Features | Security | Central Asia

Can U.S. Get out of Afghanistan?

The United States faces a number of practical hurdles in getting its forces out of Afghanistan in 2014. But it has found an unlikely ally in its efforts.

Joshua Kucera
Can U.S. Get out of Afghanistan?
Credit: U.S. Army

The U.S. is facing a number of roadblocks in its effort to secure routes to pull its equipment out of Afghanistan, with erstwhile allies Pakistan and Uzbekistan making it clear that the U.S. can’t rely – as it has been until now – heavily on them. But in its effort to diversify its supply routes, it’s gaining cooperation from an unlikely source: Russia.

With plans to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan starting in 2014, the Pentagon is busy setting up what it calls “retrograde transit” agreements with countries neighboring Afghanistan. The U.S. already has a number of shipping routes in place, mainly through Pakistan and through the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia, a collection of routes known as the Northern Distribution Network.

But in November, an errant NATO airstrike killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers, and Pakistan immediately cut off all transit to coalition equipment. Those routes, which once carried about a third of the coalition’s equipment to Afghanistan, remain closed, though U.S. officials have expressed optimism that they will be able to negotiate to reopen them.

The U.S. had set up the Northern Distribution Network as a strategic hedge against Pakistan’s unpredictability, a decision that proved wise when Pakistan implemented its blockade. But the first round of agreements that the U.S. signed with the Central Asian governments didn’t provide for taking equipment out of Afghanistan, only bringing it in. Now, the U.S. has signed agreements with all the Central Asian countries for reverse transit, but some of the countries appear to be lagging on the implementation of those deals.

Uzbekistan, in particular, is reportedly raising prices it charges for the transit and creating bureaucratic delays. When one of the major NDN contractors, FMN Logistics, carried out its first retrograde transit shipment on February 29, it notably did so via the so-called KKT route, crossing Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. That route is longer and uses much worse roads than the Uzbekistan route, but those countries are more cooperative. However, the KKT route is still an incomplete solution: during winter, it’s all but impassable.

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Amid these difficulties, the U.S. is getting assistance from a country many regard as the United States’ biggest foe: Russia. Russia had already agreed to allow transit through the country (it is the best way to get to Europe after passing through Central Asia), but is now negotiating with the U.S. over opening a transit hub in the Volga River city of Ulyanovsk.

The Ulyanovsk facility would be used for the U.S. and NATO to fly goods from Afghanistan into Russia, and then by rail onward to Europe. That is more expensive than surface transport all the way to Europe or the U.S., but less expensive than flying the goods the whole way. As such, it provides an acceptable alternative to Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

Russia has done this at some political risk. After years of rhetorically demonizing NATO to gain points with nationalist Russians, the Kremlin is now in the uncomfortable position of having to defend its cooperation with the Western alliance. Government officials have taken great pains to explain that the facility under discussion is not a “base” and that no NATO personnel will be based there, but Russian online reaction to the news has been withering, and there have been small Communist- and nationalist-led protests against the plan. Ironically, it’s been Dmitry Rogozin – who as Russia’s ambassador to NATO became famous for his colorful, undiplomatic jibes against the alliance – who has led the PR effort defending Moscow’s cooperation with Brussels. “This will be a commercial transit, which means the Russian budget will get money from it. I don’t think that the transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia can be considered the betrayal of the Fatherland,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

As Rogozin said, Russia is not setting up the Ulyanovsk hub as a favor to a friend, but because it is in its interest to do so. In addition to the commercial interest, Russia also has a strategic interest in helping the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan. President Vladimir Putin in a recent speech called NATO a “relic of the Cold War,” but added: “We understand what is happening in Afghanistan – right? We are interested in things there being under control – right? And we do not want our soldiers to fight on the Tajik-Afghan border…Well, NATO and the Western community is present there (sic). God give them good health. Let them work.”

Allowing a NATO presence in Ulyanovsk also gains Russia something else: a decrease in the amount the U.S. needs Central Asia. While Russia wants the U.S. to succeed in Afghanistan, it’s still wary of the Americans becoming too comfortable in the region. Russia hasn’t muted its calls for the U.S. to leave its airbase in Kyrgyzstan, and has recently tried to thwart a new U.S.-led counterdrug program in Central Asia.

While the U.S. needs Uzbekistan for transit to and from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan wants the United States to provide a strategic counterweight to Russia. Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, mistrusts Moscow, and is using his country’s growing ties with the U.S. to show Russia that he has other options for big power allies. Taking business away from Uzbekistan helps weaken that link – while earning a little money on toilet paper duties, to boot.