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“Someone Should Do Something…?” *

In Joe Raimondi on August 27, 2012 at 5:21 pm

* see Russell Brand for more on the title

Reading William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good (2006), I came across the following paragraph (quoted in full), regarding Western aid agencies’ AIDS prevention-treatment efforts over the past three decades:

AIDS treatment is another example of the SIBD syndrome – rich-country politicians want to convince rich-country voters that ‘something is being done’ (SIBD) about the tragic problem of AIDS in Africa. It is easier to achieve SIBD catharsis if politicians and aid officials treat people who are already sick, than it is to persuade people with multiple sexual partners to use condoms to prevent many more people from getting the disease. Alas, the poor’s interests are sacrificed to political convenience. When the U.S. congress passed Bush’s fifteen-billion dollar AIDS program (known as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR) in May 2003, it placed a restriction that no more than 20 percent of the funds be spent on prevention, while 55 percent was allocated for treatment. (225)

SIBD syndrome, on some level, conveys a focus on treatment rather than prevention, which in turn suggests that the underlying causes of the problem are not addressed. At the governmental or organizational level, this translates into an emphasis on AIDS treatment rather than prevention: the symptoms are being addressed, but the root causes perpetuate. As noted, a fairly recent example is Bush’s PEPFAR program, which allocates funding for prevention and treatment at 20 percent and 55 percent, respectively. The sub-title of the chapter to which this passage belongs? “Path of Least Resistance.”

There’s a compelling economic component to arguments about treatment versus prevention (although Easterly acknowledges that “this past negligence is not an argument for or against any particular direction of action today – we must move forward from where we are now”): money spent on prevention is less costly and significantly more efficient. This is in no small part because it addresses the root causes of the problem (i.e. condom promotion)

He continues:

Why do we have a well-publicized Treatment Access Coalition when there is no Prevention Access Coalition? Why didn’t the WHO have a ‘3 by 5’ campaign intended to prevent three million new cases of AIDS by the end of 2005? The activists have been only too successful in focusing attention on treatment instead of prevention. A Lexis-Nexis search of articles on AIDS in Africa in The Economist over the previous two years found eighty-eight articles that mentioned ‘treatment’ but only twenty-two that mentioned ‘prevention.’ (226)

In terms of costs, the difference between treatment and prevention is striking: “overall, the World Bank estimates the cost per year for a variety of health interventions like these [i.e. voluntary testing] to range from five to forty dollars, compared with the fifteen-hundred-dollar cost of prolonging the life of an AIDS patient by a year with antiretroviral treatment” (223).

When figures like these are thrown around, we have to remember that sometimes the deceptively low cost obfuscates more complex, long-term issues, or hidden costs. This applies to both shockingly “cheap” figures for prevention as well as treatment. One example are first-line therapy drugs (an AIDS treatment) at $304 per year, which work for about as long before the virus builds up resistance. A more comprehensive figure, quoted by Easterly, is about $1,500 “per year per patient for delivering treatment to prolong the life of an AIDS patient by one year” (222)

SIBD syndrome seems to be linked to a focus on the treatment of AIDS rather than its prevention, for a variety of reasons (i.e. certain prevention/intervention mechanisms may be controversial for religious reasons in some parts of the African continent). Putting the focus on prevention, however, lends credence to one of Easterly’s primary points: the need to move away from Big Plans for Big Problems, and towards focused, efficient, piecemeal solutions that take account of context and local voices.

War Games: While Expedient, Drones Present Their Own Set Of Problems

In Joe Raimondi on February 19, 2012 at 11:16 am

Drone technology has come a long way since 1995, the year the first Predator drone entered service. That unmanned aircraft hardly resembles those in use today – given that it lacked GPS and was unarmed. Even on September 11, 2001, the U.S. Air Force possessed exactly one MQ-1 Predator drone. Today, there are “57 Predators up, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, looking at different target points around the world,” according to Air Force Major General James Poss. Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute, notes “the United States military has more than 7,000 unmanned aerial systems, popularly called drones. There are 12,000 more on the ground.”

As the number of drones increases, so too do debates and speculation about their present and projected roles in conflicts, usually oriented around questions of accountability, proliferation, international law, and morality. How does the public feel? Some opinion polls indicate that only a minute percentage of U.S. voters oppose the program (9%), while approximately three-quarters of likely voters support the use of unmanned aircraft to kill terrorists. Perhaps augmenting a more pronounced role for drones going forward is the notion, advanced by Andrew Bacevich recently, of an “endless war.” In this scenario, drones are a useful, if not necessary technological component, because unlike conventional military strategies that require large-scale mobilization of human and material resources, they “insulate the people from war’s effects.” The American public’s support for the use of drones combined with new Department of Defense policies suggest that there will continue to be a variety of roles for robotic technology in warfare.

Political expediency is a huge factor in the decision to make these attacks more widespread in the war on terror under the Obama administration, in marked contrast to the Bush-era emphasis on interrogation and detention (and torture) of suspects. “The strongest appeal of unmanned systems is that we don’t have to send someone’s son or daughter into harm’s way. But when politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter – and the impact that military casualties have on voters and the news media – they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way” (“Do Drones Undermine Democracy?”). Singer remarks upon one of the primary reasons drones have become increasingly utilized as components to warfare: they carry virtually no risk when weighed against putting human lives on the line. As the security situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan have deteriorated and the domestic political costs of both the Iraq (until recently) and Afghanistan wars have increased considerably, employing Predator drones rather than soldiers (on the ground) for both intelligence-gathering and lethal operations, where feasible, is at the very least politically smart.

While public support for the use of drones in the war on terror remains high, there has not been a lack of debate about the issue of accountability. Joshua Foust writes, “Obama is asserting a unique, new authority to use drones to kill people. However, the president is asserting the right to summarily execute people around the world in part because Congress authorized him to do so.” He is referring to the Authorized Use of Military Force, passed September 18, 2001, and suggesting that Congress is, to a large degree, accountable, insofar as it was Congress’s “ceding all authority on lethal operations to the president” that is to blame for creating broadly-worded and easily manipulated executive powers over the past ten years. Foust is correct to hold the legislature accountable, but perhaps pays too little attention to the context in which the AUMF was passed. Both the House and the Senate votes on this joint resolution illustrate the incredible mandate Bush was given to conduct counterterrorist operations, driven in part by the climate of fear, rage, and uncertainty. In this sense, while both branches of government are accountable for the capacity to employ unmanned aircraft in lethal operations, the bigger issue is the expansive set of executive powers that have been granted over the past ten years.

Since their inception, drones have existed in nebulous moral and legal space for the general public and for politicians, as one would expect when we arrive at a point in time when it’s technologically possible to patrol the skies of Pakistan from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 7,000 miles away. The dilemma that immediately comes to mind, for many, is the dangerous precedent being set by utilizing unmanned aircraft to target and kill people, to say nothing of the fact that “the vast majority of suspected militants targeted are not members of al-Qaeda, nor are they involved in plots against the U.S. homeland.” This signifies both the collateral damage that is incurred in a drone strike and the incapacity for anyone to really have access to much factual information about these attacks, given their covert nature. The precedents that are being set by increasingly and continually utilizing drones are manifold. On one hand we have technology that not only enables but potentially facilitates a misunderstanding of the costs and dangers of warfare. On the other this technology simultaneously allows us to skirt international law and state sovereignty – via cross-border strikes in places that the U.S. doesn’t have hostile relations with – and has thus far been shrouded in secrecy and non-transparency.

Between 2004 – 2011, under the auspices of the CIA – the lead executive authority – the U.S. carried out approximately 300 drone attacks in Pakistan alone, classified as “covert actions.” The vast majority have occurred in North and South Waziristan, border regions in Pakistan that are often described as safe havens for terrorists. It is well known that under the Obama administration, these attacks increased and have been utilized in a prominent tactical role in the global war on terror, via both intelligence gathering and more (in)famously, the targeting of alleged terrorist leaders, militants, suspects, and affiliates. Between 2009 – 2011 (as of November 15), there were an estimated 241 drone attacks just in Pakistan, compared to 42 total over the preceding four year period. More than one-third of these attacks came in 2010. While technically covert, the usage of drones in the war on terror has in fact been a “poorly kept secret,” an elephant in the room whose presence is obvious to those around it and yet never officially remarked upon – because as a covert program it didn’t need to be. Perhaps Obama’s decision to acknowledge these attacks on-the-record was more a function of coming clean about an open secret, noting during a Google+ “hangout” that “obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] going after al-Qaeda suspects.”

These attacks have been employed in no less than six states, famously in Yemen in September 2011 when a drone attack was responsible for the killing of al-Qaeda operative – and American citizen – Anwar al-Awlaki. The case of Yemen is indicative of one of the more troubling long-term effects of a growing drone program: blowback. Jeremy Scahill writes:

“The October drone strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. ‘I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for al-Qaeda, because those operations gave al-Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,’ says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes ‘have recruited thousands’ Yemeni tribesmen, he says, [and] share one common goal with al-Qaeda, ‘which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.’ Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. ‘People certainly resent these [US] interventions,’ Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes.'”

In the same manner that al-Qaeda’s popularity has plummeted among Muslim communities across the world as a consequence of indiscriminate targeting, local communities’ perceptions of U.S. interventions have similarly fallen and are here intertwined with both revenge and radicalization. Going forward, utilizing drones as a low-risk tactic to target militants without simultaneously taking into account the fact that collateral damage may lead to radicalization is incredibly reckless. Stephen Walt remarks on the danger of blowback in a recent blog post: “Are we going to understand that such hostility didn’t emerge solely because these people ‘hate our values,’ but rather because a cousin, brother, or fellow countryman was targeted by an American drone, and maybe in error?”

What have the human costs been? Data from the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative (CSI) at the New America Foundation (not yet provided for 2012) gives high and low estimates for the number of total deaths and the number of militant deaths. The low figure for 2010, for example, puts the total number of deaths at 607, of which 581 were alleged militants. The ratio of militants-civilians/noncombatants killed via drone attacks is similar for the high number, which estimates the total dead at 993, of which 939 were militants. The CSI’s low figure for total deaths between 2004 – 2011 is 1,717, while its high figure is 2,680. The level of uncertainty in gauging the human cost of these attacks is astounding, in terms of accurately gauging the number killed and even delineating those killed between noncombatants and “militants.” We are thus neither able to measure how many people are being killed nor who these people are. In fairness, our notion of collateral damage has over time become increasingly narrower as a function of the changing nature of conflict and the technology of warfare. “During the Second World War, it took an average of 108 bomber missions to get one bomb to hit the intended target. As a result, we accepted a broader notion of collateral damage and civilian casualties than we would now. These days, one Predator can hit multiple targets with laser precision. Thus, when just a couple of people are killed accidentally, we consider it a tragedy. If the same number of casualties had been lost during the Second World War, we would have considered it an unimaginable success” (“When RoboCop Replaces Private Jackson”). Historical perspective is useful to some extent, but ultimately is limited in what it can tell us about the long-term effects, like blowback, of an extensive transnational drone campaign.

If Andrew Bacevich is correct in his assertion about the U.S.’s embroilment in a kind of “endless war” going forward, it will only enhance the role for drones (as well as special forces) given that this type of war would be “small” in nature and unlike the over-ambitious and expensive statebuilding projects of the past. The scenario is Orwellian, but given what we have seen the past ten years in terms of enhanced executive power, characterizations of the war on terror, and general public support for it, it’s a scenario that isn’t inconceivable. Perhaps just as dangerous as the legal and moral issues surrounding drones per se is political and public insulation from the effects of these small, shadow wars.

Resetting the Reset with Mitt Romney

In Joe Raimondi on January 18, 2012 at 10:31 am

Suppose Mitt Romney wins the Republican presidential nomination and competes against Barack Obama later this year in the general election. If he were to win the general election, would his administration’s relationship and engagement with Russia be radically different than that pursued under the Obama administration? While most analysis of Romney’s foreign policy approach understandably deals with it in more general terms (see James Joyner or various blog posts by Dan Drezner), both Josh Kucera and Mark Adomanis have detailed the parts of Romney’s foreign policy white paper that address Russia. The word “banal” pops up in both pieces. Maybe his ideas about foreign policy (per the white paper) are “banal.” If so, is this more-or-less a consequence of Romney’s need to at least superficially defer to mainstream Republican foreign policy tropes, if only for campaign purposes?

To what extent should we view his white paper as an indicator of what foreign policy initiatives under President Romney would look like? There are at least two things to keep in mind. First, talk is cheap for presidential candidates. It’s advisable to present ideas, initiatives, and strategies in a succinct and decisive manner, and downplay or simply ignore complicating factors or exigencies that are incompatible with said strategies. Candidates present their foreign policy approach in a simplified way because doing so distills issues into an accessible form for likely voters. Or, as Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Romney’s white paper is primarily a campaign document and should be viewed as such.

Second, Romney is aware of his audience. He may feel compelled to evoke a tough position vis-a-vis Russia on nuclear disarmament, missile defense, and Russian “aggressive or expansionist behavior” because he’s the presumptive candidate of the party that over the past three decades has (pretty successfully) staked a claim to being more capable on national security and defense issues. It makes sense for Romney to echo boilerplate (hawkish) Republican positions about Russia of late (“Russia is a destabilizing force on the world stage. It needs to be tempered.”), though in a way that is moderated (or “banal”) enough to attract independents and moderates.

Mitt Romney doesn’t think much of the Obama administration’s policy, critiquing it by means of a promise to “reset the reset.” The logic is that between (perceived) acquiescence on the New START Treaty and the pushed-aside Bush-era plan for a Central European missile defense system, Obama has fecklessly adopted a conciliatory and asymmetric approach to Russia – characterized in his white paper as one where “we give, Russia gets” – to the detriment of U.S. security interests. His line of attack on Obama’s reset policy is consistent – in a more subtle manner – with a recurring Romney campaign theme: Obama as an apologist for the U.S. To that end, it makes sense, but are his arguments and assertions well-founded or merely reactionary?

In particular, the notion that “the Obama administration has failed to move Russia towards a more beneficial working relationship with the United States and our allies” is not really accurate, considering the nadir of the U.S.-Russia relationship over the past decade was mid-late 2008 during the second Bush administration (specifically the buildup and aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War), and occurred as a consequence of Bush’s insistence on a missile defense system in Central Europe (the Czech Republic and Poland, specifically) as well as Putin’s suspicion towards NATO enlargement, and the perceived security threat it (still) represents to Russia. If only by default, by the end of 2008 the only direction in which U.S.-Russia relations could conceivably move was up. Since then, the Obama administration’s disavowing of the missile defense sites in Central Europe as well as negotiating the New START Treaty in 2010 are significant: the former as an overture that the Obama administration was serious about dealing with an Iranian security threat in a way that wasn’t threatening to Moscow, and the latter as an avenue for continued cooperation on nuclear disarmament.

Should Romney’s assertions about “reverting” to the European missile defense system be taken seriously? Probably not, one reason being NATO reliance on the NDN (over the next two years at least) and the idea that the former is “linked” to the latter. Beyond that, it’s likely that Romney’s blustering with regards to both Russia and China, the other “nation with rising ambitions,” is illustrative more of a calculated foreign policy position for domestic consumption during an election season rather than a true indication of policy.

In the alternative scenario, Barack Obama is elected to a second term. What exactly is the “next phase” of the reset policy, and what are some avenues for closer engagement and cooperation? At the recent swearing-in ceremony, Michael McFaul, the new American ambassador to Russia, described this “next phase” as a “more complex” one, “when the alignment of our interests and values is never easy.” In terms of security interests, a primary avenue for cooperation is through missile defense. According to Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, there is optimism that the “strategic stability” talks, scheduled over the next eight months, could either result in a deal or at least move the two sides much closer together. As far as NATO enlargement, the unveiling of the reset policy back in 2009 was accompanied by talk that “countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO,” but overall the issue has been downplayed over the past three years, and has become even more marginalized in the context of recent Department of Defense spending cuts and reorientation towards the Asia-Pacific region. More important for the next five years is Russia’s recent accession to the WTO and the potential commercial benefits to be gained by the repeal of the outdated Jackson-Vanik Amendment. McFaul’s reference to aligning values is a bit ambiguous, but if “aligning values” entails the U.S. lecturing Russia on human rights and political corruption issues, it’s likely that such an effort will be met with little more than derision.

Fundamentalism in Central Asia: Perceptions and state responses

In Joe Raimondi on January 7, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Proximity to Afghanistan and the evolution of terrorism have fostered much debate and analysis over the past few years about security threats posed by violent fundamentalist or extremist groups in Central Asia. In the context of places with relatively high-conflict potential, we have seen more emphasis placed on this region as a consequence of the spread of diffuse transnational organizations, prompting speculation about the spillover effect from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recently, Louise Arbour identified “Central Asia” in a Foreign Policy post titled “Next Year’s Wars,” though her analysis does place “insurgency” as one issue among many that contribute to instability in the region – including ethnic conflict, poor inter-state relations, and natural-resource issues. Fundamentalism and extremism exist in this environment but are hard to isolate from the broader range of political and socio-economic issues.

Two groups that have gained notoriety of late are the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) – an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – and more recently (and to a lesser extent), the Jund Al-Khilafah, a Kazakh group has taken responsibility for potentially religiously-motivated bombings, in Atyrau, Kazakhstan in October.

While Uzbekis are often the usual suspects for acts of terrorism and subversive behavior in Central Asia – a recent example being the tenuous claims about the IJU operating in the run-up to the Kyrgyz presidential elections in October – those involved in the Atyrau bombings as well as the attacks in Taraz, Kazakhstan in November don’t seem to be linked to any Uzbekistan-based groups or individuals. As far as the November attacks go, there is speculation that the man who carried out the attack in Taraz may have had links to Islamists based in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The mere existence of certain extremist groups operating within Central Asia is not unequivocal.

Real or perceived security threats – often in the form of externally and/or internally destabilizing groups and individuals – are useful issues for regimes concerned with population control. This logic extends to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) when assessing government depictions, analyses, and portrayals of different threats, often characterized under the umbrella of fundamentalism or extremism for political purposes. A look at a recent Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report is illustrative of the difficulty in assessing extremism in the CARs, especially for external observers trying to figure out where the security threat ends (in terms of potential for violence or conflict) and government tampering or even human rights violations begin. The most recent report (“speculation”), from December 2011, contains references to the imprisonment of 16 men in Uzbekistan – from an “unidentified illegal Islamist organization” – as well as the imprisonment of 28 men in Tajikistan for “supporting a terrorist group.” The point is not that these convicted men pose no threat, are unaffiliated with extremist groups, or have had their human rights trampled on, but that to what extent can we gain an accurate understanding of the threat in cases where the legal system abides by a different set of rules and the governments have a high capacity to manipulate the system and either eliminate or marginalize dissent?

President Imomali Rakhmon’s response to Islamism in Tajikistan illustrates the sometimes uneasy relationship between religion and the state in the CARs. For at least the past year, there have been governmental shut downs as well as general police harassment of “men with beards.” Like other CARs, the conflation of endemic political corruption, constrained and suppressed media outlets, and the political utility of “threats” have undermined attempts to separate and identify real threats from manufactured ones, or ones based on expedience. George Camm frames the problem as such:

“Is it possible that some of the 1250 unregistered mosques really are fanning the flames of extremism? Certainly. But the work of determining   that with any degree of confidence is drastically complicated by the government’s perpetual exaggerations and non-transparency… With their ham-fisted policies, the authorities can’t seem to identify genuine threats to security. When officials do speak publicly on the topic, legitimate concerns are often so heavily laced with untruth that their claims elicit little trust.”

As in Kazakhstan, external assessments of extremism in Tajikistan entail analysis of highly repressive, opaque, and dysfunctional regimes which are noteworthy for dismal rankings on both corruption and press freedom indices.

Geographic proximity of the CARs to Afghanistan and Pakistan warrants comparisons of Islamism in both Central and South Asia, but is one plausible given the effect of decades of Soviet rule on religious life in the former? When we look at the CARs alongside the course of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 1980s – specifically the influx of foreign money and manpower to fuel the jihad against the USSR, and the subsequent devastating effects on Afghan society, it is fair to say that religious life in South and Central Asia has developed in distinct manners. We have enough trouble with accurate depictions of religious life in Afghanistan in itself, let alone in a broader regional context.

At the same time, geography matters for analysis of extremism in Central Asia because porous borders and weak institutional capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan are critical factors for operational capacity for Central Asian-based groups like Jund Al-Khilafah and the IJU. Radicalization in the CARs is also connected to broader jihadist movements, such as the one in the North Caucasus (the Caucasus Emirate), in terms of media and rhetoric (individuals from one region propagating jihad via videos, and the language used to do so), as well as training and manpower. One example: a Caucasian man named Magomed Bagilov, fighting for the Dagestani Vilaiyat, who received training in Waziristan with the IJU as well as religious education in Egypt.

There will likely be continued, localized, and sporadic violence emanating from the CARs, with responsibility being assigned to violent fundamentalist groups outright or individuals with alleged links to foreign/transnational groups. The recent government response to protesters in the Kazakh city of Zhanaozen (the basis of which is unclear) will probably affect the Kazakh government’s response and posture towards future unrest. In terms of political and religiously-motivated violence, though, “ham-fisted” approaches by Central Asian governments blur the mixture of different security threats to these states, and those posed by fundamentalist groups represent just a portion of the larger picture. The state narrative will continue to utilize the expediency of this threat, whether real, perceived or overblown.

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)