The United States is expanding its use of the Northern Distribution Network to ship military goods through Central Asia to Afghanistan, top State and Defense Department officials have told Congress. US officials also reiterated their belief that the NDN can serve as a catalyst for economic development in Central Asia.
"We are steadily increasing and looking at increasing more our traffic on the NDN," said David Sedney, the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, at a hearing December 15, called "Reevaluating US Policy in Central Asia." The hearing was held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs.
Washington is now shipping about 350 shipping containers per week by rail through Central Asia into Afghanistan, according to Sedney. That is up more than three times from this summer, when the military was shipping 108 containers per week in June and 134 per week in July.
Sedney said the NDN has not yet reached its full capacity, and that military logistics experts are examining the route to determine how much more traffic it can handle. Earlier in December, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would be sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, with allies providing several thousand more. The new surge is expected to increase the use of the overland routes carrying military goods into Afghanistan. George Krol, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asian affairs, said the most common route of the NDN was through Estonia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, though some traffic also comes via Georgia, Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan.
The most difficult part of the route is the entry into Afghanistan, but that will start to get easier with the opening of a new railroad from Hairatan on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border to Mazar-i-Sharif, Sedney said. The Asian Development Bank is funding the $129 million project, which is being constructed by Uzbekistan's state railroad company. It should be completed within 12 to 18 months, Sedney said.
The air component of the NDN has gotten off to a slower start, Sedney said: there have been only two flights of military cargo transiting Russia since Moscow agreed in July to allow transit of American lethal goods through its airspace en route to Afghanistan. "We are working with Kazakhstan and Russia to make that a route we can use on a regular basis," Sedney said.
The NDN is also expected to boost economic development in Central Asia, Krol contended. "Operation of the NDN will demonstrate regional trade opportunities and highlight existing impediments. We seek to promote transportation infrastructure development to improve the capacity and reduce the cost of trade among the Central Asian countries and to promote trade with global markets in all directions," Krol said at the hearing.
So far, the NDN route has not been subject to any attacks, Sedney said. But "the threat of Islamic extremism is once again rising in Central Asia," he said. "In 2009 the Islamic Jihad Union conducted suicide bombing in Uzbekistan. Throughout the summer local governments fought with suspected extremist cells in the Fergana Valley. Governments in the region share our concern about extremism and in our discussions with our counterparts in Central Asia, this issue figured much more strongly at the end of this year than it did at the beginning," he said. "We need to cooperate with them to address this shared threat."
The hearing helped underscore the revival of a strong strategic connection between between Uzbekistan and the United States. While military aid to Uzbekistan has been largely being suspended since 2005, when Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of protesters in Andijan and evicted American troops from an airbase in Karshi-Khanabad. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But aid, including training of Uzbekistani officers under the International Military Education and Training program, could be reinstated in the budget now being drafted in Congress, Sedney indicated. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"With Uzbekistan, we did have a wide range of activities, but following the incident in Andijan, the massacre in Andijan, the Uzbek government cut off military-to-military ties to a large extent, so our military ties with Uzbekistan are very limited now. But we believe there is a possibility of doing more. The recent language that I believe has been included in legislation that allows for IMET and some other programs from Congress, we think is a good step forward," Sedney told the subcommittee.
Uzbekistan's foreign minister, Vladimir Norov, is visiting Washington in late December, Krol disclosed, as part of a newly launched program to have annual bilateral consultations with each Central Asian country. Among other initiatives, the US government is working to bring the Peace Corps to Tajikistan, expanding public diplomacy efforts in the region and working to combat food insecurity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Krol said. "This Administration does not consider Central Asia a forgotten backwater, peripheral to US interests. The region is at the fulcrum of key US security, economic and political interests," he said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.