U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting Uzbekistan today as part of her short Central Asian tour, and her actions there will be watched probably more closely than anywhere else on her trip. The U.S. is walking a tightrope in Uzbekistan, relying on the country heavily for its role as a transport hub for military cargo to Afghanistan but wary of embracing a government with one of the worst human rights records on the planet.
Human Rights Watch, in a statement calling on Clinton to make human rights a prominent part of the agenda in Tashkent, suggests that government officials are personally profiting from traffic on the Northern Distribution Network, and that the NDN is causing the U.S. to send a mixed message in Uzbekistan:
Although the US maintains a congressionally-mandated visa ban against Uzbek officials linked to serious human rights abuses, it uses routes through Uzbekistan as part of the Northern Distribution Network to supply forces in Afghanistan. US military contracts with Uzbeks as part of this supply chain are potentially as lucrative for persons close to the Uzbek government as direct US aid would be. Despite the State Department's re-designation of Uzbekistan in January 2009 as a "Country of Particular Concern" for systematic violations of religious freedom, the US government retains a waiver on the sanctions outlined in the designation, raising serious concerns that the US is sending a mixed message on the importance of human rights improvements in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan reports a more than 80 percent increase in all air cargo compared to last year, and triple the freight sent through Navoi International Airport in 2009, the state news site gazeta.uz reported.
Uzbek airlines have made slightly less flights this year than last year, but have increased their loads of passengers and freight. Flights for the period of January-September, 2009 deceased 1.1 percent compared to the same period in 2009, but passengers increased from an average of 101 to 112 people per flight. In 2009, a total of 1.8 million passengers flew on 24,100 flights, gazeta.uz reported.
For the same period, Uzbekistan Airways carried 83.2 percent more freight, mainly due to cargo going through the Navoi International Airport. According to the Uzbek Ministry of Economics and the State Statistics Committee, through Navoi alone, 674 cargo flights with 18,500 tons of freight were flown in this period in 2009 -- triple the amount for 2008.
The U.S. and NATO have been busy lately expanding the Northern Distribution Network, by working on three agreements that will allow coalition forces more options to take military cargo through Central Asia into Afghanistan.
First, NATO has apparently gotten Russia to agree to allow armored vehicles to transit its territory:
"It's still not ammunition or guns, but armoured vehicles," the diplomat said. "Right now it's things like food, clothes fuel. It takes it more to military, but not yet to lethal (equipment)."
The vehicles would include armoured personnel carriers, but not tanks, and the deal would potentially allow vehicles needing replacement or repair to be brought back through Russia, the diplomat said.
Second, NATO and Russia are expected to agree on "reverse transit," i.e. taking cargo out of Afghanistan back to Europe, said Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at his press conference this week:
I expect a discussion on our transit arrangements with Russia, and I would also expect a decision to expand the current transit arrangement so that it will also allow the so-called reverse transit. That is, transit of cargo from Afghanistan and back and not only one way transport of cargo to Afghanistan. So that's one thing. And we are also discussing what kind of cargo could be transported. I'll not go into details, but stress... that's important to stress, that we're only speaking about non-lethal goods and cargo.
A few weeks ago, this blog looked at the case of Voice of America Uzbek service reporter Abdulmalik Boboyev, who was arrested on charges that most observers saw as trumped-up. The question then was, would the U.S. step up to defend him, given that the U.S. relies heavily on Uzbekistan for the Northern Distribution Network to ship military cargo to Afghanistan? The Pentagon surely remembers that in 2005, Uzbekistan kicked the U.S. out of the Karshi-Khanabad airbase after the U.S. criticized the killing of hundreds of protesters in Andijan. So would it risk it this time?
Now the case is more or less resolved, and it's worth looking at how the U.S. did, and if they did in fact pull their punches on the Boboyev case for the sake of military expediency.
In the end, the picture is mixed. Although the U.S. public statements weren't overly strong, and didn't come from a high level (for example from Obama or Clinton), they were consistent and made the point. Robert Blake, the State Department's top diplomat for Central Asia, made the point regularly (and met again with Boboyev last week). And although Boboyev was convicted on most of the charges he faced, he didn't get any jail time. I asked Alexander Cooley, an expert on Central Asia and military bases at Barnard College, on his take. He said the U.S. did a "reasonable job":
Ever since the U.S. started using the Northern Distribution Network to ship military cargo to Afghanistan through Central Asia rather than Pakistan, we've speculated on whether the NDN would be subject to attacks by Taliban-aligned groups. Avoiding the regular convoy attacks in Pakistan was, after all, the reason the NDN was created, so it would stand to reason that the same people interested in attacking convoys in Pakistan would think it was a good idea to do so on the NDN.
And according to the German general in charge of NATO operations in nine northern Afghan provinces, that's starting to happen. Violence is surging in northern Afghanistan, and he says it's because of the NDN:
"It's clear that the insurgents concentrate their efforts on those areas where they can hope to reach a significant impact," explained Maj. Gen. Hans-Werner Fritz, the German commander of 11,000 coalition troops across Afghanistan's nine northern provinces. "The northern part could become the game-changer for all of Afghanistan."
Baghlan is of strategic importance, Gen. Fritz added, because most supplies from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan pass through, including most of the coalition's fuel. The power line from Uzbekistan, the main source of Kabul's electricity, also runs through here.
There are surely many reasons that violence in northern Afghanistan is increasing, but assume this is one. Does that mean that violence from Afghanistan could then spill over further up the NDN, into Central Asia? Seems unlikely. To say that Uzbekistan's government has a handle on its security situation would be an understatement. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia would seem to be also difficult terrain for Islamist terrorists. So for better or worse, the U.S. and NATO will likely be fighting new front this just in Afghanistan.
Thus far, nearly all of the ground traffic on the Northern Distribution Network has gone by railroad. But the U.S. is trying to increase its use of trucks to ship military cargo from Europe to Afghanistan, according to a Defense Logistics Agency press release:
U.S. European Command has successfully tested a truck route from Germany to Afghanistan.
The trial run, also called a proof of principle, consists of two trucks carrying two 20-foot containers each from Germany to Bagram, Afghanistan. The first phase of the test, completed in September, used an international carrier that used drivers and equipment from several of the transited countries to move the cargo.
The release doesn't specify which route the trucks took, but says the trip took 49 days and that the DLA identified "some areas for improvement that could reduce the delivery time by another 19 days." (Let's hope that doesn't include bribery, which some western logistics companies have proposed as a timesaver on the NDN.)
The second phase of the test is planned for next month, and will "entail moving cargo from several different countries in a single convoy." Just as long as they watch out for those Uzbek smokeys.
U.S. military officials like to say that the Northern Distribution Network is necessary to get "essential" equipment to troops in Afghanistan. But, as anyone who has experienced the all-you-can-eat bounty of a modern U.S. military base can attest, there is a lot shipped to the war zone that is far from essential. In The Guardian, Pratap Chatterjee points out some examples:
An Easter menu I picked up a military base in 2008 offers soldiers Cornish hen, grilled trout and chocolate-covered bunnies. Mark Larson, a military blogger who recently returned from Afghanistan, wrote that "Camp Phoenix is known for its large PX and barbecue tent that serves everything from steak to ribs daily on a very nice outdoor patio. And after dinner, soldiers can wash down their meal with a smoothie at Green Beans Coffee."
1942:A German Panzer Division needed from 30-70 tons of supplies per day.
1968: A North Vietnamese Army Division needed less than 10 tons of supplies per day.
2010: An American Army Division needs in excess of 3,000 tons of supplies per day.
I don't know what the equivalent figure would be for a Taliban unit, but it seems a fair bet that it's several orders of magnitude smaller. Given the outsized importance that the NDN has assumed in U.S. policy toward Central Asia, those statistics are worth keeping in mind.
The problems with U.S. military supply lines in Pakistan have raised the possibility that the U.S. and NATO will be forced to increase their use of the Northern Distribution Network, as EurasiaNet's Deirdre Tynan reports today. A spokeswoman for U.S. Transportation Command says the problems in Pakistan won't force a significant increase in NDN traffic. But some disagree; one company put out a press release touting the new opportunities provided by the Pakistan closure:
WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 /PRNewswire/ -- FMN Logistics today responds to Pakistan's closing of its border and transport routes by bringing attention to the availability of the Northern Distribution Network as a safe and reliable route for transporting cargo into Afghanistan.
"With the recent developments in Pakistan it is vital that a safe alternative for supplying FOB's and organizations operating within Afghanistan exist. The NDN offers a series of commercially-based logistical arrangements connecting Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus," said Harry Eustace, Jr. CEO of FMN Logistics.
"FMN has been on the ground since the beginning of the NDN and we have just completed our 1,000th container shipment using this route. In fact, FMN has delivered more consignments to NATO and US Forces than any other freight forwarder operating on the NDN. As concerns continue to grow about the Pakistani supply routes, the NDN and FMN's capabilities there are crucial to the continuing support of United States and NATO Forces and their prime service contractors," Eustace continued.
FMN is the only full-service, American-owned and managed logistics provider with boots on the ground in all of the former Soviet Stans as well as Afghanistan.
Several Central Asia experts gathered yesterday evening at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington for an event called “Update on Central Asia: Security, Stability, and U.S. Policy.” Some of the security-related highlights:
-- the floods in Pakistan have disrupted supplies for international forces in Afghanistan, forcing the alliance there to rely more heavily on the Northern Distribution Network (Pierre Morel, EU special representative for Central Asia);
-- the reforms that Russia is currently implementing in their military are in part directed toward moving Russia away from global power projection toward regional power projection. Russia was physically unable to intervene in Kyrgyzstan this summer, a Russian official said privately, because it didn't have the lift capability. By 2020 or so, it should have that capability and will be able to be much more militarily assertive in its near abroad. (Ariel Cohen, Heritage Foundation)
-- while a lot of the new political parties in Kyrgyzstan are campaigning on nationalist or pro-Russia platforms, and promising to evict the U.S. from the Manas air base, the rent money Washington pays for that base is so important to Kyrgyzstan's meager budget that the base will likely be safe. (Johan Engvall, visiting researcher at CACI)
-- Russian forces of the 201st Division in Tajikistan are involved in the drug trade from Afghanistan, using military aviation to transport drugs. (Cohen)
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets today in Washington with his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, ahead of which he gave an interview to Interfax. They dealt with several issues in the EurasiaNet region: Gates said the U.S. was "very interested" in using, jointly with Russia, the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan; that Russia is being "enormously helpful" with regard to the Northern Distribution Network; complains that some in Congress are pushing back against U.S. plans to supply Russian helicopters to Afghanistan; and says the U.S. is being "careful" with regard to security cooperation with Georgia. Some excerpts:
Q.: Can you be more specific about what extent Russia helped to work on Northern Distribution Network in Afghanistan?
A.: Well, we have negotiated contracts, and at this point, I think, we have sent something like 20,000 containers across the Northern Distribution Network, and a very high percentage of those have come across Russia. It‘s enormously helpful to us. It‘s financially beneficial to Russia because these are commercial contracts. But there‘s no question that this network has become important for us. About 50% of the sustainment supplies for us in Afghanistan now go across the Northern Distribution Network, and I think it‘s an example of cooperation. We‘re obviously interested in buying MI-17 helicopters. They‘re well-suited for Afghanistan. Afghans are familiar with them, know how to fly them, comfortable with them, and we‘d like to pursue that. We‘re getting, frankly, some pushback here in the United States by American helicopter manufacturers wondering why we‘re interested in buying Russian ones. The buy that we have in mind is pretty limited, but we‘ll have to work our way through the politics of that.
Q.: When do you think the decision about that could be taken?