Although Uzbekistan has been getting the most attention among coalition countries in Afghanistan looking for land routes to ship their equipment back home, Tajikistan also is encouraging western countries to do the same, and the United States and United Kingdom seem to be among the interested parties.
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake visited Dushanbe last week and met with President Emomali Rahmon. After the meeting, Blake was asked if the U.S.'s withdrawal from Afghanistan would take place through Tajikistan. His response:
[A]s you all know, the President of the United States announced during his State of the Union speech that the United States would be halving the number of troops in Afghanistan by February of next year, but I don’t expect that that operation will take place through Tajikistan.
That appeared to be a shift in policy: the U.S. has been using the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan (KKT) route as a complement to the more heavily used Uzbekistan route to ship equipment to Afghanistan. And some media reported it as such: Asia-Plus headlined its article "Washington does not plan to use Tajikistan’s infrastructure for Afghan withdrawal," while Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote that his comments showed that "the U.S. doesn't consider Tajikistan to be a transit country."
A State Department spokesperson said Blake was only referring to troops, not to equipment, and referred The Bug Pit to the Pentagon for clarification of Tajikistan's status as a transit country. Commander Bill Speaks of the Office of the Secretary of Defense confirmed that "Yes, Tajikistan will be used as part of the NDN routes for retrograde of equipment." So that's cleared up.
The U.S. is proposing to cut State Department aid to the Caucasus by about 24 percent, while decreasing the portion of that aid devoted to security-related programs by about two percent, according to recently released budget documents (pdf). In Central Asia, while total aid would drop 13 percent, security assistance would remain roughly the same. The aid packages, if approved by Congress, would continue a pattern by the U.S. of increasingly placing a greater emphasis on security than on political, economic or health programs in the region.
Overall, State Department aid to Central Asia would drop from $133.6 million in fiscal year 2012 to $118.3 million in the current fiscal year, while aid programs under the rubric of "Peace and Security" would stay roughly steady at $30.3 million. (Programs in the "Peace and Security" category include not only military aid programs but also those targeting police, border control agencies and so on.) In the Caucasus, the aid would drop from $150.2 million to $121.6 million, with the security portion of that declining slightly from $35.6 million to $34.9 million.
Georgia would remain the largest U.S. aid recipient in the region, though its assistance package would drop from $85 million last year to $68.7 million this year. Most of the decrease would affect programs under the rubric of "Economic Growth." Aid programs in the "Peace and Security" category, meanwhile, would remain steady, at $21.7 million, with particular focuses on preparing Georgia's armed forces for NATO interoperability and retraining weapons scientists to work in counterproliferation.
The U.S. military needs to help the governments of Central Asia protect themselves against violent extremist organizations, says the likely next commander of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd J. Austin, III. Austin faced a confirmation hearing on February 14, and while it seems that the question of U.S. relations with Central Asia didn't come up, Austin was asked about the region in written questions before the hearing. His responses (pdf) were notable for the emphasis that they put on maintaining military relations with the region even after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan starting next year, and for the credence that he gave to the threat of extremism in the region.
In response to a broad question about relations with Central Asian states, Austin said that cooperation with U.S. partners in the region will gain importance after 2014:
As we transition in Afghanistan, securing access to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) for logistical resupply and retrograde operations is of particular importance as we seek to promote stability and assure our partners of our continued commitment to the region. The development of the NDN has been a critical area of investment to that end and cooperation with our Central Asian partners will gain additional importance post-2014.
Relations with Uzbekistan are to be based on "mutual benefit":
Our relationship with Uzbekistan continues to improve in a deliberate, balanced way driven by regional security considerations, expansion of the NDN and mutual benefit.
Interestingly, Austin seems to take a bit of a defeatist attitude to Kyrgyzstan's stated desire for the U.S. to vacate the Manas airbase next year:
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake meets Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev January 16 in Bishkek.
The U.S.'s top diplomat dealing with Central Asia, Robert Blake, visited Kyrgyzstan last week and if we are to believe Press.kg, all over Bishkek, "even in schools and kindergartens, for three days they are saying 'Blake is coming! Blake is coming!'" Journalistic hyperbole aside, this was a highly anticipated visit, as it seems that negotiations over the U.S.'s Manas air base are starting in earnest. Before Blake left, he told Voice of America's Russian service that he would be discussing extending the lease for the base, which is now scheduled to expire in 2014. "Manas has a huge significance for the U.S. from the point of view of logistics," he said.
In Bishkek, Blake met with President Almazbek Atambayev and other officials, and while of course the details of the discussions were not divulged, Blake did make an interesting statement to the press after his meetings. He was asked if the U.S. might use the newly established French transit center in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, and he didn't say no. After it's determined what sort of U.S. troop presence there will be in Afghanistan after 2014, the U.S. will assess what sort of facilities it needs in Central Asia, he said:
Once those important decisions [on troop presence in Afghanistan] are made, then we’ll be in a better position to plan for ourselves what kind of facilities we might need either in Afghanistan or in the wider region. Again, I don’t want to speculate on the future of what those might be.
Secretary of State nominee John Kerry has been deeply involved in U.S. foreign policy for many years, and so has left a large trail of policies and statements regarding just about every element of U.S. foreign policy. It's not clear how much Kerry's own personal views on these issues will affect his actions as secretary of state -- he's a cautious person, and so unlikely to agitate too much to make his own policy independent of the White House. And, a review of his record -- including in Central Asia and the Caucasus -- shows that in any case, he's pretty firmly in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and his views don't differ much (if at all) from those the Obama administration has already been advocating. Most characteristically, this means high-minded rhetoric about human rights and democracy with less indication of how those principles can stand up when confronted with the realities of running international military operations.
In Central Asia, Kerry has consistently advocated democratization and human rights. He was among a small group of senators to write then-Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev to complain about the treatment of human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis.
In 2010, Kerry wrote an op-ed here on EurasiaNet entitled "Washington Must Show Commitment to Kyrgyz Democratization," in which he argues that "the security-democratization debate is not a zero-sum game":
There has been a growing worry within Kyrgyzstan that the United States cares more about its security needs than those of the Kyrgyz people. We must prove this perception false, with actions rather than with rhetoric....
U.S.-Turkey relations are at their strongest in recent years, and the most significant reason for that is Turkey's decision last year to host a new NATO radar connected to the alliance's air defense system against the missile threat from Iran. That is according to two experts who spoke this week at the Brookings Institution.
One of the experts, Brookings's Ömer Taşpınar, said that after Turkey's fallout with the U.S.'s close ally Israel, which highlighted worry that Turkey could be "moving East," relations between Ankara and Washington have rebounded to the point where some call it a "Golden Age" of bilateral relations. Part of the reason for that is the Arab Spring, which has elevated Turkey's relevance in Washington.
"But more tangible, more concrete, what put Turkey under a positive light, in 2011, was Turkey's very strategic decision to say 'yes' to most radars necessary for the anti-missile defense system under the framework of NATO. That decision, in my opinion, was almost a make-or-break move for the Obama administration in terms of testing Turkey's commitment to NATO, testing Turkey's commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership."
Another of the experts, Soli Özel, said that the radar has ensured that the U.S. will not be excessively concerned about Turkey's political system -- that confidence in Ankara's "strategic Westerness" will override any concerns about its "political Westernness," despite concerns that Turkey may be backsliding away from democracy:
Although Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO military back in July, traffic there is still moving so slowly that the coalition forces haven't even moved all of the goods that had backed up there -- meaning the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia remains the key means of supplying foreign forces in Afghanistan. That's according to Air Force Col. Robert Brisson, chief of operations for U.S. Transportation Command, in a recent interview with Military Times.
U.S. military officials have spent the past five months wrangling with the Pakistanis over a formal legal agreement and also working to clear out the roughly 7,000 shipping containers that were stalled in transit when the Pakistanis abruptly closed the border crossings in November 2011.
Coalition forces are only able to get between 10 and 50 cargo trucks per day across the border, compared to around 100 before the border was closed, Col. Brisson said.
“We haven’t booked any new cargo into the ports of Karachi and Qasim to move northbound, nor have we started moving new cargo heading southbound out of Afghanistan,” Brisson said.
New cargo may begin moving in late December or January, he said.
The U.S. and Pakistan are still working out the terms of the new agreement to ship goods through that country, and apparently the biggest sticking point is the question of transit fees.
The U.S. spent about $1.3 billion in Central Asia on supplies for its troops in Afghanistan over the most recent fiscal year, including $820 million in Turkmenistan alone. The $1.3 billion represents a sevenfold increase from the previous year, according to figures provided to The Bug Pit by the Defense Logistics Agency, the Pentagon agency in charge of supplying forces. The totals for fiscal year 2012, broken down by country, were:
Kazakhstan: $137.3 million
Kyrgyzstan: $218.1 million
Tajikistan: $11.7 million
Turkmenistan: $820.5 million
Uzbekistan: $105.9 million
DLA was unable to provide any detailed numbers about what was bought in each country, but that eye-popping $820 million in Turkmenistan was certainly almost entirely fuel. In general, the money went to "bottled water, sodas, juices, pasta, bakery items, lumber, plywood, cement, concertina wire, generators, rebar, fuel drums, corrugated steel, galvanized steel coils, and feeder cable. We also support the region by purchasing fuel and paying associated transportation costs," the DLA said in a statement.
The agency has made efforts to boost its Central Asia buying:
"DLA has conducted market research extensively in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan for a wide range of products... DLA has consistently increased procurement in the region since FY08. DLA increased local procurement in the five Central Asian States by over 700% when compared to FY11 figures. In January 2012, DLA placed a liaison officer in the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan and one in the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan to help foster increased local procurement efforts."
The goal for the upcoming fiscal year is slightly more than this year, $1.31 billion.
A U.S. Army colonel has argued that the Ferghana Valley is at risk of becoming a stronghold of terrorists like the FATA region of Pakistan and advocates a strong U.S. security cooperation presence there. In a paper called "Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia," Colonel Ted Donnelly of the U.S. Army War College argues that U.S. military policy in Central Asia is currently too focused on maintaining access to Afghanistan:
The Central Asian States (CAS) region has played a critical supporting role in OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) since 2001. However, current U.S. military strategy addresses the region only in the context of its operational importance relative to OEF. Failure to view the CAS region through a broader, long-term strategic lens jeopardizes success in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, is detrimental to regional security and stability, and increases the likelihood that the U.S. will be drawn back on less than desirable terms.
Donnelly argues that extremist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are poised to take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and establish themselves in the Ferghana Valley, the conservative, densely populated region shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:
[T]he most likely post-2014 outcome is that the Fergana Valley will increasingly resemble the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region of Pakistan. Like the FATA, the future Fergana Valley will consist of significant ungoverned space which would serve as a safe haven, breeding ground, and staging area for VEOs [violent extremist organizations] and militants. The IMU and other VEOs would use this safe haven, as well as reconstituted rear areas in Afghanistan, to increase Islamist insurgent pressure on secular Central Asian governments.
Before the "New Silk Road" was ever official U.S. policy, there was talk among Washington wonks and U.S. policymakers of transforming the military Northern Distribution Network -- the system of supply routes the Pentagon uses to get its equipment to Afghanistan -- into a civilian, commercial trade network. But when the U.S. State Department rolled out its New Silk Road Initiative last year, there was never any connection made between that idea and the NDN.
That looks like it's changing, however. In a speech last week, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, made that connection explicit:
[W]e should not overlook the economic potential of the NDN. The existing infrastructure and transit routes used to transport military cargo can and should be used by the private sector to continue trade across the region, where there is ample opportunity for growth. The economic potential of a more open and integrated region – full of untapped human and natural resources – is virtually unlimited.
And at an event last week at the Open Society Foundations Washington office, Blake's deputy Lynne Tracy made the same point, calling the NDN a "proof of principle" for the New Silk Road.