Hairatan, the Afghanistan border crossing that's the hub of the NDN
Relations between the U.S. and Pakistan are at the crisis stage as a result of the raid by U.S. forces to kill Osama bin Laden -- and Uzbekistan could benefit. On Saturday, Pakistan's parliament passed a resolution calling for a thorough review of cooperation with the U.S., including of of the transportation of U.S. and NATO materiel through Pakistan to Afghanistan. From the Los Angeles Times:
The resolution also took aim at the CIA's drone missile campaign in Pakistan's tribal areas, an effort that Pakistan historically has condemned publicly but tacitly approved. "Drone attacks must be stopped forthwith," the resolution warned. Otherwise, the government would "consider taking necessary steps, including withdrawal of transit facility allowed to [NATO and coalition] forces."
Pakistan plays a vital role in keeping supply lines open for U.S. and Western troops battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. About 40% of NATO's non-weapons supplies move by truck from the Pakistani port city of Karachi to two crossings along the Afghan border.
The rest of NATO's supplies get to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network, through various post-Soviet states. The NDN routes enter the former USSR at a variety of points -- Georgia, Latvia and over the Arctic Circle into Russia, for example. But as they get closer to Afghanistan, almost all is winnowed through a single border crossing, at Termez-Hairatan on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border. (A recent U.S. military press service story describes some of the logistical efforts in Hairatan.)
Are the U.S.'s supply lines to Afghanistan threatened by negative U.S. government reporting on child labor in Uzbekistan? That's the contention of a two-partanalysis in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor, which will raise eyebrows among those who worry that the U.S.'s military cooperation with Uzbekistan is coming at the expense of human rights in that country. By the end of this year fully 75 percent of the U.S.'s (non-lethal) military cargo will be shipped to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network through the former Soviet Union, and almost all of that goes through Uzbekistan. Or will it?...
The importance of the NDN to the Afghanistan war effort cannot be overstated given the constant interdiction of supplies through Pakistan by the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters in recent years. However, this fragile US-Uzbek relationship appears to be on the verge of possible collapse due to arcane and illogical actions by the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (G-TIP).
What that office has done is to ding Uzbekistan for using forced child labor in the annual cotton harvest. The author, Umida Hashimova, argues that this doesn't strictly fall under the rubric of trafficking in persons, and that the State Department thus "has taken up the cause of a number of anti-Uzbekistan NGOs and possibly competing cotton exporters to vilify Uzbekistan over the continuation of the Soviet-era policy of mobilizing students and government officials to assist in annual agricultural harvests."
The U.S. is showing no signs of leaving its air base at Manas, but Kyrgyzstan's prime minister, Almazbek Atambayev, has some ideas for what he wants to happen to it after the Americans go home. On an official visit to Turkey, Atambayev said that he wanted Manas to become a "public transit center," used for trade rather than military:
“Over a thousand people work at airbase,” he said. “What shall we do with them when U.S. withdraw it troops from Afghanistan? We must establish modern transit center at the place of airbase. And, as a first step toward this idea, we have agreed with Primes Minister of Turkey to open cargo flight Istanbul – Bishkek – Shanghai.”
According to him, Kyrgyzstan may become a transit country out of dead-locked country. Construction of railway from People's Republic of China to Uzbekistan will serve to this purpose. “We can make a profit on goods transit,” stressed Almazbek Atambayev.
Atambayev was clearly thinking big in Ankara, and this proposal seems to be only one part of a hazily envisioned future of a pan-Turkic/Slavic union. "I think eventually we will create a common space with Russia and Turkey, with its headquarters in Bishkek," he said. Indeed, a U.S. air base would seem to be an awkward fit then...
Georgia is among the locations that the U.S. is looking at to expand its facilities in the Black Sea region for transit of military cargo to Afghanistan.
Last month, the commander of U.S. European Command, said that the U.S. was looking at locations in the Black Sea/Caucasus region to "further U.S. expeditionary capability." Today I talked with Colonel William Summers, European Deployment and Distribution Operations Center Chief at EUCOM, who gave me a few more details. “The countries that we are looking at engaging with, while providing ourselves flexibility, are Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Georgia,” he said.
The main location will be Constanta, Romania, which will be used starting next month to transport cargo to Afghanistan on the Northern Distribution Network. But the U.S. is looking at further locations where it could transport materiel via ship to the Black Sea, then onward to Afghanistan by air. Georgia is difficult, he said, because the only airport in the country that has adequate facilities is Tbilisi, which would require a somewhat lengthy road or rail transit from the sea port at Poti. But it's still under consideration, he said.
The reason for the expansion is to allow the U.S. greater flexibility in case one part of the NDN becomes unusable, as well as to build relationships with the countries in the region, Col Summers said. But the amount of additional construction or U.S. forces required would be small, he added.
As Deirdre Tynan has reported, the NDN now accounts for 50 percent of non-lethal cargo shipped to Afghanistan, but the U.S. is hoping to increase that to 75 percent of that by the end of 2011. Col Summers said that NDN traffic is currently split about 50-50 between the northern leg, via Russia, and the southern leg, via the Black Sea/Caucasus. So they're going to need some extra capacity.
There still isn't much known about the proposed U.S. or Russian-built counterterror training centers in southern Kyrgyzstan. But if -- as many observers suggest -- their real, if unstated, purpose is to check the possibility of aggression by Uzbekistan, the Pentagon's participation in the project is putting it in a somewhat precarious position. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are its two closest military allies in Central Asia, and conflict between the two countries, while still not likely, is certainly possible. Where would that put the U.S.? A piece in The Diplomat discusses that question:
US officials haven’t discussed many of the details of their plans for their training base, but the United States has an obvious interest in shoring up its defence relationship with Kyrgyzstan: its Manas air base, near Bishkek, is a key transit and refuelling hub for operations in Afghanistan, and has been the subject of controversy in Kyrgyzstan, and there have been many calls to evict the base. By building a counter-terror training centre in the south, the Pentagon likely hopes to solidify its ties with Kyrgyzstan, decreasing the chances US forces will be kicked out of Manas.
But the United States is perhaps even more invested in the military relationship with Uzbekistan, which is the key node of the Northern Distribution Network, the supply line that carries military cargo to Afghanistan through the former Soviet Union.
The news last week that Azerbaijan had unilaterally and without explanation put off planned military exercises with the U.S. led many commentators, The Bug Pit included, to conclude that the exercises weren't going to happen. But that may have been a hasty conclusion. The exercises appear to be back on the table, as U.S. Ambassador to Baku Matthew Bryza met today with the Azerbaijani Minister of Defense, Safar Abiyev. And according to the defense ministry, among the topics discussed was the date to hold the exercise.
On Friday, a defense ministry spokesman argued that there was no political reason for postponing the exercise, but didn't offer any other reason:
“We have expressed our position on this issue. There is no obscurity. May be, everything will be solved.
We don’t see any necessity to give a political color to this situation and to create a problem from it. Unfortunately, we face with such attempts”, said spokesman for the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan, Lieutenant-Colonel Eldar Sabiroghlu answering APA’s question on the postponement of US-Azerbaijan joint military exercises.
Sabiroghlu said that the Defense Ministry was not engaged in the politics, and declared its concrete position to the organization’s temporary stop of the exercises: “Basing on the bilateral military cooperation, we continue our cooperation in other directions now”.
See, there's no obscurity at all! So wait, why was the exercise postponed again?
For the second year in a row, Azerbaijan has cancelled military exercises with the U.S. without explanation. There has been little official comment; the news agency APA quotes Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Eldar Sabiroglu as saying he doesn't know why it was cancelled:
Sabiroglu refused to comment, since he had no detailed information about the adjournment of the exercise.
To the question “Can this have any influence on Azerbaijan-US military cooperation?” spokesman said: “I do not believe it may happen. US-Azerbaijan military cooperation will continue,” he said.
APA also asked the U.S. embassy spokesman, who said he had no information on it:
Touching on the postponement of the US-Azerbaijan joint exercises, Terry Davidson said the exercises had been postponed by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry.
“You’d better ask them,” he said.
Last year, the reason for the cancellation was reportedly the U.S. support for the Armenia-Turkey protocols. But the protocols are more or less dead now, so there is presumably another reason. One alternative explanation for last year's cancellation was Russian pressure (the default explanation when something mysterious happens in this part of the world). But that theory was given some credence by a WikiLeaks-released cable that discussed controversy over the 2009 version of the exercise (the only year in which the Regional Response exercise has actually taken place):
If you could choose one word to describe Kyrgyzstan, would it be "friendly"? If so, then you and Donald Rumsfeld are on the same page.
Rumsfeld, you may recall, has released many previously classified documents from his tenure as secretary of defense to coincide with the launch of his book. But he didn't post all of the documents that were released to him. And of all publications Gawker, the gossip blog, filed a FOIA request to see all of the documents, including the ones, as they put it, that "Rumsfeld Doesn't Want You to See." You can see them all in a dauntingly unorganized 1,362-page pdf here. But before I get through that, one memo from Rumsfeld's desk that Gawker highlighted is worth looking at.
It's from April 30, 2002, and titled "COUNTRIES FOR U.S./DOD TO EMPHASIZE -- AND WHY," and offers an extremely brief (two pages) tour d'horizon of how the Pentagon saw countries around the world, including Central Asia.
Central Asia – (Evolving, looking for counterweight to Russia and PRC; enormous energy potential, secular muslims v. religious extremism)
Kazakhstan – Big; oil-rich; leading [sic] our way, see the U.S. as counterbalance to PRC and Russia.
Azerbaijan – Friendly, potential as war on [sic] forward operating base
Kyrgyzstan – Friendly
Uzbekistan – concerned about Russia, has chosen the U.S.
Afghanistan – A potential liability; U.S. has a stake in it not failing.
Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili says there is only one source for the kind of heavy weaponry his country needs to defend itself from Russia: the U.S. In an interview with Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin, Saakashvili discussed the question of the U.S. providing weapons to Georgia. He said that the U.S. is not refusing to sell Georgia weapons, which is something some allies of Georgia have claimed:
Saakashvili said he takes the administration at its word that there is no ban on weapons sales to Georgia and that some sales of small arms are "in the pipeline." But he added that Georgia really needs heavier weapons that could be used to defend the country in the case of another conflict with Russia.
"We don't' really need small arms, we have plenty of them and actually there are many alternative sources to shop for them," he said. "What Georgia really needs is something that it cannot get from anywhere else and that's anti-air and anti-tank [weapons] and that's completely obvious ... that's where should be the next stage of the cooperation."
Emphasis added. Now, there are certainly many other places than the U.S. whence Georgia could buy these sorts of weapons. Wikipedia, for example, lists 19 countries that produce anti-tank missiles, including ones like Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Turkey, where these weapons would be much cheaper than U.S. equivalents and which wouldn't have obvious geopolitical problems. There's a similarly extensive list of countries that make anti-aircraft missiles and guns.
Is the U.S. military planning some sort of new facility in the Caucasus? The commander of U.S. European Command, Admiral James Stavridis, testified before Congress this morning and suggested that. In his written testimony (pdf), he described five ongoing "force posture" (Pentagon-ese for basing issues) initiatives:
The fourth initiative is developing a U.S. Transportation Command requirement for a Black Sea/Caucasus en-route location to further U.S. expeditionary capability. The European Command will meet this requirement while maximizing our basing efficiencies.
(Emphasis added.) Reading between the lines, it seems like that must mean some sort of facility in the Caucasus to help with the Northern Distribution Network, shipping cargo to Afghanistan (i.e., something comparable to the Navoi cargo hub). A significant amount of U.S. military cargo already goes through the main airport in Baku, but this suggests that the Pentagon is imagining a dedicated facility for that, whether in Baku or elsewhere. That's just speculation, though. I asked TRANSCOM public affairs officials for more information and they said they had none and referred me to EUCOM; I will update when/if I hear back.
One of the questions I hope to ask: what, exactly, is a "location"? Is this yet another euphemism for the b-word?