The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a Europe-to-Asia resupply route for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was promoted by its architects as an economic development vehicle that could promote cohesion among Central Asian states. Reality is proving vastly more problematic than American war planners anticipated, however.
The outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan is just the latest source of uncertainty for the NDN. [For background see EursasiaNet’s archive]. Long before the fighting began in Osh and Jalal-abad, the supply route was experiencing distribution and logistical delays, including at the Manas Transit Center outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. [For background see EursaiaNet’s archive].
Manas may be far removed from the upheaval in southern Kyrgyzstan but since mid-April it has been shrouded in controversy connected with fuel contracting practices. First, a US congressional subcommittee opened an investigation into possible illicit contracting practices [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]
Then, the Kyrgyz provisional government launched its own investigation into six Kyrgyz subcontractors for possible tax fraud. The Kyrgyz companies were allegedly controlled by Maxim Bakiyev, the son of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Maxim was reportedly arrested in England on June 13. He is wanted in Bishkek on allegations of serious fraud. [For background see EursaiaNet’s archive].
In May, a tax dispute broke out that briefly interrupted air operations at Manas. Under previous basing agreements, the United States and its contractors were exempt from paying taxes and duties on fuel imports. But without warning, the Kyrgyz interim government revoked the tax-exempt status for Manas fuel suppliers, only to reinstate it on June 5. At the time of its reinstatement, Kyrgyz authorities said adjustments to tax rules could be in place by June 20.
The new commander at Manas, Col. Dwight Soanes, said the facility is currently receiving fuel deliveries, but the fate of future shipments is uncertain. “[After June 20] the issue will be decided by the US embassy, the US government and the government of Kyrgyzstan,” he said on June 15.
Elsewhere, the NDN’s operations appear even more complicated. At border crossings between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, rail cars filled with fuel for US and NATO troops are piling up.
According to Afghan news sources, more than 3,500 containers of fuel are stuck between Termez and Hairaton. A spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) confirmed on June 9 that “some” of the fuel is destined for US and NATO use.
Afghan officials are growing agitated over the delay because it is prompting an increase in consumer fuel prices. “From 80 to 85 percent of fuel and lubricants coming into Afghanistan are imported through the territory of Uzbekistan. It is also the main route through which we import food, wood, building materials, and metals,” Mohammad Qurban Haqjo, chairman of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, told the Afghanistan.ru news website on June 9.
“There may need to sign a separate agreement with the Uzbek government for the unimpeded transit of goods to Afghanistan,” Haqjo added.
Earlier, on June 4, the Afghan Minister of Trade and Industry of Afghanistan, Ghulam Mohammad Yailaqi, complained the volume of fuel moving through Termez-Hairaton had fallen by up to 90 percent while prices for fuel had increased by almost a third. “Hairaton receives 15-20 tanks of fuel daily, whereas previously deliveries reached 120-150 tanks per day,” he said.
Similarly, about 3,000 rail cars filled with building materials and fuel are languishing at the Uzbek-Tajik border. Although just a small percentage of this cargo is fuel for ISAF, the logjam is indicative that long-standing political tension between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is proving difficult, if not impossible to overcome. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]
The CIS Railway Council, the Moscow-based body charged with overseeing the smooth operation of railways between Russia and the former Soviet republics, says there is little it can do to speed up deliveries. “Theoretically we do have the power to intervene, but practically we don’t have that power,” Yuri Simonov, the deputy head of the department for coordinating the work of rolling-stock at the CIS Railway Council, told EurasiaNet.org.
“We don’t have it because in this case the question is not about railways. The question here lies in a different sector. It’s a matter of relations between the two presidents of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,” he added.
Ajdar Kurtov, an analyst at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Moscow, likened the impasse between Tashkent and Dushanbe to that of a “Cold War.”
“What we’re seeing here is a ‘Cold War’ between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Basically, the problem is [rooted] in the initiative of Tajikistan to build the Rogun Hydropower plant […] Tajikistan is using [the delay of US-NATO goods] as a card, trying to show Uzbekistan to the world as the country holding up goods for important operations in the region,” he said. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Uzbek Railways could not be reached for comment. But previously, a spokesman for the state-owned company pointed to problems with Afghan customs for the delays at Termez-Hairaton. More recently, Uzbek authorities have characterized the delays at the Tajik border as “technical.”
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.