Top U.S. Diplomat, In Central Asia, Talks NDN

Central Eurasia

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns traveled to Central Asia this week, meeting the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. And while few details about the meetings were released, it seems that the main topics of conversation were events to the East (in Ukraine) and South (in Afghanistan).


Both countries are key partners of the United States military effort in Afghanistan, in particular their cooperation on the land transport routes known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The NDN has decreased in importance recently as the U.S. relies more heavily on the southern route out of Afghanistan, via Pakistan: U.S. military officials say that the NDN now carries less than one percent of cargo exiting Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the NDN remains an important strategic hedge for the Pentagon, in case the government of Pakistan again closes off its territory to U.S. military transport, as it did in 2011.


And Burns publicly mentioned the NDN in short press conferences in both countries. “Minister Kamilov and I also talked about the next steps in Afghanistan’s transition. I thanked the Foreign Minister for Uzbekistan’s crucial role over the years, particularly in facilitating the Northern Distribution Network,” Burns said after a meeting with Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov in Tashkent. “We look forward to Kazakhstan’s continued partnership [on Afghanistan], whether through its support for the Northern Distribution Network or its efforts to accelerate Afghanistan’s economic development,” Burns said in Astana.


It should be noted that “facilitating” was perhaps a diplomatic phrasing regarding Uzbekistan's efforts with respect to the NDN; by many accounts Tashkent has thrown up bureaucratic obstacles to U.S. military transit, especially coming out of Afghanistan, in the apparent fear that contraband will be smuggled into the country along with U.S. military equipment. U.S. military officials have blamed the bureaucracy of Central Asian border crossings for the fact that shipping goods via the NDN takes two to three times longer, with a corresponding increase in price, than via Pakistan. Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress and State Department recently renewed a waiver that allows Uzbekistan access to military aid in spite of its poor human rights record. Meanwhile, the most recent appropriations bill dropped similar conditions on Kazakh assistance altogether.


The other major topic of conversation was the situation in Ukraine. Russia's actions in that country have aroused worry in other ex-Soviet republics, and the U.S. seems to be trying to marshal diplomatic support for its efforts to isolate Moscow. Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted unnamed Kazakhstan government officials saying that the aim of Burns' visit was “to convince [Kazakhstan President Nursultan] Nazarbayev to put pressure on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.” And Burns didn't shy away from saying nearly the same thing in Astana: “So long as Russia continues down its current dangerous and irresponsible path, we will continue to work with our international partners to apply steadily increasing counter-pressure.”


Burns' visit, in fact, forced Nazarbayev to choose between Washington and Moscow: Putin hastily convened an “informal” Moscow summit of leaders of member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia's post-Soviet political-military bloc. But it was May 8, the same day Burns was in Astana, and Nazarbayev stayed behind to meet with the American diplomat while all other CSTO member state presidents met in Moscow.


The NDN, however, appears to be the one part of the U.S.-Russia relationship that has not suffered over the last few months. Russia is a key part of the NDN, whose busiest branch goes from the Baltic Sea port in Riga, through Russia and Central Asia. While the Pentagon has made contingency plans in case Moscow decides to cut off access to the NDN, that hasn't been necessary. “We have also continued to be able to move cargo through Russia, so we have not had any impact to the Northern Distribution Network through Russia with respect to the ongoing situation in Ukraine,” General William Fraser, the commander of U.S. Transportation Command, said in a recent interview with Defense News.