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.
Russia has confirmed that it is planning to help NATO set up a transportation hub in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk, confirming its willingness to cooperate with U.S. goals in Central Asia and setting off a mild political controversy among Russians uncomfortable about working with NATO.
As first reported a month ago by the newspaper Kommersant, NATO is looking at using the Ulyanovsk facility to fly in equipment that it is moving out of Afghanistan as it withdraws. The equipment will then be sent onward to Europe via train.
The first official confirmation of the plan was made this week by Dmitry Rogozin, formerly Moscow's ambassador to NATO and now deputy prime minister dealing with defense industry. In his inimitable way, he addressed a controversy that had been brewing on Russian online fora, writing on his facebook page (and reported by RIA Novosti):
Reading about a ‘U.S. base near Ulyanovsk’ is annoying. Let me explain: we are talking about a so-called multimodal transit of non-lethal cargos to serve the needs of international security assistance forces in Afghanistan.
In Ulyanovsk, mineral water, napkins, tents and other non-military cargos will be reloaded from trains onto planes and then moved to Afghanistan.
This will be a commercial transit, which means the Russian budget will get money from it. I don’t think that the transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia can be considered the betrayal of the Fatherland.
The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned the NATO-Russia deal, which he said had not yet been formally approved:
"This draft agreement… has not entered force yet, it has not yet been considered by the government,” Lavrov told State Duma members...
The Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia won't be sufficient to get U.S. military supplies out of Afghanistan, senior U.S. military officials have said, saying that they need Pakistan to reopen its territory again to military transit. On Tuesday, the head of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and said: “The withdrawal out of Afghanistan, we do need the ground line of communications through Pakistan.” That reinforced comments from last week by his colleague, General William Fraser, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, when he testified in front of the same committee. “With the amount of equipment we need to move ... we need the Pakistan [ground lines of communication] open,” Fraser said. “Because of the large numbers that we are talking about that we need to bring out in a timely manner.”
While the U.S. recently concluded agreements with all the Central Asian states for "reverse transit" -- bringing equipment out of Afghanistan when the U.S. and NATO start withdrawing in 2014 -- the generals' testimony emphasizes that won't be enough. General Mattis is going to Pakistan next week to try to negotiate a reopening of those routes, which have been closed since December, when a U.S. attack killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan provides a necessary counterbalance to Russian influence, but also is helping authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon to cement his grip on power. That's the analysis of country's leading opposition politician, Muhiddin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, who sat down for an interview last week with The Bug Pit on the topic of the increasing U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan.
Kabiri is a unique figure: although his party promotes "Islamic Revival," he is also, in the words of local analyst Alexander Sodiqov, "a moderate and pragmatic politician with explicitly pro-Western views." And he is widely regarded as a singularly credible and authoritative voice in Tajikistan.
U.S. military cooperation with Tajikistan has been increasing over the last few years, as the U.S. has sought to build relationships with the countries involved in the Northern Distribution Network, and to help local security services protect the countries of Central Asia from threats out of Afghanistan. The cooperation has focused on border security, as well as training and equipping the myriad of special forces in Tajikistan's military, National Guard, border security and police. Kabiri said the government has a variety of interests in this cooperation:
First of all, we need this training. After these events in the east of Tajikistan, this showed us that we are not so ready for terrorist attacks, so Tajikistan needs these units to be stronger.