France is finding it difficult these days to get its troops to and from the fight in Afghanistan. In an interview with L'Orient-Le Jour, the French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet says that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and the rest of the Northern Distribution Network is "too costly." From RFE/RL, which cited the interview:
Longuet said the route was "not optimal" for withdrawing NATO forces but conceded the better option -- via Pakistan -- was currently more complicated due to "spoiled relations" between NATO countries, particularly the U.S., and the Pakistani government.
That chill in ties followed a November 26 NATO air strike that hit Pakistani troops on Pakistan's side of the Afghan border, killing 26 soldiers.
The interview doesn't give any indication of how France intends to deal with that dilemma. France, of course, just announced that it is withdrawing from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned, after four of its troops were killed by a rogue Afghanistan government soldier. That, too, could be pinned on the Americans; the killer allegedly attacked the French because he was angry about a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban members.
Earlier this week, the U.S. designated three men as members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), shadowy groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And U.S. agents arrested a fourth man in the U.S., charging him with supporting the IJU.
These moves have prompted skepticism about whether the IMU and IJU are in fact real threats, and questions about whether the U.S. is trumping up these charges -- or even selling out Uzbekistan's dissidents -- for the sake of Tashkent's cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network. These are worthwhile questions to be asking, even while there's still too little information to come to conclusive answers.
But if this is a sort of "payment" by Washington to Tashkent, it wouldn't be the first time. Political scientist Eric McGlinchey, in his new book Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia, discusses how the IMU got on the State Department's official list of terrorist organizations -- ultimately making this week's arrest and sanctions possible:
A road in far western Kazakhstan, an underappreciated part of the Northern Distribution Network
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report (pdf) last week on relations with Central Asia and the war in Afghanistan. And while there is little new in there for close watchers of the region, it does have some new numbers about the traffic through the Northern Distribution Network that suggest that Uzbekistan is less important than it was a year ago:
Since 2009, the United States has steadily increased traffic on the NDN, a major logistical accomplishment that has resulted in a series of commercial air and ground routes that supply NATO and U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Close to 75 percent of ground sustainment cargo is now shipped via the NDN. According to U.S. Transportation Command, an estimated 40 percent of all cargo transits the NDN, 31 percent is shipped by air, and the remaining 29 percent goes through Pakistan.
The NDN comprises three principal land routes: one stretching from the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, through Baku, Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, and into Central Asia; one from the Latvian port of Riga through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; and a final route that originates in Latvia and travels through Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and passes into Afghanistan via Tajikistan. An estimated 70 percent of cargo transiting the NDN enters at Uzbekistan’s Hairaton Gate.
(This was written before Pakistan cut off U.S. and NATO traffic.) Last November, a Pentagon official testified that 98 percent of NDN traffic went through Uzbekistan. And that figure has been frequently cited to show how Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, effectively had the U.S. over a barrel: we can't cross him or he'd cut off transit, and then we would be really out of luck.
Remember that bridge that was mysteriously incapacitated in southern Uzbekistan a month ago? That’s right, the one many suspect the Uzbeks purposely disabled to prevent train traffic from reaching Tajikistan, but was perfectly placed to ensure that Uzbekistan’s lucrative business of supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan could continue unimpeded (and without competition).
Uzbekistan’s blockade poses the risk of a humanitarian crisis in southern Tajikistan, says the head of the United Nations World Food Program mission there, Alzira Ferreira. In addition to hindering run-of-the-mill shipments, the obstruction is even preventing international food aid from reaching the country’s most needy, she told RFE/RL:
Ferreira said there are 23 trains with food stocks organized by the WFP waiting to make the last part of their journey into Tajikistan.
The WFP regularly provides aid to some 500,000 people and 2,000 schools located mainly in Tajikistan's southern Khatlon region.
Ferreira said food prices in Tajikistan are rising due to the shortages caused by the blockade of rail traffic and an increasing number of Tajiks are unable to afford basic goods.
When firebrand Russian politician and ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin last week appeared to threaten to cut off NATO and U.S. military transit to Afghanistan, it was seen as another sign of the recently deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow, and got a lot of attention. But now, apparently, Rogozin is saying he was misquoted.
NATO's foreign ministers are meeting now in Brussels, and a State Department official, speaking on background, says Rogozin has told them he never said he would cut off the Northern Distribution Network:
On the NDN, it’s actually – there was no confirmation. Even Rogozin, who was the one who was quoted, has said – he told us today, but he said all along his was misquoted and they are not linking the NDN to our disagreement on missile defense.
Indeed, if you look at the original story from Interfax (in Russian) Rogozin doesn't exactly spell the threat out, and it seems that Interfax could have put the words in his mouth.
But Rogozin apparently didn't talk to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen who, in a press conference at the meeting, said Russian talk of the NDN was "an empty threat":
I think, honestly speaking, that it’s an empty threat because it is clearly in Russia’s self-interest to contribute to a success in Afghanistan. Russia knows from bitter experience that instability in Afghanistan have negative repercussions in Russia as well.
Kazakhstan's foreign minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov met his U.S. counterpart Hillary Clinton at Tuesday's OSCE meeting in Vilnius, and the two discussed the U.S.-Kazakhstan strategic relationship, in particular Astana's contribution to the U.S.'s efforts to boost regional transportation links.From an Interfax report via BBC Monitoring (which I can't find online):
The Kazakh Foreign Ministry's press service said that, during the meeting, Clinton expressed "profound" gratitude to Kazakhstan for its efforts to assist the international coalition in Afghanistan, noting a key role of the country in promoting regional integration and as a link in interaction between North-South, East-West.
As was emphasized by the secretary of state, the USA welcomes such specific efforts of Kazakhstan as ... a proposal to establish a transport and logistics centre in the Aktau Sea port," the Foreign Ministry press release says.
At a conference today in Washington on the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eric McGlinchey, a political science professor and Central Asia expert at George Mason University had an interesting theory about that statement. He noted that Kyrgyzstan, with its new pro-Russia president Almazbek Atambayev, has threatened to shut down the air base the U.S. operates at the Manas airport, and that Kazakhstan is showing more signs of cooperating with the U.S. "We're already beginning to see the writing on the wall: Kyrgyzstan says 'goodbye' to the United States, and Kazakhstan says 'Hello, come on in,'" McGlinchey said.
As our sister blog The Bug Pit reported this week, speculation is mounting that a November 17 “terrorist attack” that knocked out a rail line connecting Uzbekistan with southern Tajikistan may not be all the Uzbeks say it was. One doesn’t have to look hard to find a motive for sabotage. Certainly, the episode seems to have limited archrival Tajikistan’s ability to supply NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
For Uzbekistan, perhaps the most significant aspect of the rail line in question is its complete irrelevance to its own economy, and to its role as the hub of the Northern Distribution Network that is essential for supplying NATO troops. The damage occurred on a section of track after the NDN freight turns off to Afghanistan, in the desert before crossing into Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has no other use for this line and appears in no hurry to see it repaired.
That's the provocative theory that is beginning to circulate, fueled by the Uzbekistan government's refusal to disclose basic information about an alleged attack, and some pointed questions being asked in Tajikistan about who has benefited and who has suffered from a rail bridge explosion near the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border. When the bridge was blown up on November 17, the Uzbekistan authorities called it a "terrorist act" and most observers, not least this blog, speculated that it might be Islamists trying to scuttle U.S.-Uzbek cooperation over the war effort in Afghanistan. Initial reports about the area affected suggested that it could have been on a line renovated by the U.S. for use in its Northern Distribution Network, by which the U.S. and NATO ship military cargo overland through Central Asia to Afghanistan.
But since then, Uzbekistan has said nothing more about the incident. And it's emerged that while the U.S. military traffic to Afghanistan wasn't affected by the blast, shipping to neighboring Tajikistan -- with which Uzbekistan has chronically bad relations -- has been. A Tajikistan rail official complained that: "with the Uzbek railroad’s capacities, they should have been able to repair the bridge within a day. The Tajik railroad had offered to provide any assistance free of charge to speed up the restoration of traffic on the ... line, but had no response from Uzbek authorities, and no indication when repairs would be completed."
Russia has threatened to cut off NATO supply routes to Afghanistan if the alliance doesn't compromise on its missile defense plans, Moscow's NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, has said. From the Wall Street Journal:
If NATO doesn't give a serious response, "we have to address matters in relations in other areas," Russian news services reported Dmitri Rogozin, ambassador to NATO, as saying. He added that Russia's cooperation on Afghanistan may be an area for review, the news services reported.
This is just the latest in several headaches that the U.S. has had to deal with over the last couple of weeks regarding its supply lines to Afghanistan. First, there was an explosion in Uzbekistan on a line used by the U.S. and NATO, then Pakistan cut off its supply lines in response to a NATO attack that killed 28 Pakistani soldiers. And the flamboyantly nationalist Rogozin rarely misses a chance to kick the U.S. when it's down. (He also gloated, via twitter, that a somewhat threatening statement by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on missile defense last week forced U.S. officers at NATO to go into work on Thanksgiving.)
An expert quoted by the Journal suggests that this new Russian threat isn't too serious:
Ivan Safranchuk, deputy director of the Moscow-based Institute of Contemporary International Studies, said Russia is unlikely to cut off the flow of NATO supplies to Afghanistan as an immediate response to missile-defense decisions. But Russia does want its objections to the missile shield to be taken more seriously, he said.
As a result of a NATO attack that killed as many as 28 Pakistani soldiers today, the Pakistani government has closed off NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. From Reuters:
Hours after the raid, NATO supply trucks and fuel tankers bound for Afghanistan were stopped at Jamrud town in the Khyber tribal region near the city of Peshawar, officials said.
The border crossing at Chaman in southwestern Baluchistan province was also closed, Frontier Corps officials said.
A meeting of the cabinet's defence committee convened by Gilani "decided to close with immediate effect NATO/ISAF logistics supply lines," according to a statement issued by Gilani's office.
It's not clear how long Pakistan will cut off NATO supplies, but they did it for ten days after another NATO attack killed three Pakistani soldiers last year.
According to the latest data from Reuters, NATO supplies into Afghanistan are roughly divided into thirds: a third goes overland via Pakistan, a third by air and a third overland via the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia, primarily Uzbekistan. The U.S. had already been trying to increase their share of cargo shipped via the northern route, worried about the reliability of Pakistan. And now with the Pakistan route cut off indefinitely, that will put immediately more pressure on the northern route and Uzbekistan.