Friday, May 25, 2012

The Northern Distribution Network

Lately, I have been very interested in the competing strategies of the U.S. and China for control of Eurasia.  Previously, I wrote about the Chinese high speed rail networks that have begun to transport freight to and from Western Europe and China, known as "Eurasian Land Bridges."

At the same time that these lines were being built, the U.S. was establishing its own transport network running East from the Baltic or Mediterranean Sea's to Afghanistan, to supply troops, weapons, and supplies for the Afghan war effort, a corridor known as the "Northern Distribution Network."  One main path, which became operational in 2009, starts in the Latvian port of Riga, on the Baltic Sea.  From there it travels by rail through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, crossing into Afghanistan at the Uzbek city of Termez.  Another path starts in the Georgian port of Poti, on the Black Sea, and crosses the caucasus through Azerbaijan to Baku, where it then traverses the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting up with the first path in Termez.
Source: Washington Post

Recently, the Kazakh government has been pushing for its Caspian port city of Aktau to become a major transportation hub for the NDN, with an expanded sea port being built, as well as rail lines to Turkmenistan and Iran and an expanded air cargo capacity.

As CNN put it--"to Afghanistan, on the slow train," --the NDN is not an efficient method of transport.  As of November 2011, the rail trip from the Latvian port of Riga, on the Baltic Sea, to Afghanistan takes about 10 days.  This seems to be a best case scenario, however, as a report from 2010 stated that it can take up to 35 days for goods to reach Afghanistan from Uzbekistan, due to myriad problems related to congestion and corruption.  This touches on the larger problem of the network, namely that it requires the consent of the corrupt and dictatorial governments of the region.

Consider the case of Uzbekistan, the most populous state in Central Asia and one ruled with an iron fist by Islam Karimov since 1989.  Karimov is a Saddam Hussein like figure, a former Soviet secret policeman obsessed with power and violence, famous for such practices as boiling prisoners alive.  And like Iraq, Uzbekistan is flush with resources, namely gas, copper, uranium, and gold.  

Throughout the 1990's, Karimov played Washington's imperial expansion game, signing up for NATO military training programs like the "Partnership for Peace." Then, after 9/11, it took Uzbekistan barely one month to agree to host a U.S. military base, known as K2 at Khanabad airport.  Only one week after the base opened in October 2001, more than 60 planes had dropped off supplies and 1,200 soldiers were on the ground, primarily light infantry troops from Fort Drum’s tenth mountain division, the first U.S. soldiers to ever be deployed to former Soviet territory.  As Michael Klare had written one year earlier in his prescient book Resource Wars:
The extension of American military power into the Caspian Sea regions is, by itself, a momentous geopolitical development. As shown by the [Central Asian Battalion] exercises, it will require Washington to build and sustain military relationships with the Central Asian republics, as well as to construct a globe-spanning logistical capability. In time, it could also involve the establishment of American military bases in an area that was once part of the Soviet Union (Klare, Resource Wars, pg. 5)
Months later, Kyrgzstan followed suit, and allowed the U.S. military to use the Manas International Airport, located on the outskirts of the capital city of Bishek.  Within months, Air Force engineers had built a thirty-acre compound at Manas, the equivalent of six city blocks, to house 3,000 personnel.  A report in the Washington Post at the time contains some remarkable statements pertaining to this radical change in US military posture. Secretary of State Colin Powell is quoted as saying “America will have a continuing interest and presence in Central Asia of a kind we could not have dreamed of before,” and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is quoted as admitting that the two new bases “may be more political than actually military.” Most blunt, though, was Thomas Donnelly, the Deputy Executive Director of the Project of The New American Century. In an email circulated among military analysts, Donnelly wrote that the “imperial perimeter” of the United States “is expanding into Central Asia.” The Post reflects on these opinions and concludes “all told, more than 50,000 US military personnel now live and work on ships and bases stretching from Turkey to Oman, and eastward to Manas airport, 19 miles outside Bishkek and 300 miles from the Chinese border.” (Vernon Loeb, “Footprints in Steppes of Central Asia; New Bases Indicate U.S. Presence Will be felt after Afghan War,” Washington Post)

But in a sign of the peril of expanding your "imperial perimeter," the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship soon turned sour.  In the summer of 2005, after Karimov's security forces massacred hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Andijon, U.S. and other international officials began making calls for a judicial inquiry.  Angered at this, and distrustful of the U.S. due to the recent "color revolutions" Washington had sponsored in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgzstan, Karimov kicked the Pentagon out of K2.

Now, with the growing importance of the Northern Distribution Network, the U.S. has been crawling back on their knees to Karimov, in order for him to open up his borders for U.S. military transit.  In late 2011, Washington lifted the last of the arms-sales restrictions placed on Uzbekistan following the Andijon incident.  More importantly, after an official visit to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in November, Army Lt. General James L Brooks stated that transfering leftover or old U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan was one of the key points of discussion. "I think that there are ways that the excess equipment could benefit both countries, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, with the excess of US equipment from the war," he was quoted as saying.

Although it is ethically troublesome for the U.S. to supply military goods to such an oppressive government, it is simply a sign of the times, as Pentagon aid to NDN states, authorized in the yearly Defense Authorization Act, has increased from $1.2 billion in 2008 to $1.6 billion in 2010 and $1.69 in 2011.  Uzbekistan, as the hub of the NDN operations,  receives the lion share of these funds.  In fact, in 2010 the U.S. added sweeping new language to the bill which set the stage for untempered military aid.   An article from the Open Society Institutes  EurasiaNet website describes the changes and their effects:
Recent modifications to Section 1223 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 indicate that the United States is prepared to lavish funds on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and possibly Turkmenistan, in order to expedite the troop surge.
According to the revisions, "certain coalition nations" providing "logistical, military, and other support," will be eligible for "reimbursements." The Pentagon has a reserve fund of $1.6 billion that it can tap into for programs falling under Section 1223 initiatives. Section 1223 assistance can also take the form of "specialized training to personnel" of Central Asian states, or "the procurement and provision of supplies to that nation in connection with such operations."
In effect, the Pentagon could loan "specialized equipment" to Central Asian states that it never intended to recover. Section 1223 revisions note that equipment loans would be made on "a non-reimbursable basis." Department of Defense representatives have declined to comment on the Section 1223 revisions.
This is a situation where Washington is enabling an entire region of corrupt dictators, for the stated purpose of propping up a corrupt Karzai dictatorship in Afghanistan.  And now, with the U.S. led forces planning to retreat hightail out of Afghanistan after realizing that the country cannot be occupied, the dictators have the upper hand and are want to make all sorts of demands on Washington, all for the purpose of the Pentagon being able to slowly snake its bullets and MRE's around Eurasia at an exorbitant price.

Besides the difficulties of the logistics, the entire effort is not a sustainable plan.  Taking Washington's pronouncements at face value, the U.S. plans to have a much smaller military footprint in Afghanistan after 2014, perhaps around 20,000 "non-combat" troops.  If this is the plan, why develop such an extensive military supply network?

For many Washington strategists, the NDN is the first step in creating what they term a "new Silk Road" for Eurasia, with Afghanistan serving as the heart of the network.  As it was put in Foreign Affairs by Andrew Kuchins, an analyst at Georgetown's austere Center for Strategic and International Studies:
At the heart of the New Silk Road strategy lies the promotion of trade liberalization between Afghanistan and its neighbors, with special a focus on reducing bureaucratic and administrative inefficiencies at border crossings and on improving transit and energy infrastructure.
However, as it stands today the "New Silk Road" is a military network, and the dream of converting it to civilian economic use is simply a plan.  Compare this to China, which has already constructed its own "New Silk Road" in the region, without a military dimension.  This highlights the major difference between U.S. and Chinese policy in the region, with the U.S. focusing almost entirely on military goals, while the Chinese move ahead with an economic strategy.

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