TSG IntelBrief: Afghanistan: The Geopolitical Importance of the Northern Distribution Network
April 13, 2012
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The success of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), while allowing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to better manage the upcoming withdrawal of forces, is also strengthening the northern Afghan governors at the expense of the central Kabul government, something that is consistent with historical trends but counter to ISAF objectives.
• The NDN, if abandoned by the West following its drawdown from Afghanistan, might spectacularly profit both Russia and China in exploiting highly valued resources as well as expanding regional influence.
As of mid-April 2012, the relative success of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a logistical network connecting Afghanistan with Europe through a path across Central Asia, has enabled the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to both offset the continued closure of Pakistani supply routes as well as prepare for the upcoming requirements of a staggered military drawdown. These are not insignificant accomplishments, but rather the result of over six years of thoughtful negotiation with former Soviet republics, each presenting their own unique challenges.
However, these successes have also generated a result that might appear to run counter to the ISAF/NATO goal of a strong central Afghanistan government: every rail car or jinga truck (the ornately decorated vehicles that are a common sight in Afghanistan and Pakistan) that passes in and out of northern Afghanistan loaded with ISAF supplies strengthens the northern governors at the expense of president Hamid Karzai and his successors. In a very real sense, the success of the NDN really is a modern day return to the historical trade routes and the power brokers that manage them. Additionally, building upon The Soufan Group’s previous argument for a responsible withdrawal, if the West doesn’t maintain an robust presence in Afghanistan and along the NDN post-2014 ― both militarily and, importantly, commercially ― then regional rivals such as China and Russia will make profitable inroads into the country using an improved transportation infrastructure built by the West.
The nonpareil of these power brokers ― and the one who is benefiting most from the success of the NDN ― is Atta Mohammad Noor, the ethnic Tajik governor of Balkh Province, the most crucial Afghan province as it relates to the NDN. It is in Balkh, from the border town of Hairatan to the provincial capital of Mazar-e-Sharif (MeZ), that the most important 75km of railroad track in Afghanistan finally opened in December 2011. The line, which is essentially an extension of the Uzbekistan line to the north, ends near the large German-run ISAF base at Mazar-e-Sharif. Plans are for this line to move west to Herat, near the Iranian border, and east, to Shir Khan in Kunduz Province, at the border with Tajikistan. These rail lines would mirror, to a degree, the historical trade routes that moved up from the Muslim and Indian south into Central Asia and then Europe.
Atta Mohammad, who is no friend of Karzai personally and no fan of the central government practically, is now the go-to agent for not only ISAF officials seeking to increase the traffic into and out of Hairatan as well as through MeZ, but also for local Afghan trucking companies that upload/offload supplies at the MeZ terminus. Balkh province makes significant sums of money for the tonnage passing through its territory, money that Atta keeps in Balkh rather than send to Kabul to be, according to Atta himself, “wasted by the government there.”
Atta has maintained that he doesn’t need the central government, and the results he has achieved locally appear to validate that assertion. Beside being personally enriching, the money not sent to the Afghan capital has been invested in the development of local infrastructure in MeZ, which at least in part helps to explain the relative calm in Balkh as compared to nearby Faryab, Sar-e-Pul, and Samangan provinces. (To be fair, some of the violence in those provinces has a great deal to do with pockets of disaffected Pashtuns living in the Tajik and Uzbek influenced north).
To the East, in Kunduz, Governor Mohammad Anwar Jagadlak is also an ethnic Tajik, with a strong base of support that has nothing to do with his position in the central government, and everything to do with his standing in the Kunduz Tajik populace―and his ability to bring material gains to the province. The Shir Khan border crossing, connecting to Dushanbe, is also increasingly important to ISAF for the conduct of the NDN; it is, therefore, also increasingly valuable to Jagadlak. As he profits more and more from the needed success of the NDN, he is less and less answerable to Kabul (if, indeed, he ever was).
To the West, Karzai actually has an ally in the governor of Herat, the Pashtun doctor, Daud Shah Saba. However, the true power in the province, which shares a border with Iran and will eventually mark the western terminus of any Afghan rail system, remains Ishmail Khan, the former governor and current minister of water and energy (a position ripe with patronage). As in the case of Atta Mohammad, the more these provinces profit from the NDN, the less influence Kabul will have. This is not an indictment of the NDN strategy, but rather an acknowledgement of a historical ― and future ― reality.
The successful expansion of the NDN was materially aided by the recent announcement by Russian President Putin that Russia will allow ISAF/NATO supply flights in/out of an airbase at Ulyanovsk, as well as continued rail shipments across Russian territory. In a curious historical coincidence, the first fixed border crossing for this rail line ― the ironically named Friendship Bridge across the Amu Darya river between Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan ― was built by the Soviet Union in 1982 for the specific purpose of supporting their military intervention in Afghanistan. Thirty years later, NATO has completed an upgrade of the Afghan-Uzbek Friendship Bridge to support its own intervention.
An argument has been made that NATO efforts among the five former Soviet republics involved in the NDN (Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan) have brought about greater Western influence and cooperation, which is indeed true. However, the fact that the effort and immense cost of the NDN (goods cost almost 3 times as much to ship using the 5,000km NDN vice the shorter but more perilous Pakistani routes) has paid off in closer and common ties with Central Asia also argues, as noted the March 27 IntelBrief, for extreme caution and forethought when planning for the withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan.
Indeed, beyond letting the former Soviet republics profit from NATO’s rebuilding of the Friendship Bridge and extending effective common gauge railroads for the first time into Afghanistan, there is China. Beijing has been moving aggressively into rare earth minerals (the minerals that have essentially made modern technology possible), and thanks to U.S-funded geological surveys, it is now well known that Afghanistan is uncommonly rich in these very minerals, in addition to gold, oil (to a lesser extent), and other valuable commodities.
Years from now, historians are likely to question the strategic thinking ― perhaps even the wisdom ― behind NATO’s the decision to spend so much, in blood and treasure, to develop a viable transportation and logistical system such as NDN, uncover the commercial possibilities that would benefit both Afghanistan and the West, and then merely use that network to withdraw so that regional and historic rivals could establish a lasting foothold, one NATO itself created through more than a decade of effort and sacrifice.
• ISAF/NATO will continue to negotiate expanded use of the NDN among the Central Asian nations ― including the transport of lethal materiel ― as it heads towards the 2014 withdrawal.
• Prudent planning for maintaining the NDN post-2014 would allow NATO and the West to be well-positioned to maintain influence and cooperation in the region and prevent undue influence by regional rivals.
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