America’s Afghan Supply Problem

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Pakistan’s suspension of U.S. military supply routes has highlighted the increasing importance of ex-Soviet countries, most notably Uzbekistan and Russia, to the United States’ war effort in Afghanistan. But there are also signs that those countries may not be as reliable as the U.S. would hope for, auguring a difficult next few years for America as it manages these seemingly delicate relationships.

The latest round of trouble with Pakistan began November 26, when a U.S. air attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers just over the border from Afghanistan. Pakistan immediately announced that it would boot the United States from an air base that the Americans had been using to launch drones against militant targets in Pakistan’s north, and also that it would shut its border with Afghanistan to NATO military traffic. Islamabad also pulled out of a meeting in Bonn on December 5 that the United States wanted to use to bolster regional cooperation in advance of the 2014 start of the U.S. and NATO withdrawal.

The U.S. and NATO, having already anticipated problems with Pakistan, had been building up another set of overland supply routes from Europe through the former Soviet Union to Afghanistan, known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). By the time of the Pakistan cutoff, a bit more than a third of NATO cargo to Afghanistan went in via the northern route, slightly more than via Pakistan. The remainder goes in by air, which avoids any geopolitical complications but is far more expensive.

It's not known how long Pakistan will keep the supply routes closed, but after an incident last year in which the U.S. killed three Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan shut off the border for ten days. U.S. officials say that with the NDN, and with large amounts of goods stockpiled in Afghanistan, they don't anticipate any shortages as a result. Still, recent events have shown that the United States’ partners on the northern route may now try to take advantage of its increased dependence on them.

Uzbekistan has been a key partner on the NDN and an estimated 98 percent of overland traffic from the north to Afghanistan passes through the southern Uzbekistan border city of Termez. As a result, and despite the unseemliness of cooperating with one of the most brutal and repressive governments in the world, the United States has been strengthening its ties with Tashkent. Washington recently changed its policy which forbade sales of military equipment to the country because of its miserable human rights record. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Tashkent in October, said there had been “progress” on human rights and democracy in the country, prompting critics to claim that Washington was selling out its principles for the sake of access for its military.

Thus far, the tradeoff has paid off: Uzbekistan has been a solid partner on the NDN. But recently, there have been signs it may not be willing to go along with all of the United States’ Afghanistan plans. Uzbekistan has, without explanation, abstained from the recent U.S. push for regional cooperation among Afghanistan’s neighbors. While Pakistan's pullout from the Bonn meeting garnered headlines, Uzbekistan skipped both that meeting and an earlier one on the same topic, in Istanbul in November.

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