Did Uzbekistan Bomb Its Own Railway?
That's the provocative theory that is beginning to circulate, fueled by the Uzbekistan government's refusal to disclose basic information about an alleged attack, and some pointed questions being asked in Tajikistan about who has benefited and who has suffered from a rail bridge explosion near the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border. When the bridge was blown up on November 17, the Uzbekistan authorities called it a "terrorist act" and most observers, not least this blog, speculated that it might be Islamists trying to scuttle U.S.-Uzbek cooperation over the war effort in Afghanistan. Initial reports about the area affected suggested that it could have been on a line renovated by the U.S. for use in its Northern Distribution Network, by which the U.S. and NATO ship military cargo overland through Central Asia to Afghanistan.
But since then, Uzbekistan has said nothing more about the incident. And it's emerged that while the U.S. military traffic to Afghanistan wasn't affected by the blast, shipping to neighboring Tajikistan -- with which Uzbekistan has chronically bad relations -- has been. A Tajikistan rail official complained that: "with the Uzbek railroad’s capacities, they should have been able to repair the bridge within a day. The Tajik railroad had offered to provide any assistance free of charge to speed up the restoration of traffic on the ... line, but had no response from Uzbek authorities, and no indication when repairs would be completed."
The primary issue of contention between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is the Rogun Dam, which Tajikistan wants to build for hyrdroelectric purposes, but which Uzbekistan opposes because it would interfere with the water supply of their cotton farms. But an analyst writing for Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor, Andrew McGregor, notes that tensions had heightened over the week before the blast:
The latest blow to Uzbek-Tajik relations came on November 13, when an Uzbek border guard was shot and killed by Tajik border guards who were allegedly helping narcotics smugglers bring 3.84 kilograms of heroin into Uzbekistan. Tajik authorities initially denied the involvement of Tajik border guards in the incident, which allegedly included personnel from the Tajik Main Border Directorate’s Sughd regional department. A spokesman for the Tajik Border Guards later admitted that a Tajik border guard had killed one of his Uzbek counterparts, but only did so after the Uzbeks had crossed into Tajik territory to protect the smugglers. The spokesman insisted that no drugs were found at the scene...
On the same day as the railway bridge bombing, Tashkent issued a strong warning to Tajikistan to avoid a repeat of the November 13 border incident: “Should the Tajik side act like this again, the Uzbek side retains the right to take the toughest and most resolute measures in line with the norms and practice of international relations in order to crack down on aggressive provocations on the border, to ensure the security of citizens and Uzbekistan’s territorial integrity in full." In Tajikistan, however, there are now suggestions that the railway blast may have more to do with Uzbekistan’s opposition to the Rogun dam project than with terrorism.
That stops short of explicitly blaming Uzbekistan for the attack, but that's the conclusion one draws after being presented with all those dots to connect. Now, accusations from Tajikistan about Uzbekistan's nefarious deeds need to be taken with a grain of salt. But this wouldn't be the first time Uzbekistan has blocked rail shipments to Tajikistan. And the longer Uzbekistan stays silent about what it knows about this incident, the more rumors like these will proliferate.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.