Northern Distribution Nightmare

Tensions in Pakistan are running high. So, to resupply U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Washington’s having to cut deals with some very unsavory regimes.

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.  

"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.

Moscow, meanwhile, occasionally uses its cooperation on Afghanistan as a bargaining chip: On Nov.  28, for instance, its envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, threatened to cut NATO supply lines if Washington doesn't compromise on missile defense. At the same time, Russia has genuine commercial and security concerns in the region. With its state-run gas monopoly now profiting from fuel supplies to Manas, Moscow appears less eager to see the base closed. It also seems that Russia, with its own painful memories of Afghanistan, fears the fallout from the impending U.S. pullout.

"We do not want NATO to go and leave us to face the dogs of war after stirring up the nest," Rogozin told Le Figaro in September.

Tajikistan -- which shares a drug-riddled, 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan -- contends with more problems than its ongoing frictions with Uzbekistan. It is the poorest of the post-Soviet republics and seems the most likely to fail. President Emomali Rakhmon assumed power after a five-year civil war in the 1990s that left some 50,000 dead, decimated industry, and forced most educated people to flee. His country's economy relies on drug trafficking and exporting labor to Russia. Sporadic outbursts of regional, possibly Islamist violence are not uncommon, while Rakhmon's heavy-handed methods of dealing with growing Islamic piousness (banning children from mosques, harassing men with beards, and rounding up Muslims for mass terror trials on flimsy evidence) look more likely to spawn an indigenous insurgency than to keep Afghanistan-based Islamists at bay. 

While Tajikistan plays an important role in supplying NATO troops, it has little leverage to demand a bigger role. The small quantities of supplies transiting the country by truck are difficult to increase due to poor roads and dangerous entry points into Afghanistan. Expanding rail links is impossible without Uzbekistan. Despite the minimal overland routes, Tajikistan provides NATO with two important services: It hosts a French contingent at its main civilian airport and allows daily, round-the-clock U.S. troop transports and mid-air refueling tankers to pass through its airspace to and from Manas, immediately to the north.

The reported bridge explosion is just the latest reminder of tensions that have been building between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for years as Dushanbe plans to build the world's tallest hydropower dam at Rogun, upstream from Uzbekistan. Tashkent fears that would allow Dushanbe to control the region's limited supplies of fresh water, crucial to Uzbekistan's thirsty cotton crop. Independent analysts have linked Tashkent's vigorous opposition to the project with its regular blockages of rail traffic to Tajikistan.

While Uzbekistan remains silent about the bridge blast, ignoring Tajik requests for answers, at least three theories are circulating. One posits it was an act of terror. If that is the case, the terrorists weren't very sophisticated; a few more kilometers up the line they could have disrupted almost all NATO supplies going into Afghanistan. Another theory is that local groups competing for influence over trade routes inflicted the damage. And the third theory, which has gotten the most traction among regional analysts, is that the Uzbeks incapacitated the bridge on purpose, a scenario that would certainly be compatible with Tashkent's past behavior. Whatever the truth, the interruption in traffic has both reinforced Uzbekistan's key role in the NDN and delivered an economic blow to Tajikistan.

A look at the map shows the NDN is the least bad option in a region of lousy choices. Transiting Iran is impossible; wildly isolationist Turkmenistan, which also borders Afghanistan, professes neutrality. So NATO is forced to depend on countries that don't get along and on rulers who preside over breathtaking human rights abuses, corruption, and crime. But without Pakistan in the picture, the costs of transport skyrocket.

"The chief disadvantage to relying solely on the NDN is that there is a limit to how much it can carry and how quickly," said Deirdre Tynan, my colleague at EurasiaNet.org, where she investigates U.S. government contracting and activities in support of the war in Afghanistan. "The NDN, if it is the only available land option, will have to be supplemented by costly airlifts. There is no other answer."

Though Washington can probably continue to cajole Central Asia's vainglorious leaders into cooperating, the NDN has some permanent flaws. With the risks of overreliance so high, it's natural to recall the words of the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke: "There is no solution in Afghanistan unless Pakistan is part of that solution."




Protesters crying foul, armoured vehicles in the streets -- is this what an election victory looks like in Putin's Russia?

On Monday night, 24 hours after the polls closed in Russia's parliamentary elections and United Russia claimed victory with 49 percent of the vote, some 6,000 young Russians stood out in the cold rain in the park at Chistye Prudy voicing their dissatisfaction. "Putin is a thief!" and "Russia without United Russia!" they shouted, teasing the once-and-future president by calling him Mr. Botox.

When they started to march and the riot police attacked, they didn't budge. They yelled "This is our city!" and "Shame on you!" and appealed to the police as fellow citizens. "Are you ashamed when you go home and take off that uniform?" one protester asked a helmeted cop. It was an exceptional sight in a city that rarely sees more than a few hundred elderly protestors at opposition rallies. Today, despite the controversy over the elections and rumors swirling about those detained last night and more protests later in the evening, the feeling of euphoria in Moscow is unmistakable, uplifting, and addictive.

But, even if this is the beginning of something big and civic and beautiful -- a "Russian Tahrir" as one of the speakers at last night's rally predicted -- it's still very much the beginning, and still very much a big "if." The opposition -- a disorganized group of small organizations and unaffiliated well-wishers -- will have an uphill battle to fight its way to power, or to get United Russia to concede an inch of ground. And this despite a rather embarrassing showing at the polls.

As the parliamentary vote approached, United Russia was slipping in public opinion polls and was being booed at public events. In May, one third of Russians polled agreed with the Internet meme created by blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny that it was "the party of crooks and thieves." By Sunday, election day, the figure had to be still higher. The Kremlin began to lash out, attacking the one independent election monitor in Russia, shuttering media sites popular with the young liberal intelligentsia, as well as LiveJournal, Russia's main blogging platform with 13 million users.

On Sunday, when Russians went to the polls, reports of widespread fraud abounded. Lenta.ru's Ilya Azar reported on how he participated in a "carousel," a Russian electoral innovation wherein voters are bused around to various polling stations, voting for United Russia at each stop. I observed the ballot count in Yasenevo, in Moscow's southwest, where suspiciously neat stacks of ballots -- all for United Russia -- appeared whenever a ballot box was cracked open and its contents counted. Of the voters I spoke to, many had come out for the first time in a decade just to cast a ballot in protest against United Russia's monopoly on the political process. Of those that voted for them (and, to be fair, there were quite a few genuine, staunch supporters of Putin and United Russia) I met one young man who had asked the officials registering him to vote if they had any suggestions. "They told me, ‘If you vote for United Russia, you'll have a surprise waiting for you,'" he explained outside the polling station near my apartment. When he got into the booth, there was a black plastic bag waiting for him. Inside was a bottle of vodka and some plastic cups.

And yet, despite all this, despite the impossible numbers in places like Chechnya -- 99.5 percent voter turnout, 99.48 percent of whom voted for United Russia -- the ruling party couldn't even get 50 percent of the vote. By Monday morning, with most of the votes counted, United Russia's share of the Duma stood at 49.5 percent. (Last time there was a parliamentary election, in 2007, United Russia got 64.3 percent.) The percentages of the so-called systemic opposition -- the Communists, the nationalist LDPR, and the left-leaning Just Russia -- for whom people were voting mostly in protest, doubled. In many regions, United Russia's share of the vote hovered around one-third.

But the euphoria in liberal Moscow circles started on Sunday night, when the exit polls and preliminary results showed the first signs of United Russia being unable to break the 50 percent barrier. It really did feel like a crushing blow, all things -- and carousels -- considered: United Russia was denied its constitutional, monopolistic majority in the Duma -- an important psychological, if not actually relevant, milestone. Moreover, the wires were full of statements by United Russia officials saying that the "new Duma" would be "a place for discussion." (United Russia party boss and Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov once famously, and unfortunately, said "the parliament is not a place for discussion.")

But by Monday, United Russia was digging in its heels, or at the very least, trying to spin the defeat. "This was a victory," Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press secretary, told me. "Not a protest. There are, of course, people who are less satisfied, but it is totally normal in a country that has gone through the hard years of an economic crisis. I wouldn't blow it out of proportion." This was a common trope in the United Russia response to Sunday's results was the difficulty presented by the economic crisis, a crisis we've only started hearing about after the election: Russia's economy has grown by a pretty healthy four percent a year for the last two years. This was something Kremlin officials speaking at forums for international investors never ceased to remind us.

This was the reason that Robert Shlegel, a 26-year-old Duma deputy and commissar of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group, also gave me for the dampened results. Somehow, though, it was also the emergence of good things that explained the growing dissatisfaction with United Russia: The number of Internet users in Russia, for example, as well as the emergence of a middle class -- things for which United Russia, in his view, deserves the credit.  "And the quality of people's demands in the towns has changed, from questions of how to survive to how to live," Shlegel said. "They have what to eat and what to drive, the question now is how to live with dignity and justice." People's desire to go out on the street, according to Shlegel, comes not from the fact that dignity or justice are denied them, but because there is simply too much good stuff around. "There would be no corruption if there was no money in the system, if we weren't building so much, if we didn't have such fast development of Internet," he says. "Considering all these factors, I am satisfied by this result."

As for increased cooperation and real discussion in a Duma known to be Vladimir Putin's rubber stamp, Peskov reminded me that United Russia still had a majority. "For questions of a constitutional character" -- for which you need two-thirds of the vote -- "we will need to work more thoroughly." Shlegel also echoed Peskov: "We'll need coalition only to pass certain laws of a constitutional character. We still have a majority and we don't need the support of other parties."

Here's another reason for United Russia's losses that will surprise you. Yuri Kotler, Gryzlov's advisor and a member of the party's younger, liberal wing, explained that the decreased numbers were due to the party's shift in a more liberal, open direction. "We placed a bet on new mechanisms, on openness," he said. Did this imply that the old mechanisms were restrictive? That their removal now allowed people to vent an accumulation of, shall we say, bad feelings? The old mechanism, Kotler explained, "was a monopoly, and it was refurbished, but there was no political competition," Kotler said. "This isn't United Russia's problem: there were simply no worthy competitors."

This constant complaint from United Russia officials -- that there is simply no one to talk to -- rings a bit hollow coming from a party that was built up while the rest of the political field was systematically slashed and burned. If there are no worthy competitors, it is purely by design. Moreover, it's curious to hear talk of United Russia cooperating or not cooperating with the three other parties that made it into the Duma, parties that, in one way or another and despite any isolated, regional herniations of independence, are curated, funded, and tightly controlled by Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's Karl Rove. (His response to the election results, which appeared in an interview with an obscure Internet outlet, was the most sour: He asked liberals to "stop whining -- it's annoying.")

This was, it turns out, a very smart move, because all the protest votes went to these very parties: either the Communists, populated mostly by the embittered elderly; the stooge LDPR, meant to channel nationalist sentiment into a loyal vessel; and the left-leaning Just Russia, which Surkov created ahead of the 2007 Duma elections to weaken the Communists. This is why they are called the systemic opposition, because their very existence -- and the lack of existence of others -- is predicated on one simple thesis: loyalty to the Kremlin above all. So even if these parties come back to the Duma newly invigorated by voters, rather than by Surkov, they will be easily cowed or enticed into cooperation with United Russia. Any impulse of reform (which United Russia officials made sure to mention, if vaguely) will still not come from them.

And yet, even this small victory was enough to send crowds of liberals -- usually content to share their disgruntlement on Twitter and Facebook -- into the cold and rainy streets last night. However, by Tuesday morning there was no sign that the Kremlin was bowing to any pressure. Two thousand Nashi supporters were bused in for a rally by St. Basil's Cathedral, and, perhaps for greater convenience, United Russia planned its own rally nearby, outside the Kremlin walls, called "Clean Victory!" The opposition sent people into Triumfalnaya Square, in central Moscow, where they were drowned out by thousands of Nashi and United Russia Molodaya Gvardia (Young Guard) activists banging on drums and screaming "Only Putin! Only victory!"

This morning, Moscow awoke to armored vehicles rumbling into town. The Interior Ministry confirmed the heightened security -- 50,000 extra police and 11,500 Interior Ministry troops -- "during the election period, through the end of the ballot count." Three hundred people, arrested Monday night's demonstration, are sill in jail. Two hundred more joined them there tonight.

It took until Tuesday afternoon for Putin to concede some "losses." Once again, he blamed them on the economic crisis we haven't heard about since 2009. "In today's conditions," he said, "it's a good result." Then he added something very telling, and vaguely eerie. "You and I know and see what happens not very long ago in countries with far more stable economies and social spheres, where millions of people come out into the streets," he said. If anyone wondered what the Kremlin was planning should that scenario happen in Russia, or why the Kremlin tripled army salaries this year, the events of the last few days -- and the armored vehicles patrolling Moscow's streets -- should be explanation enough.