Is the U.S. Military Heading for a Train Wreck -- Literally -- In Uzbekistan?
A new railroad in Uzbekistan, used extensively as part of the U.S.'s transportation network shipping military cargo to Afghanistan was built using low-quality steel and goes through such mountainous terrain that when the train gets to the bottom of the mountain crossing, the wheels are glowing red from the friction of so much braking. That's according to a new U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks and the Washington Post.
The Post published a story today on this transportation system, the Northern Distribution Network, and while readers of this blog won't find much new in it, the Post did publish a few Wikileaked cables in conjunction, and they shed a bit more light on the NDN.
All the cables are from 2009, the early days of the NDN. The juiciest is the one that described the new rail line. The Soviet-era line that ran from Karshi to Termez, on the Afghanistan border, dipped into Turkmenistan. So Uzbekistan built a new line that stays entirely within its territory -- but there was a reason the Soviets routed theirs through Turkmenistan. The alternative is apparently through terrain that is borderline dangerous, according to the U.S. embassy's source, whose identity was redacted, but was someone "heavily involved" in the new rail line's construction
XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that there have been difficulties operating trains over the Karshi-Termez line. Most locomotives used by Uzbek Railroads are built to the same design as U.S. lend-lease locomotives given to the Soviet Union in World War II. Soviet engineers copied this design and used it to produce locomotives that came to form a significant portion of Soviet rolling stock. The problem with Uzbekistan's legacy Soviet locomotives is that they were never intended for use in mountainous terrain. They have inadequate brakes and must be operated at slow speed. On the descents, the brakes in all wagons are applied continuously, thus necessitating frequent stops so that the wheels can cool. XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that by the time trains have descended from the mountains, the wheels are glowing red hot.
The Karshi-Termez line carries Northern Distribution Network (NDN) rail traffic to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan....
XXXXXXXXXXXX's description of current operations on the Karshi-Termez rail line is cause for concern. XXXXXXXXXXXX underlined this by saying he himself refused to travel on the line under current conditions. His description of wheels that are red hot by the end of the mountain crossing implies that a train wreck is possible in the literal sense.
Another informative cable had been reported on by the Guardian, but not released, and deals with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov's conversation with the then-U.S. ambassador over Washington's human rights award to an Uzbek dissident. While Karimov responded angrily to the award, apparently others in the government believed Karimov overreacted, and the writer of the cable suggested that working around Karimov would thus be useful. It also suggests that -- at least in these cables -- the U.S. is taking the question of human rights in Uzbekistan seriously along with the military cooperation:
Clearly Karimov was concerned that the U.S. had made a policy decision to abandon cooperation with him. Equally clearly, pressuring him (especially publicly) could cost us transit through Uzbekistan into Afghanistan, not to mention the ability to engage on human rights and other issues. What is most interesting is that senior staff around him appear to be letting on to us (for the first time) that they know his behavior can harm Uzbek interests and even contradict those positions which he himself espouses. We should seize this opportunity to engage with these officials in a more structured dialogue. The approach of working around Karimov at the margins may be galling in the face of his intransigence, but ultimately it is likely to get us further on issues across-the-board pending the political succession that inevitably will occur here one of these days.
On the ADB-funded 70-80 km rail link from Hayraton to Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, XXXXXXXXXXXX claimed that Uzbek Railways had padded the construction cost by more than a factor of two. Whereas the rule of thumb for railroad construction in the U.S. is $1 million USD per mile, the budget for the new rail line in Afghanistan is $160 million USD. For a line that will not span any major rivers or face other geological impediments, the main challenge will be security, not engineering.
Another cable described First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov's keen desire for the NDN to economically benefit Uzbekistan, saying that was Uzbekistan's top priority for the NDN:
Switching from Russian to English and strongly emphasizing his next point, Azimov said he appreciates that the President of the United States and Secretary of Defense recognize the price of Uzbekistan's support. He expressed hope that the volume of cargo will increase and benefit the United States as well as bring profit to Uzbekistan....
Uzbekistan will not dictate what the U.S. should buy, and the GOU will respect U.S. procedures and take steps to ensure that there is no such interference. "If purchases don't increase, we'll be concerned," he said, citing a "target figure" of 100 million USD.
Cynics familiar with the tight relationship between the government elite and business in Uzbekistan can interpret this however they wish...
And one last cable -- despite protestations to the contrary -- will certainly fuel suspicion in Moscow and elsewhere that the U.S. is playing a geopolitical "great game" in Central Asia:
Russia's fall from favor in Tashkent is yet another opening that we can exploit to advance our objectives. Without lending support to "great game" theorists through our actions, we have a chance to build constructive relations by supporting the sovereignty of the Central Asian states. Our greatest challenge is to help them build that sovereignty in a way that is sustainable and that moves countries such as Uzbekistan closer to more progressive standards of governance.
UPDATE: I spoke with Al Jazeera English yesterday about the NDN. See the interview here:
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.