan, amid increasing speculation that the two countries are seeking to upgrade their relationship, in particular their military cooperation.
Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, visited Tashkent from August 15-18. His visit came after an eventful summer: in June, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many observers interpreted the move as motivated by Uzbekistan's intention to allow the U.S. to set up some sort of military base in the country. The CSTO requires members to get permission from other members before allowing foreign military bases; i.e., Russia gets a veto. Leaving the CSTO could free Uzbekistan up to allow a U.S. base. But then, earlier this month, Uzbekistan's parliament passed a new law forbidding foreign military bases.
That didn't stop many from continuing to speculate that the purpose of Blake's visit to Uzbekistan was to set up a military base. Most notably, the Kazakhstan newspaper Liter, an organ of the ruling Nur Otan party, reported that "We can dare to suggest that Robert Blake's visit will result in signing an agreement on deploying US troops on Uzbek soil." Blake, of course, denied that was on the agenda. And at a press conference in Almaty just before his trip to Tashkent, he said that while the U.S. will be leaving Uzbekistan some lefover military equipment after it leaves Afghanistan, that equipment likely won't include lethal weapons:
Uzbekistan has adopted a law banning foreign military bases on its territory, ending feverish speculation that a rapprochement with the United States – and recent distancing from Moscow – was the precursor to Tashkent welcoming the US military back in.
Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy doctrine, passed by the lower house of parliament on August 2, specifically prohibits foreign military bases from operating on its territory, the government-run Uzdaily.com website reported.
Speculation that President Islam Karimov was preparing to welcome the US military had been fed by Washington’s courting of Uzbekistan ahead of the drawdown of troops from neighboring Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is a key cog on the Northern Distribution Network supply route into and out of Afghanistan, and the US operated a military base in the country until 2005, when Tashkent ejected it following Washington's criticism of the shooting of protestors in Andijan.
In June, Tashkent’s abrupt suspension of its membership in the Russia-led regional Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) also fed the rumor mill.
Security in Afghanistan topped the agenda as Vladimir Putin, inaugurated as Russian president a month ago, visited Tashkent on June 4, holding late-night talks with his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov.
According to a Kremlin transcript, Karimov used the visit to expound on Uzbekistan’s “serious concern” about the dangers of security threats from Afghanistan spilling over its borders after the drawdown of NATO troops, scheduled for completion by 2014. He warned against “complacency” that everything will go to plan.
Karimov, whose country shares a southern border with Afghanistan, said Russia “has never been indifferent to the problems of Central Asia,” and he was counting on “Russia’s interest in resolving the serious, quite acute problems that will arise in the Central Asian region” with the NATO withdrawal.
Putin characterized cooperation with Uzbekistan as “extremely important” in light of the drawdown, which he described as linked to “security inside the Russian Federation itself.”
Putin and Karimov met the same day NATO announced it had secured agreements with Uzbekistan and two Central Asian neighbors -- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – to use a key transport route to return equipment from Afghanistan to Europe. NATO already had a deal with Russia to use the Northern Distribution Network for reverse transit out of Afghanistan.
NATO reached an agreement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan through Central Asia, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reported today:
We also reached agreement on reverse transit from Afghanistan with three Central Asian partners: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These agreements will give us a range of new options and the robust and flexible transport network we need....
With Russia we have a transit arrangement, a reverse transit arrangement already, and the fact that we have now concluded a transit arrangement, three concrete transit arrangements with Central Asian countries at the Chicago Summit, will make the use of the Russian transit arrangement even more effective.
In response to a question on payment for the reverse transit, he implied that there was some, but wouldn't specify: "I do not comment on details in the transit arrangements, but it goes without saying that we have concluded agreements that are of mutual satisfaction of the involved partners."
Meanwhile, he said negotiations with Pakistan on reopening those lines of communication continue: "I'm not going to comment on details in negotiations with Pakistan. I'll just reiterate that I still hope that a solution can be found in the very near future."
These NATO deals are not related to separate deals the U.S. has reached. Obviously the U.S. is a member of NATO, and it's not clear if this new NATO deal now covers all NATO member countries besides the U.S., or what.
The most interesting subplot here is what this means for Pakistan. The AP story on Rasmussen's comments had an intriguing bit of analysis:
Pakistan has agreed to reopen its border to U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan, charging more than it did before -- and presumably taking money out of the pockets of Afghanistan's neighbors to the north, who were filling in while Pakistan implemented its blockade.
The new agreement with Pakistan will cost the coalition in Afghanistan an additional roughly $365 million a year, McClatchy reports, citing unnamed officials. Just days before, a U.S. senator, Claire McCaskill, reported that Pakistan's refusal to allow NATO transport to Afghanistan -- which it did in retaliation for a strike killing several Pakistani soldiers -- was costing $38 million a month. It's not clear whether those two numbers are commensurate -- as the blog Danger Room reported, the U.S. has been keeping cost figures of Afghan transit close to its vest, because it doesn't want to give Pakistan information that would allow it to drive a harder bargain. But assuming the numbers are commensurate, the new deal with Pakistan would save the U.S. a bit of money -- $8 million a month -- from what it had been paying on the NDN. $38 million times 12 also comes pretty close to the figure of $500 million per year that Deirdre Tynan reported the U.S. was paying to the NDN countries. But the Pentagon hasn't provided many details of that, either, so it's also not clear whether this is the same figure McCaskill cited.
Rumors are circulating that London has rejected the daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman Islam Karimov as his ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Gulnara Karimova, the self-styled glamorous society queen, has already served as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain and representative to the United Nations in Geneva. If true, the rebuff could spell trouble for Britain’s Afghanistan exit plans.
Though the idea Gulnara would seek such a sinecure is not far-fetched, for now the main source seems to be Craig Murray, a scandalous former British ambassador to Tashkent known for his debauched parties and long-standing hatred for the Karimov regime.
In an interview published April 19 with the BBC’s Uzbek service, Murray, citing “friends” in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), insists London has not agreed to Tashkent’s request.
BBC: We have asked the Foreign Office about the possible appointment of Gulnara Karimova as ambassador to the UK, but the Foreign Office said there had been no such agreement or request. You are not a member of the British government, but where are you getting this kind of information? Why should we trust you?
Murray: I worked as a member of the British government for over 20 years […] I still have many friends among former colleagues that I worked with during that time. They keep giving me information about what is going on. I’d like to stress one thing: The British government has not agreed to host Gulnara Karimova as ambassador and no deal has been achieved to this effect. But the information that there has been no such a request or demand is false. This request was sent to Britain from Tashkent.