For the last several years, Central Asia has been a key partner for the United States in the transportation of military cargo to and from Afghanistan. But recently the region’s role has begun to shift, and due to the difficulty of working in Central Asia and the enhanced cooperation of Pakistan, Central Asia is becoming increasingly marginal to the war effort in Afghanistan.
In 2009, the U.S. began setting up transportation routes through Central Asia to Afghanistan, which collectively became known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The routes were set up as a strategic hedge against the unpredictability of relations with Pakistan, which had hosted the sole overland route for the U.S. military into Afghanistan. The routes generally led from Europe east, either from the Baltic Sea through Russia and into Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, or via the Black Sea, across the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea into Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. (In some cases, the routes would go from Kazakhstan via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rather than Uzbekistan.)
In 2011, U.S. officials said about 40 percent of the military’s cargo to Afghanistan was shipped via the NDN. About 29 percent went overland through Pakistan, and the rest by air. In December of that year, however, after a NATO attack from Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan accidentally killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers, the Pakistani government responded by closing its border with Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO transportation. That validated the U.S.’s efforts to set up the NDN, which overnight became the only means of getting goods to Afghanistan by land. Testifying before Congress in March 2012, the commander of U.S. Central Command James Mattis said (pdf) that the NDN had become “one of the most significant areas of cooperation with our Central Asian partners.” But the extra length and bureaucracy involved in the NDN meant that the U.S. was paying about $100 million more per month on transit than it was with the Pakistan option open.
By July 2012, Pakistan had reopened the border. But getting transit back to normal proved to take much longer as a result of continued legal wrangling and a backlog of shipments on the border. In December of that year, TRANSCOM officials said that between 10 and 50 trucks per day were crossing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, compared with about 100 per day before the border was closed.
In February 2013, the U.S. announced that it had officially begun withdrawing equipment from Afghanistan – through Pakistan.
The withdrawal (in Pentagon terms, “retrograde” transit) posed new challenges to the NDN. In particular Uzbekistan – whose geographic position meant that it was the most important route into and out of Afghanistan – proved nervous about trains and trucks coming out of Afghanistan, fearing that drugs or weapons could be smuggled into the country that way. The country began imposing onerous checks to retrograde NDN shipments, to the point that only about four percent of outgoing cargo from Afghanistan was being shipped northward through Central Asia as of this summer. One shipping company official who worked on NDN transit said that his company was the first to successfully get cargo out of Afghanistan through Uzbekistan, but it was so difficult that by June, his company had shipped only 78 containers on that route, compared to more than 1,000 via Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in spite of the latter’s far worse infrastructure and greater distance. He explained the numerous roadblocks that Uzbekistan threw up to U.S. retrograde traffic:
“We have the most problems in Uzbekistan,” he said, “Uzbekistan has really unpredictable transit times. One time it’s smooth, the next time the container stands at several weeks at one station due to severe control. OK, that can happen. But then they move to the next station, still in Uzbekistan, and still we get again a big control. Why are they checking the same thing two times? Also, at the last station, leaving Uzbekistan, it’s still quite big checks. This, in the end, affects overall performance and future volumes shipped by this route.” The government is especially strict with military cargo, he said, giving transit companies a permit for only 28 days to transit the countries, which “is quite difficult to get” and then — in the case that the cargo is delayed — the company has to apply all over again.
This week, in an interview with Defense News, the deputy commander of TRANSCOM, Lt. Gen. Kathleen Gainey, talked about retrograde transit from Afghanistan, and said that the routes via Pakistan were now fully operational. And as a result, the NDN was being used as simply a backup, “to keep some lanes warm” in case they are needed again, said Lt. Gen. Gainey. Transport times on the NDN are two to three times longer than through Pakistan, she said, noting the bureaucracy that the NDN countries impose and the more complex nature of multi-modal transport (i.e. using several modes of transportation, including ships, trains, trucks or airplanes). As a result, the Pakistan route is preferred, she said.
Lt. Gen. Gainey’s comments came, of course, at the same time that the Pentagon announced that it would be pulling out of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan when the current lease expires next July and moving those operations to Romania. Taken together, they show that Central Asia’s significance in U.S. military logistics is declining rapidly.