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.
Kyrgyzstan's president Almazbek Atambayev has repeatedly said he wants to create a "civilian transport hub" at the country's main airport in Manas after the U.S. moves its air base out (at an as-yet-undetermined time). And it looks like the U.S. government is trying to help Kyrgyzstan in that effort: the U.S. Trade and Development Agency is seeking bids for a business plan for just such a proposal. From the call for proposals:
As the Manas Transit Center and the U.S. military reduce operations at Manas International Airport, Manas International Airport Company is now considering how best to use the existing assets that will become available for civilian operation. Kyrgyzstan’s President Atambayev has expressed an interest in trying to make the Manas International Airport into a hub airport.
Recent statistics would support greater civilian passenger and cargo operations; from 2007 to 2011, civilian passenger traffic increased nearly 175% to nearly 1.6 million passengers per year. General operations increased by 118%, however, total civilian cargo volume (in tons) dropped about 16% to nearly 21,500 tons (which is consistent with the worldwide air cargo decline resulting from the recession). Manas International Airport is expected to share in the general air cargo volume growth in Asia, which is projected at more than 6% annually through 2029.
The contractor will assess "assess the regulatory and market conditions, as well as the developmental impacts associated with the Project, including infrastructure improvement projects needed to support the business plan" and "work directly with the Ministry of Transport and Communication of the Kyrgyz Republic and Manas International Airport company."
The arrest of former Kyrgyzstani first son Maxim Bakiyev in the U.K. earlier this month, and Washington's request to extradite him for financial crimes in the U.S., has prompted speculation that Bakiyev might be a bargaining chip in future negotiations between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan over the Manas air base.
Kyrgyzstan wants to try Bakiyev for crimes he committed in that country while his father Kurmanbek was president. The U.S. wants Kyrgyzstan to keep allowing it the use of Manas. So, the thinking is, the two sides can make a deal: the U.S. would extradite Bakiyev to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for an extension of Manas's lease.
The U.S. also could use information that Bakiyev gives them to in effect blackmail the current Kyrgyzstan government, Washington Times:
Mars Sariyev, an independent political analyst in Bishkek, said Maksim Bakiyev’s arrest could have been prompted by the Kyrgyz government’s refusal to renew the lease, a position that President Almazbek Atambayev reiterated during a recent visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia also operates a military facility in Kyrgyzstan — Kant Air Base.
Over the past few years, military aid has taken up an increasingly large portion of total U.S. aid to Central Asia, from around 5 percent throughout the 1990s to more than 30 percent since 2007. But that aid hasn't been closely examined, a situation I attempt to rectify in a new report (pdf), "U.S. Military Aid to Central Asia: Who Beneﬁts?" The report focuses on aid to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Among the findings:
-- U.S. training and equipping aid focuses on special forces, including OMON and Alfas, and on occasions when those forces may have acted in ways contrary to stated U.S. interests, U.S. officials have tended to not take an active role in investigating those incidents and continue to support those units.
-- The pattern of aid shows a clear pattern in which the aid increases when Afghanistan is a high priority in Washington, right after the September 11, 2001 attacks and in 2007-8, when U.S. focus again began to turn from Iraq to Afghanistan. That (among other evidence) suggests the aid is intended less as assistance for Central Asian security forces, than as a form of payment for those countries' cooperation in the war in Afghanistan.
-- U.S. claims that the aid is intended to foster the promotion of human rights by Central Asian security forces has been undercut by the decision to resume military aid to Uzbekistan. “It makes the people mad that we do anything with them. They say, ‘Really? Here [in Kyrgyzstan] you talk about human rights, they’re [in Uzbekistan] not so good at it,’” said a U.S. military official currently working on security cooperation with Central Asia. “The desire
to work with people outweighs the desire to do the right thing sometimes.”
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.
A Tajikistan border guard, during a 2007 training program with the U.S. Army.
In all of the news coverage of the fighting that rocked eastern Tajikistan this summer, one angle that was rarely (if ever) discussed was the U.S. involvement in training and equipping the government security forces that conducted the the operations there. While everyone has been paying a lot of attention to the U.S.'s growing ties with Uzbekistan as a result of the war in Afghanistan, the aid that Washington gives Tajikistan has flown under the radar. But the aid to Tajikistan has been pretty substantial, including a good amount of lethal military aid, and the conduct of the Tajikistan security forces this summer should be raising questions in Washington about whether this sort of aid is appropriate.
It's difficult to find out exactly what military aid the U.S. gives to Tajikistan. An increasing amount of the aid is given not through State Department programs (like Foreign Military Financing) but through Defense Department counterterrorism and counterdrug programs. And the latter tend not to have as rigorous requirements as to what information has to be reported to the public or to Congress. So, although much of the information isn't classified, it's not easy to find. As part of a report on U.S. security assistance to Central Asia that will be released soon, I tried to dig up all I could to figure out what sort of aid the U.S. was giving. And one of the surprising findings was how extensive the aid to Tajikistan has been.
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:
An efforts by U.S. lawmakers try to block the Pentagon from doing business with Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport has stalled, and likely will remain so until after the elections in November. But Russian officials are arguing that the fact that the U.S. military wants to buy helicopters from Russia, in spite of politicians' wishes, is "the best advertisement our helicopters can get."
Last year, the Pentagon awarded Rosoboronexport a contract worth nearly $1 billion to supply Afghanistan's armed forces with Mi-17 helicopters. U.S. defense manufacturers complained that the Pentagon was giving business to Russia that could be awarded to American companies. But the Pentagon's reasoning was that Russian helicopters are cheaper, and more importantly were already in service in Afghanistan, meaning that Afghanistan's pilots, maintenance crews, and so on, wouldn't have to learn an entirely new system.
Last month, though, the House of Representatives stepped in to try to put the kibosh on that contract. On a 407-5 vote, representatives voted to ban any funding for the contract. The Senate is unlikely to take up the issue before the election, but U.S. military are still advocating against it. That prompted one Russian defense official, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military-Technological Cooperation, to brag a little bit:
"Despite this resistance, American military officials have made it clear that they need our helicopters, which are reliable and meet all of the requirements. This is the best advertisement our helicopters can get," Dzirkaln said.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant created a splash yesterday when it reported, citing "sources close to the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs," that the U.S. is planning to set up a Rapid Response Center in Tashkent. The Center would "coordinate actions in the event of deterioration of the situation after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014" and would "essentially perform the functions of an American military base after 2014."
It went on: "'By and large, we are talking the largest American military object anywhere in the Central Asian region,' said a source."
Perhaps because Kommersant is a generally well respected newspaper, perhaps because of the apparent specificity of its report, the report was widely disseminated around the Russian-language internet. (UzNews.net went so far as to suggest that the U.S. was forcing Uzbekistan to allow a base by blackmailing Tashkent, threatening to "create problems" with the Western bank accounts of presidential daughter Gulnara Karimova.)
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: