When Pakistan recently closed its border with Afghanistan in retaliation for US air strikes that killed Pakistani soldiers, a private company called FMN Logistics issued a press release promoting its role in the Northern Distribution Network, an emerging supply line that takes US and NATO goods overland through Russia and the ex-Soviet Central Asian states rather than via dangerous and unpredictable Pakistan.
‘With the recent developments in Pakistan it’s vital that a safe alternative for supplying FOB’s (forward operating bases) and organizations operating within Afghanistan exist,’ the company’s CEO, Harry Eustace Jr., said. ‘FMN has delivered more consignments to NATO and US Forces than any other freight forwarder operating on the NDN. As concerns continue to grow about the Pakistani supply routes, the NDN and FMN’s capabilities there are crucial to the continuing support of United States and NATO Forces and their prime service contractors.’
What the press release didn’t say was that FMN is a former subsidiary of the Uzbekistan holding company Zeromax, in which Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, is widely believed to have a large role. Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan since shortly before it became independent from the Soviet Union, and in that time has amassed one of the worst records of human rights abuses and misgovernment on the planet. The government holds thousands of political prisoners and police widely use torture. It’s one of only nine countries to get the worst possible score on Freedom House’s rankings of civil and political liberties and in the most recent Transparency International rankings, it was named the fifth-most corrupt country in the world.
But by virtue of military necessity, the United States is deepening its ties with Karimov’s government. Supply lines from Pakistan have been the target of frequent attacks by the Taliban, and the early October shutdown of the border proved that route was subject to the will of Islamabad as well. The terrible floods in Pakistan this summer further disrupted the routes.
For the last two years, the US military has been hedging its bets by sending more military cargo via the NDN. The United States now ships about 30 percent of its equipment for Afghanistan on the NDN, and nearly all of that crosses into Afghanistan through Uzbekistan at Termez—the same border crossing that Soviet troops relied on to invade, and then retreat from, Afghanistan.
The NDN is administered by the US military, but the actual shipping is done by a web of private logistics companies, like FMN. The US also has contracted with Uzbekistan’s state railway company to build a railroad from the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, to facilitate shipments of cargo into Afghanistan.
Because of human rights concerns, the US Congress has forbidden the State Department, the traditional dispenser of military aid, from giving any to Uzbekistan since 2004. But a new report by researcher Lora Lumpe found that even afterwards, the Pentagon, which has long valued its cooperation with Uzbekistan, tried hard to keep aid flowing. ‘The DOD (through the Office of Military Cooperation in the US Embassy Tashkent) and CENTCOM sustained as much military cooperation with the Uzbek military as they could, establishing logistics and other agreements and encouraging Uzbek participation in regional exercises and military leadership conferences,’ Lumpe wrote.
The Pentagon has also set up various other sorts of military funding that aren’t subject to the same oversight as the State Department money, making it impossible to know how much the United States is helping Uzbekistan’s military. But one figure that is public, the budget for administering the US embassy’s defence cooperation office, has been steadily growing.
And the Northern Distribution Network has only strengthened the US military’s role in Uzbekistan, says Alexander Cooley, a political scientist at Barnard College. ‘So, even if certain officials within the State Department still want to push the rights agenda, the Uzbek government knows that it can appeal to the US military which is focused on strategic issues and downplays issues of democracy, rights and governance,’ he says.
Uzbekistan’s confidence in US support was apparently so great that the government arrested and tried last month a reporter for Voice of America, a US government-run network, on spurious charges of defamation and endangering public security. The reporter, Abdumalik Boboyev, had even won an award from the US embassy for his reporting on US-Uzbekistan relations.
Tashkent apparently overplayed its hand, however, and when two top Uzbekistan government officials came to Washington while Boboyev was on trial they got an earful from State Department officials about the case. Boboyev was convicted on most of the charges but avoided jail time, getting an $11,000 fine.
Still, human rights groups say the Uzbekistan government has been stepping up its persecution of journalists and dissidents. But aside from Boboyev, ‘most other current cases lack this element of US interest that would prompt robust engagement from US officials,’ Cooley says.
And the NDN appears to be only growing in importance for the United States. The military recently tested a truck convoy through Europe and Central Asia to deliver military cargo, to create a road component to the route, now dominated by rail transport.
US government officials are even kicking around vague, but ambitious, plans to develop the NDN into a ‘modern Silk Road’ that would bolster Afghanistan’s long-term prosperity and security via transcontinental trade. ‘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,’ Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake said. General David Petraeus, the new commander of US forces in Afghanistan, also is reportedly a fan of the concept.
There are indications, however, that America’s enemies in Afghanistan are noticing the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on the NDN. The security situation in Afghanistan’s north has been badly deteriorating, and the German general in charge of coalition operations there said it was because militants were targeting supply lines there. It’s not yet clear if that violence will spread further north to Uzbekistan. But if it does, Tashkent will find an enthusiastic ally in Washington.