Uzbeki beki stan stan

The NDN in the Context of the Modern Silk Road Strategy

In Joe Raimondi on December 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Ongoing military operations in Afghanistan necessitate viable supply routes of non-lethal goods in the short-term, and long-term stabilization efforts there and in Eurasia, more broadly, may require significant resources from a number of countries. The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan coupled with the souring U.S-Pakistan relationship have been integral to the development of a new supply route that traverses Latvia, Russia, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, bypassing and acting as a hedge to the traditional Pakistan one, which begins in Karachi and moves northward into Afghanistan. This new route – the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) – is comprised of three distinct spurs, and has been operating for almost three years. Thus far, it has been an increasingly significant but relatively inefficient conduit for resupply operations to NATO-ISAF personnel in Afghanistan.

As the War in Afghanistan has (d)evolved over the past ten years, there has been a strategic shift towards stabilization, and counterinsurgency as a consequence of increasing violence and instability. The NDN is a component to these efforts as well as the U.S.’s Modern Silk Road Strategy (MSR), aimed at developing a transcontinental commercial network in Eurasia, with revenues being generated from the transit trade (commerce as well as energy). This would function as an economic stimulus to the region, facilitate trade between Europe and East/Southeast Asia, and most importantly, contribute to long-term regional stabilization. Theoretically, such a network would have a “transformative effect on Eurasia.”

The NDN was originally designed as a “tactical response to concerns over pilferage, attacks, and dependency on supply lines in an increasingly unstable Pakistan,” essentially acting as a hedge against sole reliance on the Pakistan route. In the last year, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the death of two dozen Pakistani soldiers due to a NATO attack on Pakistani soil have strained the U.S.-Pakistan relationship even more, the latter being integral to the recent closing of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at various critical resupply points. It has evolved from a “tactical response” to one piece within the more ambitious Modern Silk Road Strategy. According to Andrew Kuchins, Thomas Sanderson, and David Gordon, who have written extensively about the NDN’s scope and the MSR, the perceived benefits of the NDN are tripartite. It “provides the U.S. with significant additional throughput capacity to Afghanistan, ends Washington’s complete logistical reliance on Pakistan, and presents new opportunities for U.S. engagement in Latvia, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.”

The NDN’s operational importance has grown in the past two years as the volume of cargo transported along it has increased, totaling approximately 75 percent of “all Afghan-bound, non-military cargo” by the end of 2011. Yet the operational costs are tremendous relative to the Pakistan route – not that there is a viable alternative at the moment. In late 2009, it cost 250 percent more per TEU (20-foot equivalent unit, a standard unit for measuring cargo) than the Karachi-Peshawar route, and represented a “fraction of the overall commercial traffic in the region.” Between February and November of 2009, 4,500 TEUs were transported via the NDN, but this “represents just 12.5 percent of the total number of TEUs shipped through Pakistan in 2008.” In the larger context of Eurasian commercial transit, in 2007 there were 34,300 TEUs shipped between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

More recent figures show that over the past two years the transit costs have come down, though still enormous compared to the Pakistan route. Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper, puts the average cost per TEU delivered via the NDN at $12,367, compared to $6,700 on the Pakistan route. Due to recent Afghanistan-Pakistan border closings, the volume of cargo on the NDN will have to grow, but its share of Afghan-bound cargo has increased significantly over the past two years, currently standing at approximately 40% of total U.S. cargo in Afghanistan and 52% of total NATO-ISAF (Coalition) Cargo.

Nonetheless, the NDN is hampered by entrenched and multilayered corruption, an unsurprising fact given its geographic reliance through some of the most corrupt states in the world. The NDN’s viability is contingent on efficiently moving material through these states and across international borders (of which there are several). As of yet, this efficiency does not exist due to a number of factors. One is the system of informal payments that exists along the NDN, affecting both nominal and time costs, which prohibits fluid movement of cargo through the Central Asian states.Unfortunately, this example is one among many in the larger context of political issues that undermine the NDN’s long-term viability.

Increasingly significant Central Asian supply routes also provide the authoritarian governments of these states with more leverage to effect in various ways.Not-too-distant events in Uzbekistan can illustrate the NDN’s political costs on a broader level. Andrew Kuchins relates “two misunderstandings in the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship that came to the surface following the 2005 Andijan uprising and subsequent eviction of the U.S. from its base at Karshi-Khanabad. The first “concerned priorities and expectations.” Islam Karimov did not expect U.S. criticism of his regime’s human rights record nor appreciate U.S. fostering of the “colored” revolutions through the two years prior. The U.S. probably did not expect this pattern of behavior to evoke such a strong reaction by Karimov. The second misunderstanding speaks even more directly to the NDN’s political costs, and one that is a “cause for caution.” Kuchins states that “Even in relations with small and comparatively obscure countries, Washington does not automatically have the upper hand. Central Asian nations have leverage, and will use it.”

Evaluations of the NDN and the MSR should account for several issues, since increasing reliance on the NDN may create a misguided justification for the more ambitious MSR strategy. In this sense, the NDN is not just a tactical but also a transitional component to this strategy. First, what kind of criteria and timeframe should be used to evaluate the relative success or failure of the Modern Silk Road? Additionally, if a transcontinental Eurasian commercial network is feasible, albeit costly and dependent on long-term sustained commitments, to what extent is it contingent upon U.S. leadership coupled with investments from other states with vested interests? Namely, those states are India, China, Russia, and Iran – whose projected role has been confounding for U.S. policymakers. Finally, to what degree has the “potential for transcontinental trade linking East Asia, South and Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East,” which according to S. Frederick Starr is “staggering,” romanticized visions for the future based on an untenable but convenient historical analogy? More to the point is John Heathershaw, who remarks that, “the New Silk Road is a cliché which gives the impression that various economic- and security- based initiatives are combined into a single strategic framework. This is not the case. Outside Washington, it has little meaning or purchase.”

– Joe Raimondi

Source: STRATFOR (cited in David Trilling, “The Northern Distribution Network Nightmare,” Foreign Policy, December 6, 2011)
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