The Tail Waging the Dog: Or How Logistics Support to Afghanistan Gets Harder


4/11/12 by Richard Weitz

The Strategic Warning from Astana, Kazakhstan.

The logistics trail to Afghanistan is long and costly.  The role of Pakistan and Kazakhstan is crucial in providing the “highway” to support Afghan operations.  But both nodes are in trouble.

The problems dividing the United States from Afghanistan and Pakistan are visible for all to see.

Recent congressional hearings focused on how the United States might recover sufficient influence with their governments to secure a safe exit from the Afghan-Pak conflict in 2014.

But below the surface the United States is also alienating other key partners in the region, such as Kazakhstan.

The United States was the first country to recognize Kazakhstan, on December 25, 1991. Since then, energy and security issues have been a cornerstone in relations between the two countries. The United States provided Kazakhstan with considerable financial assistance to eliminate its nuclear warheads, weapons-grade materials, and supporting infrastructure.

The ties strengthened after the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Kazakhstani leaders immediately proclaimed solidarity with Washington in the fight against international terrorism, while the United States reciprocated by increasing its counterterrorist and counter narcotics assistance to Astana.

Kazakhstan and the United States established a formal strategic partnership in 2006, but their ties have been strong since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. In recent years, the two countries have joined forces against terrorism, globally and in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States will need Astana’s help long after these wars end.

But at least some of these issues can be soon corrected soon through modest remedial action. But left to fester these differences will cause problems whose severity will grow over time.

The United States and its allies have undertaken a sustained effort since 2008 to develop alternative sea, ground, and air transportation routes to Afghanistan’s north, through the territories of the former Soviet Union. This so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN) now conveys large quantities of non-lethal supplies from Europe to the NATO troops in Afghanistan through Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

Without the transit routes through and the cooperation of Kazakhstan, U.S. efforts to rebuild Afghanistan cannot succeed.

Kazakhstan’s ties with the West are fundamental to the smooth operation of the Northern Distribution Network that U.S. and NATO forces use to supply the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. With the deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Pakistan recently, the Kazakhstani corridor has become even more important.

The NDN comprises three main land routes, all of which traverse Kazakhstan The two belonging to NDN North both originate at Latvia’s port of Riga and pass through the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan. The largest volume of supplies then goes through the city of Termez on Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan at the Hairaton Gate, while the lower-capacity variant enters Afghanistan via Tajikistan. In contrast, NDN South runs from Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti to Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. From there, NATO’s goods are transshipped across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan and then transported by truck into Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

The so-called “Nazarbayev-Obama agreements” reached in May 2010 include Kazakhstan’s commitments on opening up its territory for the work of NDN and US commitments to purchase goods in Kazakhstan for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

In the view of Astana, by the middle of 2011, Kazakhstan fulfilled its commitments, but U.S. purchases are at a very low level. Kazakhstani diplomats believe that the Pentagon purchases and spends more on NDN-relate items in Russia and Uzbekistan than in Kazakhstan, despite the fact that Kazakhstan is the key area through which all NDN routes converge regardless of their previous routes.

As pointed out in a comprehensive report on “Central Asia and the Transition in Afghanistan” published last December by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, U.S. civilian assistance for all Central Asia countries amounted to only $186.2 million in FY 2010, a low level that is on a downward trajectory.

Security assistance to Central Asia from the national defense 050 account and smaller amounts from the foreign assistance 150 account, was $257 million in FY 2010 and also seems to be decreasing. In the aggregate, U.S. assistance to Central Asia countries is relatively modest compared with the vast sums spent in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In FY 2010, for example, total U.S. assistance to Central Asia was less than three percent of what the United States provided Afghanistan that year.

As the Senate report correctly notes, “Given the tight fiscal climate in the United States, the administration should consider using existing Afghanistan resources on cross-border projects that promote regional stability to the benefit of both Afghanistan and its northern neighbors. For a relatively small amount of money, such projects can reinforce cooperation between Afghanistan and Central Asian states and deliver immediate results.”

The administration also seems reluctant to support the development of key transportation hubs in Kazakhstan.

This transportation infrastructure is needed to assist with the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan and has a large potential to diversify NDN routes, decreasing NATO ‘s vulnerability to specific closures. China has established a commanding presence in Central Asian markets by directly supporting the industrial and infrastructural development of these countries. As pointed out in the February 2011 Council on Foreign Relations report, “Strengthening Fragile Partnerships: An Agenda for the Future of US-Central Asia Relations,” China’s throwing money around has allowed it to undermine traditional World Bank-style conditionality and substitute its own forms of conditionality through “buy China” and “employ Chinese” provisions.

The U.S. government needs to respond to Kazakhstani desires that the relationship focus more on trade cooperation, physical economic development, and establishing business-to-business partnerships.


Kazakhstan is geographically huge – the ninth largest country by territory, the approximate size of Western Europe. It is also a key crossroads of the world, sitting as it does between Russia and China.

Its vast natural resources have made Kazakhstan’s economy the largest by far in Central Asia. Both its gross domestic product and its trade with the United States and Western Europe are bigger than the rest of Central Asia and the Caucasus combined. But the region needs a more developed transportation infrastructure to generate further progress.

Kazakhstan has not relied exclusively on energy production to fuel its growth, but instead has diversified into many other industries, especially agriculture. It is now the fifth largest exporter of grain and is a critical part of the system that ensures international food security. Kazakhstan’s mines and refineries produce many of the metals that build modern society. It extracts substantial quantities of chromium and titanium as well as the components of steel. Its impressive reserves of rare earth metals will be key to the manufacture of high-tech devices that power modern communications.

The emphasis Kazakhstan has placed on social harmony has led the government to pour much of its energy riches into education and other societal improvements. Unemployment is low and literacy is nearly 100 percent. Oil money, which for many nations has become a curse, has benefited all 16 million Kazakhstani citizens. Kazakhstani officials see American investors as key partners for Kazakhstan’s efforts to diversify its economy. Hundreds of American firms now operate in Kazakhstan, with their direct net investments exceeding $15 billion in 2009, although most of that is still placed in Kazakhstan’s oil sector.

From the perspective of Washington, Kazakhstan’s growing role in its extended neighborhood advances significant U.S. interests.

Through its increasing economic engagement in Eurasia—which has involved both direct investment and trade as well as support for improving regional commercial and transportation infrastructure—Kazakhstan is helping transform Central Asia and the Caspian region into an “arc of opportunity” rather than an “arc of crisis.” Hundreds of U.S. companies directly benefit from their large foreign direct investment in Kazakhstan. In addition, Kazakhstani authorities have supported the development of energy pipelines that circumvent Russian territory and have endorsed continuing the Western military presence in Central Asia even if the situation in Afghanistan stabilizes.

In accordance with its efforts to diversify its allegiance with major powers, Kazakhstan supports a U.S. economic and defense presence in Central Asia. The United States is equally interested in preserving Kazakhstan’s balanced relationship with the other great powers. An effective U.S. diplomatic approach toward the region will require both reassuring China and Russia about Washington’s benign objectives—to reduce the potential for a Sino-Russian condominium in the region at the expense of the West and its Central Asian partners—while reaffirming U.S. support for the political and economic independence of Kazakhstan and its neighbors.

Kazakhstan chaired the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last year and hosted the group’s first summit in 11 years in its capital, Astana. This year, Kazakhstan is heading the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and is hoping to promote better understanding between predominantly Muslim nations and the rest of the world. Kazakhstan has been a strategically important partner of the United States in these roles, but this is not foreordained.

Fortunately, the United States and Kazakhstan will have the opportunity to address some of these issues when they confer at the April 9-10 meeting of the Strategic Partnership Commission in Washington.

Editorial Comment: Perhaps another Administration re-set is in order. Hopefully, this one works better than the last one. Strategic neglect is not a viable approach or put another way leading from behind has its problems. With the visit from the Brazilian President along with a Strategic Partnership Commission Meeting involving Kazakhstan, the Administration has its hands full.

The featured image shows a key monument in the capital of Kazakhstan.  Credit: