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Worried about Taliban pressure on its supply line to Afghanistan, the US turns to ex-Soviet republics.
But the expansion of U.S. operations in this troubled region raises questions of what exactly Washington has promised the local authoritarian regimes, which are among the most repressive in the world, and how the goods will actually reach their destinations.
A series of attacks in Pakistan in recent months have exposed the vulnerability of the artery through the Khyber Pass, through which the vast majority — nearly 80 percent — of coalition forces' goods travel. In the grand scheme of things, the losses of goods were minimal. But top U.S. officials said that the incidents brought "new urgency" to the search for alternative supply routes.
So with President Obama expected to send up to 32,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander for Iraq and Afghanistan, traveled to the region in January and sealed agreements with local leaders to forge the additional land and air links.
Details on the deals were scarce, and it's unclear the precise paths that the goods will travel. Three ex-Soviet states share borders with Afghanistan: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. One, or a combination of the three, could be entry points. The supplies would apparently be non-military — mostly food and fuel. Local contractors and outside firms would be used.
The deal marks the latest stage of the West's military presence in Central Asia since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In the days immediately after, the U.S. established a beachhead in Uzbekistan for moving troops and equipment and — it was reported — for special operations.
But relations between Washington and Tashkent deteriorated sharply when government troops opened fire on demonstrators in the southern Uzbek city of Andijan in 2005, possibly killing hundreds. The U.S. was forced to move its main operations hub to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, at Manas airport outside the capital of Bishkek.
Nearly 900 American soldiers, along with a smattering of other forces, staff the base, which serves as a transfer point for goods and troops moving in and out of Afghanistan. Coalition partners Germany and France also maintain bases in southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Now with the anticipated surge of U.S. activity in the region, analysts have many questions on their minds. How will the goods enter Afghanistan? Given the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be involved and the potential for graft and corruption, which local and foreign contractors will be hired? And what level of assistance or engagement from the U.S. will the local governments receive in return?
Each country poses its own set of challenges. Tajikistan is considered the most volatile of the three border countries, with a corrupt and ineffectual leadership, and deteriorating infrastructure. If a ground route is used, the predominantly mountainous terrain also presents difficulties. Two years ago, Washington helped build a $37 million bridge — the first to link Tajikistan to Afghanistan — but reports indicate that it is seriously under-utilized.
Turkmenistan, with a long Afghan border, is a hermit state along the lines of North Korea, and until recently it was governed by the eccentric and despotic Saparmurat Niyazov. Since Niyazov's death in 2006, his successor (and former dentist), Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has taken small steps to open the country, but it still remains largely isolated and repressive.
And then there's Uzbekistan. Tashkent moved closer to Russia following the Andijan events, but in the last year it switched tacks yet again and made overtures to the U.S. The country's president, Islam Karimov, remains one of the world's most brutal dictators: According to human rights groups, there are thousands of political prisoners and the most horrific forms of torture are a common practice.
Uzbekistan also possesses — for the region — an excellent system of roads and infrastructure. For policy planners, from the Soviet era to now, the country is usually the preferred entry point into Afghanistan, and an exit. Uzbekistan's main link — the kilometer-long "Friendship Bridge" built during the Soviet Union's Afghan war — was the scene of the last troops leaving in 1989.
"If Karimov wants, he is capable of giving us what we need," said Martha Brill Olcott, a regional expert for the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. She believes, however, that ultimately the U.S. will need to move military equipment through Central Asia, which would require a higher level of military-to-military agreements between Washington and local governments.
Also looming large is the fate of the Manas airbase. Kyrgyz authorities have in recent weeks issued a number of leaks to news agencies indicating that they intend to ask the U.S. to leave. During his visit, however, Petraeus emphasized the importance of the base and said there were no plans for the U.S. to depart.
Russia may be the driving force behind Kyrgyz officials ambivalence towards Manas. The Kremlin has looked at the U.S. presence in its backyard with trepidation. (Alternatively, the Kyrgyz officials may be simply trying to increase the $17 million rent the U.S. currently pays.)
At the same time, Russian officials have indicated they are open to the U.S. expanding its supply lines to Afghanistan through Central Asia. The need to avoid a failed Afghan state exporting Islamic extremism — above all into Russia and its own extensive Muslim population — appears to be an issue where Washington and Moscow can find common ground.