To supply troops in landlocked Afghanistan, the United States is relying on short-term relationships with dictatorial nations in Central Asia without factoring any long-term strategy for the region, according to testimony delivered last week to senators.
"The Department of Defense's primary goal in Central Asia is to support the war in Afghanistan," David S. Sedney, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, told the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian affairs. "Secondly, we continue to, as we have for years, assist the sovereign countries of Central Asia in maintaining their own security in ways they find acceptable."
Containers bearing supplies for troops in Afghanistan get there via what is called the Northern Distribution Network -- through countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and, at times, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They travel over Chinese-built roads, on Russian-built rails, through an Iranian-built tunnel and over U.S.-built bridges along the way, according to Sedney.
Stephen J. Blank of the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute told the subcommittee that the nations along the route "are authoritarian states in which we see manifestations of despotism, clan/familial rule, nepotism, [and] suffocation of autonomous space for political action." The countries' leaders also think their political opposition is "inherently extremist, terrorist and fundamentalist, which leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy" that their opponents tend "to crystallize around an Islamic radical vocabulary," Blank said.
"There is a [U.S.] strategy for the Northern Distribution Network," Blank said, "but there is no strategy [for Central Asia] that ties together . . . Afghanistan [and] domestic issues, and no commensurate investment of U.S. resources, either private or public, in these states to the degree that it is growing."
Begun a year ago, the military supply effort is amazing. In June, 108 of those 20-foot cargo containers traveled on ships, railroad cars and trucks through the Northern Network. By July that number reached 134; in August and September it was up to 200 and in November it was 350 a week, according to Sedney.
Unlike the truck routes into Afghanistan through Pakistan, there have been no security incidents on the northern route. "The danger begins once you get into Afghanistan," Sedney said.
Agreements with other countries are key to the network. Russia's standing transit arrangement with NATO for carrying nonlethal equipment added new language this summer when President Obama was in Moscow. He and President Dmitry Medvedev agreed on the unrestricted transit of lethal and nonlethal cargo, including through the air. So far two, flights have been conducted and "we continue to work with Russia and Kazakhstan to try and make that a route that we're able to use on a regular basis," Sedney said.
The United States has a broad range of military programs that include Kazakhstan. There are military sales involving helicopters, and training programs, including one involving a battalion of peacekeeping forces. With Uzbekistan, military ties have been limited after U.S. criticism of a 2005 massacre of Uzbek political protesters. New military training missions are being discussed.
Kyrgyzstan, with additional funds from Washington, has renewed U.S. use of a key airbase. In addition, the United States has increased cooperation in training border and internal troops "in terms of assisting in the struggle against terrorism," Sedney said. With Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, Washington has offered military education and border assistance.
"The governments of all these countries are concerned with radical extremism, both in terms of their own countries' internal situation and also they're concerned about Afghanistan," Sedney testified. The Fergana Valley, which is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is the center of extremist Islamic activity, he added.
Religion is a sensitive issue for all these countries, George A. Krol, deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, told the panel.
"They were basically forced under the Soviet system to be communistic and atheist, too," Krol said. Islamic religious beliefs were suppressed, "and since they've become independent and the Soviet Union has disappeared, there is somewhat of a resurgence" of the Muslim faith. The governments' leaders are concerned "that there may be certain groups that may try to use this for extremist purposes in their own countries." It is "an element of our bilateral discussions with them, and it is a very important one," Krol said.
Beyond Afghanistan, how deeply the United States gets involved in these countries remains to be seen.