By Dmitry Verkhoturov, expert at the Centre for Contemporary Afghan Studies.
Early February of 2012, two significant events occurred. Firstly, Moscow-based daily “Komercant” reported about talks between Russia and NATO on the creation of a transit hub on the Russian territory where military cargo of the foreign contingent in Afghanistan would be reloaded into trains to transport them to Riga or Tallinn, the ports of NATO member-states. According to preliminary reports, the hub will be set up in Ulyanovsk which has the best facilities for reloading.
Secondly, reportedly, U.S. State Department has temporally lifted sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan after the events in the city of Andijan in 2005 on supplying military aid to the country until September 2013. The U.S. believes that it’s possible to supply ammunition, night vision equipment, GPS equipment and other outfits necessary for defence and law enforcement agencies.
This is not the first time that sanctions imposed against Uzbekistan were lifted. In October 2009, the European Union lifted sanctions against Uzbekistan ending an arms embargo imposed after the events in Andijan in 2005. The reasons for the move have been improvements in the human rights situation and the release of some political prisoners. EU foreign ministers said the aim was to further encourage the Uzbek authorities to move towards democracy.
In short, Uzbekistan has long fumbled its behaviour towards the European and American partners, which is based on bargaining. A bargain starts when the EU, the U.S or NATO needs something from Uzbekistan, for example, its airbases, land transit routes, some political moves or definite position on economic issues, and during this process, the Uzbek authorities are trying to win one concession after another.
Notably, though this strategy is unpleasant, it has helped to achieve good results. For one, within four years, Uzbekistan got rid of all sanctions imposed against by the EU over the events in Andijan. Moreover, it has long been a NATO partner and has enjoyed the right to choose the level of this partnership. We have seen several forms of this partnership within the 10 years of foreign military presence in Afghanistan. In this issue, Uzbekistan is confidently using the changes in the situation around Afghanistan and NATO agreements with other countries for its benefit, and this makes it possible for the country to become the key link in the transportation of NATO cargo from Afghanistan through land routes. This has predetermined Uzbekistan’s good starting position in the forthcoming troop pullout and military cargo withdrawal.
At present, Uzbekistan has not only a transit railroad of 1520mm gauge, which paves the way for the transportation of cargo directly to the NATO member states, Latvia and Estonia, but also a railroad extended up to Mazar-i-Sharif in the Afghan territory. “O’zbekiston Temir Yo’llari” company built this rail road and enjoys the right to exploit it temporarily. The first trains made their trial rides along the new railway.
This allows the NATO command in Afghanistan to set up a network of terminals which will receive cargo from all bases across the country, sort out them and load into trains. Despite the fact that land route through the CIS countries, including Russia is the longest, nevertheless, it is the safest one. No one will launch attacks on it, and there is no possibility of damaging or losing cargo.
The Uzbek route has become crucial after Pakistan closed key route used to supply cargo to the NATO contingent in Afghanistan. Relations between Pakistan and the U.S. have cooled down owing to several reasons: the death of Pakistani servicemen after NATO air attacks, the American raid to kill Usama bin Laden in Pakistan without notifying the Pakistani Government or army in advance about the operation and attempts to organize talks with Taliban in Qatar. Pakistan is not only losing the status of an American ally but also is losing important levers that can exert influence on the situation in the region.
In December 2011, American servicemen abandoned the Shamsi Air Force Base in Belujistan to meet Pakistan’s demand and Islamabad refused to receive a visit to Pakistan by the American special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mark Grossman. Washington gave tit for tat and in December 2011, US Congress decided to freeze $700 financial aid to Pakistan.
Consequently, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan can be currently described as very tense. Despite many statements that have been made by both the U.S. and Pakistan they have been restored, the relations will hardly return back to the previous level of partnership in the near future. Most likely, NATO troop withdrawal will be carried out without the active involvement of Pakistan. Moreover, Taliban militants operating along the Pakistani route might launch attacks on convoys and destroy cargo.
Interestingly, Pakistan decided to worsen its relations with the U.S. despite the threat that it might loose American aid. This specifies the circumstance that another participant in regional politics is backing Pakistan, and it is very powerful and can compensate for possible loss. This is, of course, China which has promoted cooperation with Pakistan and Afghanistan. The withdrawal of American troops is in principle in the interests of China which will get an opportunity to strengthen its influence on the region and actively develop mineral resources in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Worsening relations with the U.S. drags Pakistan into the sphere of China’s influence because it has no other country to rely on for help.
In these circumstances, what happened in early February 2012 shows that at present, new political situation is taking shape under which NATO forces will be pulled out from Afghanistan. This is not only an agreement on transit, which might change unexpectedly, but also in general, the establishment of relations in the region during the pullout and afterwards.