NATO is striving to rapidly conclude a deal with Central Asian states on an inter-continental rail link that would ease the supply of non-lethal equipment and assistance for both military and reconstruction operations in Afghanistan.
The rail project is an outgrowth of NATO's efforts to reinvigorate its Afghan operations. Discussions on how to improve Afghan reconstruction efforts featured prominently at the alliance's early April summit in Bucharest. Alliance members reaffirmed their commitment to Afghanistan's security, but indicated a need for a fundamental strategy shift. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
At present, the cost of supplying NATO operations in Afghanistan is astronomical, due mainly to the fact that most supplies must be brought in by air. According to NATO estimates, airlifting supplies to Afghanistan costs a whopping $14,000 per ton, or roughly $7 per pound. In addition to the high cost, the air option may not be able to handle the requirements necessitated by an expansion of NATO forces in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A Europe-Afghan rail link could cut supply costs to roughly $300-$500 per ton, allowing the bloc to both save tremendously on transportation and increase supply for its Afghanistan operations. The optimal route envisioned at this time would traverse Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. By all appearances, NATO has secured approval in principle from all the potential transit states.
After the Bucharest summit, Robert Simmons, the NATO secretary-general's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, held detailed talks with Uzbek officials. No official announcements have been made by either side concerning the substance of those discussions. Simmons also was in Kazakhstan from April 7-11 for ceremonies in connection with NATO partnership week. During that time he reportedly received a "positive response" concerning the railway from Kazakhstani leaders.
Despite the secretive nature of the railway negotiations, some details about the project have leaked out. Firstly, no new railroads are expected to be built at this point; the route will follow existing Soviet-era high-capacity tracks. Secondly, NATO shipments will be treated as "merchandise" subject to transit tariffs. None of the parties involved in the negotiations have mentioned any specific figures, however.
Another interesting detail is that, according to a source with access to information about the negotiations, NATO indicated that if route proves reliable and efficient, the alliance will seek the permission of transit states to allow military equipment to travel over the railway. This option would necessitate closer cooperation between NATO and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which several transit states are members. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The CSTO is generally wary of the US presence in the Caspian Basin, but there are indications that the group is ready to cooperation with NATO on Afghan operations. Ultimately, an agreement on the potential transport of military equipment may come down to what tradeoffs, if any, NATO is willing to make with Russia.
Russian opposition to the rail plan has diminished in a way commensurate with the revival of the Taliban's combat capabilities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In 2003, NATO had already discussed a supply route with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, but, due to Russia's resistance, it was only offered an air corridor. Now, Russia has already proven to be far more accommodating. And when the Kremlin signaled its approval for a rail corridor for non-lethal assistance, it was obviously speaking on behalf of all CSTO members. It is worth noting that CSTO chief Nikolai Bordyuzha has made several visits to Central Asia since NATO's Bucharest meeting most recently, Uzbekistan on April 27-29 to "discuss political cooperation of [CSTO] member states, and coordinate their foreign policies."
For transit states, especially Uzbekistan, the railway could lead to enhanced security via closer cooperation with NATO, in addition to income from transit fees. Uzbekistan is one of the key winners, because NATO's continued presence in Afghanistan would help shield Tashkent from potential Islamic radical threats emanating out of Afghanistan.
Russia also stands to gain. Firstly, it can use the project as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with NATO on other issues, such as the bloc's enlargement and missile-shield project. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Secondly, Moscow is happy to have NATO offset a large portion of the burden of defending Central Asia and Russia proper from the twin scourges of Islamic radicalism and narcotics trafficking. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly stated April 2 during a parliamentary hearing that NATO involvement in Afghanistan serves Moscow's strategic interests. "In the absence of a restraining factor embodied by international security forces, terrorist groups would feel more free to plan [terrorist] activities in Central Asian and the Russian Federation," Lavrov said.
Moscow also sees the NATO's Afghan presence as a boon to the Kremlin's global geopolitical agenda. "In the early 2000s, global powers were preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, giving Russia time to recover from the defeat in the Cold War," says a Tashkent-based analyst. "Russia wants to keep them [the United States and European Union] preoccupied."
Other than the Europe-Afghan railway, there would seem to be no other viable options for the overland supply of Afghan reconstruction efforts. One route already seeing limited use a road network from Pakistan into southern regions of Afghanistan has already been deemed unviable, given that convoys have to pass through areas that are Taliban strongholds. The dangers were highlighted in March, when a convoy of oil tankers bound for NATO forces was attacked and destroyed at Torkham, a border-crossing town and the key transportation hub between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another potential overland route would connect Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to Afghanistan. This option, however, is a logistical nightmare waiting to happen.