"Tashkent sees in Dushanbe another competitor for this business, and makes every effort to deprive Tajikistan of additional income and keep all the business in its own hands," Abdugani Mamadazimov, head of Tajikistan's Association of Political Scientists, told Dushanbe's Avesta news agency on Dec. 2.
For NATO, there is now no alternative to Uzbekistan, which has proven a fickle partner and forces Washington to choose between ideals and realpolitik. The United States had an airbase in the country from 2001 to 2005; when Washington criticized President Islam Karimov for massacring hundreds of anti-government demonstrators at Andijan, he ordered the base closed. Karimov, 73, in power since before independence in 1991, has one of the worst human rights records on the planet. Now, Washington's dependence gives him a sense of international prestige and legitimacy.
"For Karimov the benefit of the NDN is not really the transit fees, but the leverage in his foreign policy. He gets to show the Russians that he's important to the West," said George Gavrilis, a political scientist who has written extensively about Central Asian borders. In return, the West looks the other way when he jails critics, forces children to toil in cotton fields, and allegedly boils people alive. As Washington increasingly relies on the NDN, U.S. criticism of Uzbekistan has dwindled. In September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended Karimov for "progress" on human rights and traveled to Tashkent in October to thank the dictator in person for his cooperation.
With Washington preparing an exit from Afghanistan, and the NDN expected to help with the withdrawal, it's now more important than ever to keep Uzbekistan happy. The Pentagon is whitewashing the Karimov regime's abuses with propaganda targeted at the region. And during a visit to Tashkent late last month, Lt. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of the Third Army, suggested that excess, non-lethal U.S. equipment from Afghanistan could be left behind in Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, Barack Obama's administration is trying to lift restrictions on military sales and aid to Karimov.
Washington's exit strategy for Central Asia has focused lately on the so-called New Silk Road, which would aim to stabilize Afghanistan by putting it at the center of a network of trade routes between Europe and Asia. But many experts have expressed well founded skepticism. The routes would have to cross Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whose porous borders are a disaster, and Uzbekistan, which has shown no interest in such integration, as its own economy is propped up by its tight control over borders and limits on free trade. (Tashkent was notably absent from last month's Istanbul meeting on the future of Afghanistan, attended by regional foreign ministers.)
"There is no chance that you can get anything resembling a regional free trade system where goods flow across its borders through these nice new silk roads. The concept attacks the very core of how the Uzbek state is set up," said Gavrilis.
Kyrgyzstan and Russia have also shown themselves to be unpredictable partners in the NDN. In Kyrgyzstan, where good roads are scarce, the biggest contribution to the war in Afghanistan has been the Manas airbase, operational since hostilities began in 2001. These days, almost every U.S. soldier entering or leaving the operating theater transits Manas, only an hour and a half flight from Afghanistan's Bagram Airbase. But since the base opened, two revolutions in Kyrgyzstan have toppled leaders accused of colossal corruption; their misdeeds included personally gaining from Manas-related fuel contracts, making the U.S. presence a delicate subject politically. The last of the ousted presidents threatened to shut down the base, supposedly at Moscow's behest, forcing the U.S. to up its annual payments to the Kyrgyz government by tens of millions of dollars. Newly elected Russia-friendly president Almazbek Atambayev has said he will seek to close Manas when the current lease expires in 2014, just as the last U.S. troops are theoretically set to leave Afghanistan.