Termez, Where the “T” Is for “Transit”

by Joshua Foust on 4/8/2008 · 6 comments

Last month, Péter Marton noted a disturbing development in Pakistan: resupply trucks using the Torkham border crossing into Afghanistan, which is near Jalalabad in Nangarhar province, are being targeted for destruction. By his calculations, in a single attack on a waiting convoy of tankers, more than 2 million liters of fuel may have been lost in the explosion.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 80% of ISAF’s fuel comes through Pakistan. Since the truck convoys that transport this fuel are relatively unprotected, it is no surprise they would be targeted: it is textbook insurgency to disrupt supply lines. But even more interesting than this latest escalation in the “Forgotten War” is NATO’s response, if EurasiaNet is to be believed:

Perhaps the biggest success at the NATO summit in Bucharest was an under-the-radar development, in which Uzbekistan consented to giving NATO forces an overland re-supply route to Afghanistan. But Tashkent’s acceptance comes with a potentially problematic catch for the United States.

The United States worked painstakingly in recent months to repair bilateral relations with Uzbekistan, and to obtain Tashkent’s approval for a transit corridor. NATO planners feel that an overland rail supply route would greatly ease the logistical hassles connected with reconstruction and counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan.

Capping a period of intensive diplomacy, Pamela Spratlen, the acting US deputy secretary of state for Central and South Asian affairs, spent five days in Uzbekistan, from March 27-April 1, meeting with top Uzbek leaders. The mission was shrouded in secrecy — a fact underscored by a statement issued April 1 by the US embassy in Tashkent that described Spratlen’s extended tour in Uzbekistan only as “a useful visit.”

Prior to the NATO conclave in Bucharest on April 2-4, Russia signaled that it would facilitate a transit corridor. Attending the discussions on April 4, Uzbek President Islam Karimov also formally endorsed the plan. An overland route may prove a particular boost to reconstruction assistance bound for Afghanistan.

If this is true, then it is pretty stunning. Nathan was speculating at what the recent Termez thaw, which granted access to the airbase, could have meant. It was fairly minor at the time, but if this is what it is maturing into, then the thaw is well underway (with ground forces and railcars, no less!).

I’ll readily confess to not being the most knowledgeable writer here on the history of Uzbek-NATO relations in the hope that Nathan will jump in with his own thoughts. But should it proceed, then it is a pretty major reversal of both US and Uzbek policy toward each other.

As a brief summary: after a close relationship post-9/11, Uzbekistan eventually cut off military cooperation with the U.S. after a series of complaints over human rights abuses in the country reached a peak following the 2005 Andijon massacre, in which 700 or so protesters were gunned down in the streets. The U.S. military has not been on Uzbek soil since. More recently, Tashkent had allowed limited use of its airfield at Termez, which is along the Amu Darya border with Afghanistan. That is why this reversal might be so huge—either the U.S. has stopped caring about human rights again, or Karimov is making some backroom concessions that aren’t slithering into the press.

Don’t hold your breath, however: the deal comes fraught with costs, specifically Karimov’s proposed revival of the “6+2” process (now 6+3, with NATO as the proposed new member), which would essentially give several countries like Russia, which has divergent interests in Afghanistan, the “right” to meddle there. The irony of an outside power reacting negatively to the prospect of other outside powers meddling in Afghanistan is not lost on me, but this seems like a deal breaker given the Bush administration’s history of playing well with others.

That is, if anyone is even talking Afghanistan these days while General Petraeus is in Washington. But I am clearly missing something: to the best of my knowledge, Afghanistan doesn’t have a rail system to speak of—most of its previous rulers had rejected rail links to British India or Soviet Turkestan for a variety of (well founded) strategic reasons, like the desire not to have an easy method of importing large numbers of foreign troops. How good is this rail link? The few rails that operate along the Amu Darya have major rail break problems, in that they operate at a different gauge than their neighbors. This tells me freight can make it only as far as Termez, and from there is must be either shipped or flown to its final destination.

Which leaves the original problem barely addressed: if the insurgents are targeting resupply convoys, changing the route is effective only in the short term. It doesn’t get at the roots of the problem. So what is NATO doing to address the problem of under-protected supply convoys?

Update: Péter has covered this as well, and notes the inclusion of Turkmenistan as well. Stomatologbashi has promised rather large amounts of humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, so I do wonder how much of a connection there may be.

Also, I forgot to note this in the body of the post, but there is another important dynamic to remember: Islam Karimov likes to play a sort of Pong with the U.S. and West in general. One year we’re friends, the next we’re narrowing our eyes across the summit table. This is a cycle that repeats itself again and again, always with relatively minor concessions on Karimov’s part for high-profile (yet often embarrassing) hand-shaking sessions with high-level U.S. officials, and access to military bases.

So here’s a thought game: are the officials who are working out the details of this new arrangement with Tashkent aware of Karimov’s gleefully cynical shell game? Or are the gullible enough to think he’s sincere this time? It’s usually the latter, unfortunately.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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afghanistanica April 9, 2008 at 1:16 am

There are rail gauge adapters in use in Europe. But they are a rather expensive affair. One must not allow the Hun to ride his railcars into your country without at least some engineering hassles.

There was a stretch or railway from the King’s crib in Kabul to some point a mile or so away. Strictly for entertainment purposes apparently.

I see a rail link from Termez to Mazar as quite reasonable. It sure beats laying down rail over the Sierra Nevadas. But i’m sure some DoD contractor has an idea on how to make it as expensive and faulty as possible.

Michael Hancock April 9, 2008 at 9:21 am

I’m not sure if this points to a general warming of the Uzbek-US relations. It seems to me that our progress in Afghanistan may have recessed to 2002 levels, when the first major UZ/US agreements were brokered. If that’s the case, and the US is again going to be putting a lot of effort into holding and securing Mazar-e-Sharif, even to make it a base for the general area… well, we did that already, and when the Uzbeks kicked us out of Uzbekistan, it wasn’t a big loss for the DoD. And now that we need Uzbekistan again, we know their price and I guess the DoD will gladly pay it.

But that’s going off my own meager knowledge – what do others think?

Joshua Foust April 9, 2008 at 4:08 pm

One thing I forgot to mention. Karimov is very good at playing the ebb and flow game. Relations warm, then sour, then warm, then sour. It is all a shell game, and he’ll extract what he wants then clamp down again. What I want to know is: are our diplomats savvy enough to recognize this, or are they gullible enough to think this time he really means it?

I have a sinking feeling it’s the later. Regardless, I guess they should press for whatever concessions they can get. Thoughts?

Oldschool Boy April 9, 2008 at 4:34 pm

I honestly do not know anything about other routes but I know a little bit about Termez – Mazari-Sharif link, since I served in the Soviet military there during the Soviet-Afghan war. I do not think there was any rail-road connection, but there was a major bridge through Amu-Darya that was used for military equipment transportation.
From the top of my head there are two main advantages of that route: (1) Termez region was heavily used as a reserve base for military operations carried by Soviet Army in Afghanistan, it had a substantial number of military bases and developed infrustructure that could be used for any military or supply purposes; (2) the Northern part of Afghanistan has always been more tranquil, there have not been many major battles, the local population is less likely to be hostile to foreign developments, as they are mostly uzbeks and tadjiks they are more opposing to talibs, and thus, may actually welcome foreign troops if it guarantees them protection and socio-economic improvement.
And it is definitely good for uzbeks, since it will provide them with additional defence on their southern borders plus involves northern part of Afghanistan into the outreach of Uzbekistan influence.

jonathan p April 10, 2008 at 10:23 am

There is a direct rail link between Termez and Hairaton on the Afghan side. Some of you may be interested in Andrew Grantham’s web site about the Afghan rail system, such as it is.

Matt April 13, 2008 at 5:40 pm

“…either the U.S. has stopped caring about human rights again, or Karimov is making some backroom concessions that aren’t slithering into the press”

The former is certainly true. From what I’ve heard, the new US ambassador to Tashkent, Noland, has a line of “Human rights – hey, it happens!” A report on Eurasianet said that he even sighted abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Grahib to that effect.

That fact that these abuses occurred is regrettable enough, but to now us them as justification for another government’s actions is simply deplorable.

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