America’s Afghan Supply Problem


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.

May 8, 2012 at 06:09

@m: “we must think always of Universal security of peace loving citizen of the World and it is our responsibility to protect and secure our fellow human being against the attack of the hostile Islamic extremist and terrorism,”

Hostile Islamic extremist and terrorism that YOUR angelic, beautiful, peace loving West was responsible for creating in the first place! Your post has “White Man’s Burden” plastered all over it. It is exactly this ignorance of ground realities and unrepentant self-righteous arrogance that has created such a mess of the world.

Michael E Piston
December 17, 2011 at 11:30

When the United States’ national security was at risk in WWII we happily embraced the Soviet Union as our ally. How many people today believe that was a bad decision? Yet compared to Stalin, the current leadership of Uzbekistan are libertarians.

December 15, 2011 at 00:11

It’s interesting to observe how the so called democratic principles are applied in a way that is convenient to the West. They first call Uzbek regime despotic one,introduce sanctions, later when Tashkent gets new important role, come to find some progress in the same repressive regime. When the troops will leave and Uzbekistan’s transit importance decrease,we will witness the return of democratic principles. Guys there in the White House,its amusing to watch you.

December 14, 2011 at 09:46

We don’t know what really happen on that incident, but we must think always of Universal security of peace loving citizen of the World and it is our responsibility to protect and secure our fellow human being against the attack of the hostile Islamic extremist and terrorism, all things should be talk over the cup of coffee negotiation for the benefit of our future generation security and stability…

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