The Fatally Flawed Northern Distribution Nightmare [2 of 2]


NDN is the least bad option in a region of lousy choices. And 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. 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.”
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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.

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NDN HAS PERMANENT FLAWS

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by David Trilling

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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 SHAKY KYRGYZ SITUATION

 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.

 DRUG RIDDLED TAJIKISTAN

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 mosquesharassing 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 Rogunupstream 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.

NDN: THE ONLY LAND OPTION. BUT WOULD NEED COSTLY AIRLIFTS

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.”

Concluded.

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