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Neighboring Countries Scramble To Be NATO's Exit Route From Afghanistan

Withdrawing troops and equipment from Afghanistan will be a costly business.
As international forces leave Afghanistan, neighboring countries stand to gain enormous sums of money.

How much? The United States today pays $500 million a year in transit fees to send military materiel through Central Asian states to Afghanistan.

Now, that amount will rise as Washington and other members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) repatriate what has accumulated in Afghanistan over the past decade.

Forty-nine other countries also have forces in Afghanistan, and thousands of tons of materiel to remove.

The five Central Asian states, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan all stand to gain. But which country gains most will depend both on geography and deal-making.

"What you are seeing is an enormous game, at the moment, of bargaining," says Neil Melvin, a regional expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "People know what the situation is, that the ISAF has to leave, has to leave in large amounts in a compressed time frame, and so all of these countries are in a position to negotiate around that."

Uzbeks Well Poised

Among those in pole position is Uzbekistan, with the best railroad network in Central Asia.

It is already a key part of the railway link for supplies from the Baltic ports through Russia and Kazakhstan to Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan border.

Now, as the cargo flow reverses, there are signs Tashkent will seek significantly higher transit fees. recently reported that the latest transit agreements show Uzbekistan will charge carriers of nonmilitary goods leaving Afghanistan up to 50 percent more than the existing rate for the use of its railroad.

Such price-gouging assures that all countries exiting Afghanistan will be interested in alternative routes as well.

One alternative is the road-based corridor from the Tajik-Afghan border through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, across the Caspian Sea, and through Azerbaijan to the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti.

It, too, is already bringing supplies east as part of the U.S. Northern Distribution Network and can go into reverse operation.

Bargaining Under Way

But the road corridor has problems. It passes through a volatile region of Afghanistan and, in Tajikistan, poor roads limit the passage of trucks, particularly in winter.

Already, the bargaining is under way in some capitals.

Visiting Bishkek last month, U.K. Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey suggested London might trade military equipment for favorable transit fees.

"If all ISAF members leave different things, [the Afghans] could end up with a very confused package of equipment," Harvey said. "But we will also have discussions with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to see whether any of the equipment would be of value to these countries."

Harvey did not specify what kind of military materiel he meant. But he told reporters, "the flow of narcotics and terrorism is something we all need to work together to frustrate."

The deals are not likely to include ammunition and weapons. Under agreements with all the countries involved in the northern routes, cargo is restricted to nonlethal equipment and even armored vehicles can be shipped only after their weaponry has been removed.

Robert Blake, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, told RFE/RL earlier this month that any arms transferred to countries along the Northern Distribution Network "would be subject to the same restrictions that we have that govern normal arms transfers to Uzbekistan or any other country."

Blake added that "thus far, we have not been willing to transfer any kind of lethal weapons to Uzbekistan."

All the exit routes north from Afghanistan face competition from the cheapest way of all: Pakistan.

France has already indicated it finds the northern routes too expensive and wants the Pakistan route reopened. So does Washington.

A Volatile Mix

The average shipping cost of a container from Afghanistan to Karachi is $7,200, but by the northern routes it costs $17,500.

Islamabad has kept the Afghan border closed to NATO supplies since November, when a NATO attack on a Pakistani checkpoint sent tensions soaring.

Melvin predicts that Islamabad will want more than money to reopen the route. "A lot of it is going to be tied up to the broader political discussions around Pakistan's role in post-ISAF Afghanistan, the role of the Taliban, [and] the role of Pakistan inside Afghanistan," he says. "And there is going to be an opportunity for Pakistan to have increased transit-fee options."

All this makes the bargaining over exit routes from Afghanistan a volatile mix of money, politics, and regional interests.

In a measure of how much, Moscow this month suggested NATO could use its Ulyanovsk airport in the Volga region if Kyrgyzstan were to close its Manas air base to the alliance.

Much of the previous pressure on Bishkek to close Manas to NATO, of course, has come from Moscow itself.

And that means Kyrgyzstan, like many other Central Asian states, will now have to carefully balance its relations with Moscow and Washington to profit from the endgame in Afghanistan.

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