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Central Asia Stands To Gain As NATO Shifts Supply Lines Away From Pakistan

The Uzbek-Afghan border crossing at Termez
The Uzbek-Afghan border crossing at Termez
“An army marches on its stomach.”

That adage, attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, remains valid even in the 21st century. The NATO-led international forces in Afghanistan depend heavily on far-flung supply lines for the food, fuel, and goods they need to go on fighting.

Attacks like this one on a NATO convoy last year near Islamabad have forced the coalition to look northward.
Until recently most of those supplies were shipped by sea to the Pakistani port of Karachi, then shipped overland into Afghanistan. But after Taliban militants and their sympathizers began to attack the supply convoys, NATO planners began to cast about for more reliable alternatives.

Meet The 'NDN'

These days they are increasingly focusing their efforts on a web of routes reaching from ports on the Baltic and Black seas to the Central Asian republics that border Afghanistan. Together these routes are known as the Northern Distribution Network (or “NDN” for short). The NDN is growing in significance for NATO planners

Major Chris Perrine, a Pentagon spokesman, says a full 50 percent of the cargo delivered overland destined for U.S. forces in Afghanistan is now transferred through the northern supply line. That is up from 30 percent until relatively recently.

Bishkek-based investigative journalist Deirdre Tynan says that while the Pakistani lines of communication remains “dangerous and unpredictable,” the growing importance of the northern route is shown by a particular indicator: fuel deliveries.

“[Around] 60 percent of all the fuel that goes to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan now comes down through the Northern Distribution Network,” she says. “If you were to consider that if, for some reason, the Northern Distribution Network stopped working, if they couldn’t get 60 percent of their fuel, that highlights how important it is.”

Started three years ago, the NDN has two sections. The first originates at the port of Riga on the Baltic Sea, travels along the old Soviet rail network through Russia and Kazakhstan, passes into southern Uzbekistan, and then crosses into Afghanistan at the Termez border.

The southern section, known as NDN South, starts at the Georgian port of Poti. Cargo there is placed on rail cars that travel through Georgia and Azerbaijan, then across the Caspian Sea by boat into the port of Aktau in Kazakhstan. From there, the loads are trucked through Uzbekistan.

Uzbek Hub Growing In Prominence

The Northern Distribution Network is expected to play an even more prominent role thanks to the rise in traffic at a little-known logistics hub established by Korean Airlines at Navoi Airport in Uzbekistan in August 2010.

Alexander Cooley, the author of the book “Base Politics” and an assistant professor at Barnard College, says that over the past year air traffic into Navoi has tripled, at least according to Uzbek sources.

“Even though the U.S. military does not like to discuss the various points of origin and entry and so forth,” he says, “we have a pretty good idea that a lot of equipment is also being transported through this particular Uzbek hub.”

Starting in 2010, Korean Airlines has flown regular cargo flights from Incheon (South Korea) to Milan and Brussels via Navoi Airport seven times a week. Additional cargo service has since been inaugurated between Navoi and Delhi, Mumbai, Bangkok, and Frankfurt.

According to information posted on the Navoi terminal’s official website, Korean Airlines will add new cargo routes from Navoi to Istanbul, Dubai, Almaty, and Dhaka (Bangladesh) this year.

Korean Airlines, as the operator of the hub, has also contracted with several companies working for the U.S. Department of Defense. The Pentagon itself has acknowledged using the facility for limited commercial cargo transport.

The U.S. military is tight-lipped about the project, and the authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan maintains tight security around the airport, making it hard to arrive at independent assessments.

Still, experts say Navoi is likely to result in a significant boost of capacity for the Northern Distribution Network. It could also make it easier to transport a wider variety of supplies through the NDN to NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan’s emerging role as a transit hub for NATO supplies to Afghanistan is likely to have a major impact on relations between Tashkent and Washington. In 2005, the U.S. criticized the Uzbek government’s use of deadly force against protesters in Andijon, leading the Uzbeks to evict the Americans from the Kharsi-Khanabad air base, then their main transport hub in the country.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov stands to gain as NATO moves more goods through the NDN.
Uzbekistan’s renewed importance as a supply hub could enable Tashkent to push back against Western criticism of its democratization and human rights practices, says Cooley. And, he says, that may not be the only benefit for Uzbek leaders.

“The Uzbek regime is getting considerable transit fees and logistical contracts, many of which are conducted with private companies with suspected close ties to government elites,” Cooley says. “In other words, the economic incentives are important for the Uzbek government.”

More Bargaining Power For Russia

The so-called “reset” in Russian-American relations is also contributing to the increased prominence of the NDN. Thanks to its influence over these supply routes, Cooley says, Russia acquires a new bargaining chip in future negotiations with the United States and other Western powers.

Another winner is the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan. Its ample supplies of natural gas have made it a major source of fuel for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov could also benefit as NATO uses more Turkmen gas.
For the moment, officials say, items transported through the NDN are strictly of the nonlethal variety, mainly comprising food, fuel, and other supplies. Still, there are indications that discussions are under way between Russian, Central Asian, and NATO leaders about the possibility of including weapons.

Martin Howard, NATO’s assistant secretary-general for operations, says NATO is looking into the issue of whether weapons could possibly be included among the items, and also at reverse transit -- moving goods out of Afghanistan back through the northern route.

Troops Too?

Discussions with the Russians seem to be bearing fruit. According to Russian news agencies, the Duma, the lower house of parliament, ratified an agreement on February 25 that would allow the United States to move troops as well as supplies across Russian territory for military operations in Afghanistan.

Many military analysts in Washington regard the move as a sign of Russia’s commitment to helping NATO troops succeed in Afghanistan – support which, at least in the view of some in Washington, has not always been forthcoming.

For all the activity along the Northern Distribution Route, there is little likelihood the northern route will supplant the line of communications through Pakistan any time soon. Still, there is little doubt that officials in Moscow and the capitals of Central Asia have every reason to welcome the benefits that supply routes are bringing them.

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