BACKGROUND: U.S./NATO/International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) troops are currently drawing down their presence in Afghanistan via airlifts and the 3,212 mile-long (NDN) series of three railway lines, in conjunction with Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication (PAKGLOC) truck routes. Due to political tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan over a U.S. attack on a border post and drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the PAKGLOC was temporarily shut down in 2011 and November 2013. U.S. basing rights at Karshi-Khanabad airport in Uzbekistan were cancelled after the Andijan events in 2005, while Kyrgyzstan’s government recently refused to renew the lease on Manas airbase, which closed on June 3, 2014. Washington accordingly began to transfer operations to Mihail Kogălniceanu International Airport in Romania, 3,200 miles and five hours flying time from Afghanistan.
ISAF has hence shifted nearly all of its logistics to the NDN.The two NDN NLOC routes run through Russia to Afghanistan via Latvia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, along with a subsidiary transiting Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A southern NDN route, NATO designation “Central Line of Communication” (CLOC), bypasses Russia completely, as it runs through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, crossing the Caspian via rail ferries to Azerbaijan and Georgia. The CLOC would surge in importance should worsening U.S.-Russian relations lead to a closure of NDN NLOC routes through Russia.
The U.S. has attempted to stay engaged in Eurasia by formulating a “New Silk Road” strategy. Over the course of several speeches in 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton committed U.S. foreign policy in Asia to the vision of a “New Silk Road.” On July 20, 2011 in Chennai, India Clinton proposed, “Let’s work together to create a new Silk Road ... an international web and network of economic and transit connections. That means building more rail lines, highways, energy infrastructure ... it certainly means removing the bureaucratic barriers and other impediments to the free flow of goods and people. It means casting aside the outdated trade policies that we all still are living with and adopting new rules for the 21st century.” In a speech in October 2012 Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake reiterated that the NDN routes could serve after the U.S. and NATO drawdown in Afghanistan as components of the U.S. “Silk Road Vision.”
IMPLICATIONS: The sole Eurasian railway initiative that Washington has strongly supported since early 2009 is the 3,212 mile-long NDN series of railway links. Over the past five years since it undertook its first shipments, the NDN has risen to critical importance for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and is now a critical component of the U.S. downsizing of its presence there. According to the U.S. State Department, the NDN has the capacity to transport 4,000 tons of cargo per month and can cater for eight trains travelling in each direction per day. On average, 100-120 containers travel the route every day. For further logistical support of ISAF forces in Afghanistan in May 2012 the U.S. Army Reserve (USAR) established an Expeditionary Railway Center (ERC) to assist the mission of the U.S. Army’s 757th Transportation Battalion (Railway). In a reciprocal gesture, in 2013 the Afghan government established the Afghan Railway Authority to coordinate national railway policy.
The NDN is playing a crucial role in the U.S. military’s “retrograde” (the military term for withdrawal), since the U.S. Defense Department has more than 750,000 pieces of equipment worth more than US$ 36 billion in Afghanistan that needs to be moved out. Overall, the NATO and ISAF 48 nation allies and partners are planning to move an estimated US$ 28 billion in equipment and materiel out of Afghanistan. Each coalition country is responsible for withdrawing its own equipment. The U.S. remaining withdrawal will involve 35,000 vehicles and 95,000 shipping containers, according to Maj. Gen. Kurt Stein, commander of the 1st Theater Sustainment Command.
The most significant potential challenge to ISAF is the increasingly strained relations between Russia and NATO. Should Russia decide to shutter the NLOC, then the southern CLOC railway lines would become the sole remaining railway transit route for ISAF’s retrograde operation.
Moscow is very aware of its bargaining power with the NDN; two days after the Crimean annexation, Военное обозрение (“Military Review”) published an article which noted, “They understand this in the Kremlin: the agreement over the ‘Northern Distribution Network’ at NATO’s disposal is one of the strongest trumps that Russia has in its conflict with the West.”
Many believe that the Western sanctions policy could negatively impact ISAF’s Afghanistan deployments. On March 29 the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul was asked what other U.S.-Russian cooperation could be in jeopardy after Crimea. McFaul replied, “I worry more about disruption in our use of the NDN, which helps to supply our soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. A key component of the NDN travels through Russia.” On March 14, four days before Putin announced the annexation of Crimea, RAND Corp. senior political scientist Christopher Chivvis said, “The U.S. is most exposed when it comes to what we call the NDN …”
Putting the NDN further at risk, on March 21 the Obama administration placed Vladimir Iakunin, head of Russian Railways and a known ally of Putin for two decades, on its first list of individuals sanctioned over Crimea, while if Pakistan again closes its border crossings, analysts predict that Washington might have to abandon much of its heavy military equipment in Afghanistan. NATO has adopted an increasingly aggressive posture towards Russia since its March annexation of Crimea, increasing maritime and air patrols in the Black and Baltic Seas, undertaking military exercises in NATO’s Eastern and Central European member states and opening a NATO liaison office in Tashkent on May 16, all actions that will unsettle Putin.
CONCLUSIONS: The Western withdrawal from Afghanistan via the NDN NLOC is hostage to U.S. and European desires to punish Russia for its Ukrainian policy. On July 9 Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “We are ready to impose more costs – including targeted, sector-specific sanctions – very soon, if Russia does not decisively change course and break its ties with separatists.” Washington is also pressuring France to nullify its 2011 US$ 1.7 billion contract to build two 23,700-ton Mistral-class amphibious assault ships for Russia, the first of which is scheduled for delivery in October. If either policy option is implemented, then it would seem more than likely that Moscow would retaliate by using one of its “strongest trumps,” moving against the NDN NLOC routes through Russia, as prophesized by Ambassador McFaul.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. John C.K. Daly is an international correspondent for UPI and Central Asia-Caucasus Institute non-resident Fellow.
(Image Attribution: afghanwarnews.info)