Is Kazakhstan, Not Uzbekistan, The Real Linchpin Of The NDN?
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report (pdf) last week on relations with Central Asia and the war in Afghanistan. And while there is little new in there for close watchers of the region, it does have some new numbers about the traffic through the Northern Distribution Network that suggest that Uzbekistan is less important than it was a year ago:
Since 2009, the United States has steadily increased traffic on the NDN, a major logistical accomplishment that has resulted in a series of commercial air and ground routes that supply NATO and U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Close to 75 percent of ground sustainment cargo is now shipped via the NDN. According to U.S. Transportation Command, an estimated 40 percent of all cargo transits the NDN, 31 percent is shipped by air, and the remaining 29 percent goes through Pakistan.
The NDN comprises three principal land routes: one stretching from the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, through Baku, Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, and into Central Asia; one from the Latvian port of Riga through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; and a final route that originates in Latvia and travels through Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and passes into Afghanistan via Tajikistan. An estimated 70 percent of cargo transiting the NDN enters at Uzbekistan’s Hairaton Gate.
(This was written before Pakistan cut off U.S. and NATO traffic.) Last November, a Pentagon official testified that 98 percent of NDN traffic went through Uzbekistan. And that figure has been frequently cited to show how Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, effectively had the U.S. over a barrel: we can't cross him or he'd cut off transit, and then we would be really out of luck.
People who follow the NDN closely say that while that 98 percent figure may have been too high, the 70 percent may be too low. The other way to get to Afghanistan, the so-called "KKT" route (Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan) uses road rather than rail, and anyone who has traveled those roads knows that they are not ideal for heavy transport, especially in winter.
But what this shows is that it is really Kazakhstan, rather than Uzbekistan, that has the U.S. over a barrel. While a large portion of NDN traffic goes through Uzbekistan, 100 percent of it goes through Kazakhstan. (The protests in Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, incidentally, could have an impact on the NDN: protesters briefly shut down the key rail line at Shtepe, though there's no indication it caused any problems.)
Kazakhstan's ambassador to Washington, Erlan Idrissov, has reportedly been complaining around town that his country doesn't get enough NDN respect, and it seems he may have a point. Karimov has threatened to cut off the NDN if the U.S. doesn't stop badgering him about how to run his country, while Kazakhstan has done no such thing. Pentagon and State Department officials are surely hoping that Kazakhstan's government doesn't take the lesson from Uzbekistan that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.