Uzbekistan wants to help the United States transform the Northern Distribution Network from a supply route for military cargo bound for Afghanistan into a broader trade network, government officials say.
An Uzbek government delegation – led by First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulaziz Kamilov and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs Sodiq Safaev -- visited Washington from October 13-15. Kamilov and Safaev spoke October 14 at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“We have a great interest in the development of this Northern Distribution Network. We are cooperating with the United States, and we have to improve this cooperation, and we will reach some more agreements soon,” Kamilov said. “In the future, I think the Northern Distribution Network should not be used only for Afghanistan. We think it will be very important infrastructure for the economic development of the region.”
“The logistical setting-up of this network is still going on, it's an unfolding process,” Safaev added. “The good will is here on both sides, the point is logistics.”
The Uzbek officials' comments echo an increasingly popular theme among US diplomats, who believe the NDN could become the basis for a “modern Silk Road,” enriching Afghanistan and Central Asia by making them the center of trade routes. “The Northern Distribution Network has the potential to improve transportation infrastructure and stimulate trade routes connecting Central Asia to the growing markets of South Asia, which would have a lasting economic benefit,” Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said in a speech in July.
The Uzbek delegation came to Washington to promote their plan of a “6+3” contact group, including the United States, Russia, NATO and the six states bordering Afghanistan, to mediate between the Kabul government and radical Islamic insurgents. But State Department officials say that their traditional position has not changed, that they oppose any regional meetings on Afghanistan that don't include the government of Afghanistan.
The visit also was complicated by the case of a reporter for the Voice of America Uzbek service, Abdulmalik Boboyev, who went on trial in Tashkent on charges of “defamation,” “preparing and disseminating material constituting a threat to public order and security,” and "unlawful entry or exit to Uzbekistan.” Many international observers described the case as politically motivated.
In an interview with VOA shortly before the delegation's visit, Blake criticized Boboyev’s arrest, and warned that it could harm Uzbekistan's interests. “We have followed that case very closely. We are concerned by his arrest and his trial and we are monitoring the trial,” he said. “The more that foreign investors see that there is a free press, internet availability and things like that, the more they'll believe there is an open, competitive environment and they can do business there.”
Kamilov acknowledged that the Boboyev case had come up in the meetings with US officials, but said it was not under his control. “It's a matter for the Uzbek courts. … But it was discussed here with the appropriate agencies,” he said. Boboyev was convicted on two charges – defamation and distributing information that disrupted public order -- on October 15. He was fined $11,000, but did not receive prison time.
Tashkent welcomed the recent elections in Kyrgyzstan, calling them “free and fair,” Safaev said. He also called for an independent investigation into the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June.
Kamilov called on the United States and its coalition partners in Afghanistan to do more to combat drug trafficking in Afghanistan, complaining that over the past decade Central Asian states have become not merely a transit route for Afghan narcotics on their way to Europe, but a market, as well. “Warlordism, weak government, corruption – if we want to address all these major problems of Afghanistan we have to start with narcotics. It's very difficult to explain ... why the Taliban were able almost to eradicate narcotics and the incumbent government, with the involvement of the international coalition, has failed,” he said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.