AFGHANISTAN: US TROOP SURGE LIKELY TO FUEL FINANCIAL BONANZA FOR CENTRAL ASIAN STATES
Deirdre Tynan 1/20/10
The US troop surge for Afghanistan seems set to turn into a financial bonanza for several authoritarian-minded states in Central Asia.
US President Barack Obama announced in early December that an additional 30,000 troops would be deployed in Afghanistan as quickly as possible. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
To make that happen, the US military will be relying heavily on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a web of road, rail and air links running through Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The US Transportation Command estimates that the NDN currently is handling about 35 percent of the resupply traffic bound for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, relieving pressure on the main resupply route heading through Pakistan.
Some observers contend that the real value of the NDN lies not in how many containers it handles, but in how the network, in particular its lucrative contracts, helps align the states of Central Asia with US and European Union policy objectives in Afghanistan.
"The NDN is a political construct. On a good day, shipping on the NDN is twice as expensive as shipping via Pakistan, even after accounting for losses [on the Pakistani route due to Taliban attacks]," a source familiar with re-supply logistics told EurasiaNet. "If push comes to shove, all military needs can be met via Pakistan. So, the reason for the NDN’s existence is that there was a political decision to do it."
Recent modifications to Section 1223 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 indicate that the United States is prepared to lavish funds on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and possibly Turkmenistan, in order to expedite the troop surge.
According to the revisions, "certain coalition nations" providing "logistical, military, and other support," will be eligible for "reimbursements." The Pentagon has a reserve fund of $1.6 billion that it can tap into for programs falling under Section 1223 initiatives. Section 1223 assistance can also take the form of "specialized training to personnel" of Central Asian states, or "the procurement and provision of supplies to that nation in connection with such operations."
In effect, the Pentagon could loan "specialized equipment" to Central Asian states that it never intended to recover. Section 1223 revisions note that equipment loans would be made on "a non-reimbursable basis." Department of Defense representatives have declined to comment on the Section 1223 revisions.
On a practical level, US military planners are scrambling to handle the logistics of the surge. For example, thousands of US troops deployed to Afghanistan will travel through the Manas Transit Center near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. To accommodate the surge, American planners will have to rapidly expand some of Manas’ facilities.
Maj. Rickardo Bodden, the head of public affairs at Manas, would not provide a specific number for the future flow of personnel through the transit center. "[US] Airmen are committed to supporting the president’s decision," Bodden said. "The Transit Center’s missions of providing onward movement of forces, air refueling, airlift and humanitarian assistance will continue."
"Airlift will be a major component of getting the additional forces and resources to Afghanistan," Maj. Bodden added. "Airmen here are prepared to do what is needed to fulfill the president’s directives when told."
A tender advertised recently for the construction of a 525 square-meter dining facility at Manas Transit Center suggests there will be many more mouths feed at the transit center in the coming months. As of January 20, three American companies and two Turkish companies -- and no Kyrgyz companies -- had listed themselves as interested vendors.
Meanwhile, the Uzbek government appears to be profiting handsomely from its participation in the NDN. In September, just five months after Uzbek President Islam Karimov revealed Navoi airport would be used to handle non-military cargo bound for US forces in Afghanistan, the airport’s profitability increased "ten-fold" compared to the same period in 2008, according to a statement distributed by the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Unlike at the Manas Transit Center, the United States does not pay rent for the use of Navoi. But Korean Air, the Pentagon’s proxy in the shipment process, deals directly with the Uzbek government and enjoys substantial tax breaks. More than $60 million has been invested the joint Uzbek-Korean project to date.
Rail routes through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan aim to carry up to 1,400 containers per month. The NDN is currently working at its stated capacity but this still represents a significant under-utilization of the network’s potential, given that it consists of two corridors bringing goods to the Uzbek-Afghan border through the Caucasus and down from the Baltic states.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth S. Dowd, US Central Command’s director for logistics, is explicit about the political considerations behind the NDN’s development. "We got with our command’s policy team and our political/military folks and looked at other opportunities to bring supplies into Afghanistan," Dowd said in a November interview with Military Logistics Forum magazine. "It was a choice to try and improve the [lines of communication] while helping the [political/military] teams in their engagement with these other countries."
Editor's Note: Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.
Posted January 20, 2010 © Eurasianet