On Nov. 17, a railway bridge reportedly blew up in southern Uzbekistan, near the Afghan border. A few days later, the state-controlled media tersely blamed the explosion on a terrorist attack, but gave no details on who may have carried out the strike or why. Local officials have kept mum ever since. Meanwhile, freight bound for neighboring Tajikistan, which depends on Uzbekistan for all its rail connections with the outside world, has been piling up -- more than 320 cars at last count. The backlog smacks of déjà vu: Uzbekistan has regularly blocked rail shipments to Tajikistan. But never so dramatically.
While Washington may once have considered this an obscure regional conflict, the urgent need for supplies to the war in Afghanistan has upped the international stakes considerably. In order to transport people and goods to the theater of operations, NATO must play ball with former Soviet republics whom the Center for Strategic and International Studies has called "unwieldy and volatile partners" beset by "persistent tensions, mistrust, paranoia, authoritarianism, and a near-exclusive focus on ‘regime preservation.'" Of these, Uzbekistan plays the most crucial role. The damaged bridge leading to Tajikistan was not a key part of the transport route to Afghanistan, but it shines a sinister light on the weak links in NATO's vital supply chain.
How did Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan become all that stand between G.I. Joe and his Jambalaya meal-ready-to-eat? Apart from geography, it was Pakistan that heightened their role: Infuriated by a NATO attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on Nov. 26, Islamabad has blocked Western convoys from traveling on its supply routes into Afghanistan. Now Tashkent, Dushanbe, Moscow, and Bishkek must provide safe passage for troops, contractors, food, fuel, prefabricated buildings, vehicles, and more. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are both corrupt dictatorships that wrangle incessantly over water, boundaries, and ethnic minorities, with periodic shoot-outs on the border. Russia's interactions with NATO are often marked by suspicion and short-sightedness, as Moscow seeks to reestablish influence in in Central Asia. And Kyrgyzstan, where rioters have chased out two presidents since 2005, is not a consistent partner. NATO will be hard-pressed to navigate these shoals.
Any military logistician since Alexander the Great could tell you that landlocked Afghanistan is not an easily accessible destination for material. In 2008, Pentagon strategists, seeing an uptick in violence against their cargo and fuel trucks in sometime ally Pakistan, began looking for an alternative route. What they came up with is the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a transport web through the former Soviet Union, with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as its penultimate stopping points. The route has been operating since early 2009, and though U.S. Transport Command says the trip through Central Asia costs twice as much per shipping container as going via Pakistan, over 50 percent of non-lethal goods destined for NATO troops have passed along the NDN in recent months. Washington had hoped that figure would reach 75 percent by the end of the year. With Pakistan out, the only other option would be expensive airlifts.
Most supplies on the NDN begin in the Baltic Sea port of Riga, Latvia, where they're shipped from suppliers around the world. From there, they take about ten days to transit Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan by rail, crossing into Afghanistan over the Friendship Bridge at Termez. Another branch of the route completely bypasses Russia, starting at the Black Sea port of Poti, in Georgia, snaking across Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan, then funneling into southern Uzbekistan. The two routes come together at Termez, creating a bottleneck where supplies can languish for over a month.
The potential for increased traffic on the NDN has Tajikistan eager for a bigger piece of the pie, with its attendant foreign investment, prestige, and bribes. But growing tensions with Uzbekistan could snuff those dreams. The Nov. 17 railway blast was on a line the Tajiks say could handle more NDN traffic. With the link severed, all rail traffic to southern Tajikistan has stopped, inflicting a mounting economic toll domestically and increasing NATO's dependence on Uzbekistan. Tajik officials have complained that Tashkent has been inexplicably slow in repairing the bridge. From the Tajiks' perspective, Uzbekistan's intent is clear.