The Northern Distribution Network and Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The United States has committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014.  Given the sheer amount of equipment and number of personnel currently on the ground, the logistics of this departure promise to be challenging. Though aircraft are an option for withdrawing the 120,000 containers worth of supplies on site from remote areas, ground-based transportation remains most cost-effective. Thus the military will seek to use a land route to transport at least a significant percentage of this equipment.[i] In planning the evacuation, the same political calculus that plagued past planners’ mapping of a potential supply route will remain essential. The exodus will likely follow an ill-defined path crossing Central Asia and known informally as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).   The NDN winds through some of the most politically volatile countries in the world – and American dependence on it may indirectly harm relations with Russia and prop up authoritarian regimes.

During the early stages of the war, the US primarily brought in supplies through western Pakistan. However, in 2009, Pentagon strategists drew an alternate network of routes, including the NDN, which includes Latvia, Russia and much of Central Asia. Its main artery ends in Uzbekistan (because of its central location and advanced railway system) before crossing the border into Afghanistan at Termez. Though the route has some natural advantages, it is made all the more attractive in that it avoids the turbulent western border provinces of Pakistan.[ii]

By the end of 2011, over 50% of non-lethal goods destined for NATO troops were passing through the NDN, and if relations with Pakistan remain strained, an even higher percentage will presumably follow the route as they leave in 2014.[iii] Obviously, the monetary and political advantages of participation for any country hosting a portion of the NDN are huge, and as a result several Central Asian countries have jockeyed for a greater role in the network.

So far, the United States has stood by Uzbekistan’s efforts to maintain it’s central position. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake’s August 12-18 visit to Uzbekistan underscores the country’s current strategic importance to American withdrawal. To facilitate Uzbek cooperation, American criticism of human rights abuses committed by President Islam Karimov’s administration has declined precipitously since the NDN opened.

But besides this relief from criticism, what does Karimov want for his support of the NDN? Perhaps, on a basic level, the actual American equipment. Many American planners have suggested that some of the non-lethal supplies could be sold cheaply to the countries that this equipment would otherwise be passing through. Additionally, the payment accrued through transit fees, as well as the revenues from shipping contracts and subcontracts are not insubstantial. The cost of shipping one container through the NDN is 2.5 times as high as shipping through Pakistan because of increased distance, more difficult conditions, and tariffs levied by Central Asian governments.[iv]  Most broadly, welcoming American business and cultivating US government support allows Karimov to balance against Russia’s overbearing influence within Uzbekistan.

Every Central Asian country plays this delicate diplomatic game, but the obvious importance of the NDN to American strategy seems to have emboldened participating countries in their interactions with Moscow. Uzbekistan’s recent withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), for example, seems to have been due largely to President Karimov’s desire to position Uzbekistan as a leading independent player in the logistics of the NDN. Similarly, Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov has delayed agreeing to host Russian military bases, which some analysts claim results from his desire to profit from the NDN transit deal.[v]

This ongoing tug-of-war between Russian and US spheres of influence explains the tolerance the US has recently shown for the NDN’s inefficiencies.  It seems almost incredible, for instance, that America accepted (on November 17, 2011) both greatly increased shipping rates and more layers of dysfunctional bureaucracy in negotiations with Uzbekistan instead of searching for a new route. The federal government has explicitly recognized this unique inefficiency, notifying outside contractors earlier this year that any consequences of shipping through Uzbekistan would be their own fault. [vi]

Thus, expected inefficiency within Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states will be tolerated because American engagement there serves both to get materials home and to challenge an increasingly influential Russia. However, even though Central Asian states occasionally get up to diplomatic mischief, the Kremlin is still far closer than the White House, and still has many tools to make disobedient leaders regret their pivot toward the US. Further, the obvious American need to withdraw a large amount of supplies on a set timeline will allow Russia to use its own continued cooperation on the NDN as a bargaining chip in future negotiation. Regionally, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will both hold elections in 2013 and 2015, respectively, and these countries’ leaders will certainly use their special rapport with the US to advance their own political ends. The NDN, then, may expose America to increased criticism of its support of human rights offenders.

In exploring other options for withdrawal, a route through Turkey, and another through Siberia have been suggested. However, the all-important railway connection through Uzbekistan and Central Asia will not be easy to pass up, despite the political complications implicit in using the NDN.



[i] Akhmedov, Karimjan and Evgeniya Usmanova.  “Afghanistan Withdrawal: The Pros and Cons of Using the Northern Distribution Network.”  12 Sep 2012.  <www.eurasianet.org/node/65904>

[ii] Kuchins, Andrew C. and Thomas Sanderson.  “Central Asia’s Northern Exposure.” New York Times.  4 Aug 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/05/opinion/05iht-edkuchins.html>

[iii]Trilling, David. “Northern Distribution Nightmare.” Foreign Policy Magazine. 6 Dec 2011.  <http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/12/06/afghanistan_resupply_nato_ndn>

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Akhmedov, Karimjan and Evgeniya Usmanova.  “Afghanistan Withdrawal: The Pros and Cons of Using the Northern Distribution Network.”  12 Sep 2012.  <www.eurasianet.org/node/65904>

[vi] Tynan, Deirdre.  “Uzbekistan: Tashkent Shakedown Practices Hold Up NDN Traffic – Contractors.” 27 Feb 2012.  <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/65056>

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