Uzbekistan’s state railroad company Ozbekiston Temir Yollari has won the Afghan government’s tender to build rail infrastructure linking the northern Afghan border town of Hairatan with Mazar-e Sharif, supported by a credit line extended by the Asian Development Bank. In late November, the Uzbek government approved the $129 million project, scheduled for completion in 2011. The contract stipulates that Uzbekistan must also repair the 20 kilometer segment of the rail line between Termez and Hairatan. It is planned as part of the international trans-Afghan corridor, linking Central Asia with Pakistan’s ports via Termez in Uzbekistan. Consequently, Uzbekistan will emerge as the largest cargo transit terminal station in the region. This represents an important opportunity for Uzbekistan not only commercially, but it will also significantly strengthen its influence in the northern regions of Afghanistan and confirm its burgeoning role in promoting the stabilization of the country (Vremya Novostei, December 7).
Nearly half the humanitarian aid for Afghanistan passes through the river port of Hairatan on the Amu Darya River, which means that the new rail line will significantly increase the volume of cargo transport. Azhdar Kurtov, an expert in the Russian Institute of Strategic Research, highlighted the importance of the project in terms of boosting communications and trade between Afghanistan and Central Asia, though he suggested that in the longer term its success might depend on linking up to Chinese rail lines (www.ferghana.ru, December 4).
Many security experts have raised concerns over the potential threat to the northern distribution network (NDN), as the Taliban may shift its emphasis to the northern regions of the country as the volume of cargo transiting through the NDN will significantly increase as the surge gets underway. US Ambassador in Tashkent, Richard Norland, admitted that the NDN might well provide a target for terrorists. The vulnerability to transport infrastructure was underscored in Russia last month by the bombing of the Nevsky Express traveling between Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, Uzbek construction workers building the 75 kilometer rail line in northern Afghanistan will be placed under US and NATO protection: “NATO and other countries pay very serious attention to this issue,” Norland commented, stressing that international security assistance force (ISAF) countries “are now engaged in resolving this problem” (www.ferghana.ru, December 7).
Uzbekistan’s involvement in the rail infrastructure project is also linked to the NDN and offers clear advantages for the United States. Not only accessing a cheaper labor force and utilizing local construction materials, deepening Uzbek involvement in northern Afghanistan, once complete it will carry American cargo into central Afghanistan via the Salang passage (Vremya Novostei, December 7).
In an interview with the Tashkent-based Economic Review Norland said that Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov’s initiative to resume the activities of the 6+2 contact group by expanding it to 6+3 (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, China, Iran as well as the US, Russia, and NATO) is gradually becoming a reality. The main point of contention between Washington and Tashkent, which serves to inhibit the formal functioning of the 6+3 group, is that Uzbekistan opposes Afghanistan’s participation, whereas the US vision is more inclusive. In Tashkent, skepticism persists concerning Afghan President Hamid Karzai, over his willingness to combat regime corruption, and the Uzbek’s view Karzai as part of the problem rather than the solution. “The main point is that all neighboring countries are trying to help. We are engaged in a dialogue on how to tackle this issue and the ‘6+3’ group therefore is acting,” Norland said (Regnum, November 21). “Uzbekistan’s proposal on the contact group with participation of neighboring countries is important because it allows arranging a dialogue and to combine the efforts of neighboring countries in resolving problems there,” he added.
Nonetheless, despite these differences, it is clear that Uzbekistan is playing an increasingly key role in the US strategy on Afghanistan, which appears poised to deepen. For instance, Norland noted that there is electricity in Kabul mainly thanks to Uzbek power supplies. Its participation in the NDN means that the country is not only assisting the military campaign by allowing non-lethal supplies through its territory, but it is also playing a more active economic role (Regnum, November 21).
On December 2 Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov told the 17th OSCE Ministerial Council in Athens that Tashkent welcomed President Barack Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy. Norov praised the decision to link the surge to a timescale for withdrawal, since Tashkent has long since emphasized that there can be no military solution to stabilizing Afghanistan. He also noted the essential elements contained in the strategy that will promote a more inclusive approach to coordinating efforts with neighboring countries. “We think it is especially topical since it is impossible to maintain peace without reaching a consensus inside Afghanistan and without neighboring countries’ support,” Norov explained (Interfax, December 2).
While actively canvassing its 6+3 agenda, first proposed in April 2008, and increasing its economic role in the country there are clearly security concerns in Tashkent that need to be addressed by the Alliance. In the short term the Uzbek government needs greater reassurance about the security of the NDN, as this may well be tested in the coming months as the US-led surge begins. In the longer term, there is anxiety about a possible militarization of the country, since Obama’s withdrawal plans in 2011 are linked in a commensurate way to numerically boosting the Afghan National Army (in other words American troops withdraw as ANA forces increase). Tashkent, therefore, has a vested national security interest in seeing that a political process is underway before the inevitable future cessation of combat operations in Afghanistan.