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."