Afghanistan and Central Asia: The Risk to U.S. Supply Lines
Afghanistan and Central Asia: The Risk to U.S. Supply Lines
Speech at the Afghanistan Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting
Speech at the Afghanistan Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Afghanistan and Central Asia: The Risk to U.S. Supply Lines

Washington's reliance on the unstable former Soviet republics in Central Asia shows how few options it has in this war.

With Afghanistan now the Obama administration's top military priority, Central Asia has taken on new international importance. The five former Soviet republics usually lumped together as "the Stans" -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- are set to provide the new supply lines for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. These new supply lines will initially supplement, but perhaps eventually supplant, the increasingly risky and unreliable route through Pakistan.

Washington's reliance on Central Asia shows how few options it has in its Afghanistan campaign. The region is a seriously risky bet. Its leaders are all former Soviet apparatchiks who preside over regimes where the ruling elite has difficulty distinguishing between the public purse and personal accounts. Most of their citizens live in deep poverty, and their countries' economies are for the most part feeble and fragile. Each president has a lot of enemies; none has a succession strategy. Opposition movements are usually either weak or nonexistent, and some of them would be little better than the current regime. Worst-case scenarios include state collapse, the disintegration of national infrastructure, chaotic succession struggles and Islamic insurgency. Natural disasters are regrettably frequent, and a further slide into social deprivation is likely thanks to years of bad governance and venality, now aggravated by the global financial crisis. The two states that the U.S. will rely upon most, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, may be the most vulnerable.

The U.S. clearly feels there are no reasonable alternatives. Yet with Central Asia, Washington faces irreconcilable objectives. If the regimes there are to be viable, long-term allies, they must reform themselves. It is in the U.S. interest to urge them constantly and insistently to do so -- now.

Accomplishing this, however, could be almost as daunting a challenge as defeating the Taliban. The leaders of countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are the antithesis of everything the Obama administration stands for. Radical reforms in governance, financial transparency and democracy are a threat to their personal power.

The U.S. and its allies face a desperately delicate calculus. Push too lightly on reform, and a convoy of military goods may be passing through a state imploding under the weight of massive popular unrest against economic deprivation and political oppression. Push too hard, however, and nervous authoritarian rulers could cut supply lines.

The search for routes at least is going well. American officials have so far identified two main land corridors. The northern arm will start in Riga, Latvia, continuing by rail through Russia and Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. The other will probably start in the Georgian port of Poti, crossing the Caspian by ferry and then on to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. At that point goods will probably go to Afghanistan in two directions: by train and then truck to the Tajik-Afghan border and across a new U.S.-built bridge; or to the Uzbek border town of Termez, currently the site of a German base.

The Russians are another matter. In principle they support the resupply effort, but they also seem deeply reluctant to let the U.S. have a free hand in Central Asia. Witness the current confusion over the most visible American presence in the region, the Manas air base just outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. Since 2001 the base has ferried troops and supplies to Afghanistan and provided in-flight refueling capability to coalition air operations against the Taliban.

Right now, however, the base's future is up in the air. In February the Kyrgyz government, encouraged by a large Russian aid package, announced it was closing the base. This proved little more than a signal that Bishkek wanted a better U.S. offer. The U.S. has yet to reply publicly, but talks apparently continue. Russia might eventually accept the base, but chances are it would want the base to function under conditions that would underscore the Kremlin's primacy in Central Asia. Even then, further Russian mischief down the road would not be out of the question.

The domestic realities are equally messy. Tajikistan is edging ever closer to failed-nation status. It cannot provide most of its population with more than three hours of electricity a day. The electricity shortage promises to be only the first crisis of the year. Half of its labor force has until now been forced to seek work abroad, and their remittances provided almost 50% of national GDP. But unemployment will rise even further this year and remittances will decline sharply as the world-wide economic crisis makes the migrant labor market dry up. There is no sign that the Tajik government has the faintest idea how to address these problems.

Amazingly, it gets worse. The northern and southern routes converge in Uzbekistan, a deeply repressive regime where, according to the U.S. State Department, security forces routinely beat or torture confessions out of suspects, and where hundreds of people were killed during unrest in the town of Andijan in 2005. The situation has not improved since then. It is also widely viewed in the region as the country mostly likely to come to a nasty end: either explosion or implosion, or factional fighting once its elderly, unpopular and deeply feared president, Islam Karimov, departs from the political stage. For now, President Karimov maneuvers between Russia and the West for the best possible deal on anything from political support to trade, shifting balance every six months or so. The U.S. can expect sooner or later to be on both ends of his survival maneuvers.

Central Asia, then, is less a solution than a new set of headaches. U.S. engagement in Central Asia may well make geopolitical and logistical sense. But facts on the ground could destroy this logic and leave Washington with more problems than solutions.

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