The United States wants to significantly expand traffic on the Northern Distribution Network, the rail, road and air network that ferries supplies across Central Asia to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. As Pentagon planners and commercial carriers contemplate their transit options, attention is focusing on Turkmenistan.
The Pentagon reportedly intends to ship 75 percent of all non-military cargo destined for Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) by the end of 2011. Just a year ago, NDN was handling 35 percent of Afghan-bound supplies, and its share is presently about 50 percent. US military officers met with commercial shippers in late-January to discuss ways to rapidly increase the volume on the NDN. Pakistan for years served as the primary US conduit for supplies headed to Afghanistan, but that route of late has become increasingly vulnerable to Islamic militant attacks.
According to Michele Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, Washington aims to reduce reliance on the Pakistani Ground Line of Communication. It appears the US initiative has the backing of regional partners, including Russia. “We are working, along with the Department of State, to secure the additional approvals that we need from countries participating in the Northern Distribution Network that will allow us to further reduce the load we place on Pakistan’s infrastructure and provide additional routes for our personnel and cargo transiting into Afghanistan,” Flournoy told the US Senate Committee on Armed Services in mid-March.
“We have already secured necessary approvals from Russia and we are negotiating with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to conclude further agreements and arrangements regarding NDN routes that they control,” Flournoy added.
A US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) representative declined to get into the specifics of NDN expansion plans. “We continually work with our commercial carriers to ensure the overall distribution network is flexible, responsive and viable,” said Cynthia Bauer, TRANSCOM spokesperson, on March 30.
Turkmenistan’s role in the NDN has been until now low key. It has not signed a transit agreement with either the United States or NATO, but the Turkmen government allows Ashgabat’s airport to be used a refueling stop for US military planes. Commercial companies also transit bulk fuel deliveries destined for bases in Afghanistan through Turkmenistan, and US government contracted fuel suppliers occasionally buy fuel from Turkmenistan and they are able to do so tax free.
If US Central Command and interested commercial parties have their way, Turkmenistan’s road and rail infrastructure will soon be integrated into NDN’s transit network. Maersk Line Ltd, a US government contractor, has readied a “Northern Europe Truck Route via Turkmenistan” stretching from the Baltic port of Riga, Latvia, to Serhetabat-Turgundi on the Turkmen-Afghan border.
“It is common practice for the industry to assess alternative routes to determine what would provide the best solution for its customers in terms of velocity to market and cost. The Northern Europe Truck route via Turkmenistan is a concept that is being evaluated as an alternative option for the Northern Distribution Network,” said Celine Gordon, a spokeswoman for Maersk Line Ltd. However, the company does not expect to use the route “in the foreseeable future,” she added.
Turgundi on the Afghan-Turkmen border could emerge as an import/export node, according to solicitation documents from US Surface Deployment Distribution Command, which seeks “Third Party Logistics Support Services” to monitor “US military-sponsored shipments.” Hairaton on the Afghan-Uzbek border and Sher Khan on the Afghan-Tajik border currently operate as the main points of entry into Afghanistan.
“Additional entry and exit nodes may be added at the discretion of the US Government. There will be an average of 5,000 import conveyances transiting the Afghanistan and Pakistan ground lines of communication (GLOC) per month (to include shipments arriving via the Northern Distribution Network) and 500 export conveyances. This number may increase or decrease due to US military transportation requirements,” the 2010 solicitation stated.
“All military classes of supply will be shipped; exceptions include weapons, weapons systems, ammunition, sensitive items, sensitive medical items, and bulk fuel,” an industry questions and answer supplement added.
Other commercial shippers, speaking to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity, described Turkmenistan’s integration into the NDN as vital to the overall success of the expansion plan. Shipping goods via Turkmenistan would cut transit times and costs. “The US is pushing hard for this, it makes a lot of sense,” one regionally based planner said. Turkmenistan has long been a fickle negotiating partner -- not only for Western states, but for Russia as well. Whether or not Ashgabat will consent to a greater NDN role remains uncertain.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.