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    Central Asia
     Jul 28, 2005

Rumsfeld makes it to first base
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The United States has headed off - at least temporarily - moves aimed at reducing its military presence in Central Asia.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on a three-day swing through the region that ended Wednesday, has received a pledge from Kyrgyzstan that the US can maintain its air base there as long as needed for its operations in Afghanistan.

The US regional presence includes two key air bases that have handled tens of thousands of US flights - Manas air base north of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, where more than 1,000 troops are stationed, and the Karshi-Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan, with at least 800 US troops. The US also has overflight rights, "gas and go" refueling agreements and emergency landing agreements with these countries.

In addition, the US has negotiated an arrangement with Tajikistan allowing US military aircraft to refuel and fly over Tajik territory on missions relating to Afghanistan. The French air force has a base at Tajikistan's Dushanbe airport that hosts about 200 personnel.

This month, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China and Russia - issued a joint statement saying the active military phase of the Afghan operation was coming to an end and called on the US-led coalition to agree to a deadline for ending the temporary use of bases and air space in member countries.

While expressing support to the international coalition's anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan, the SCO said at its meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana that "as the active military phase in the anti-terror operation in Afghanistan is nearing completion, the SCO would like the coalition's members to decide on the deadline for the use of the temporary infrastructure and for their military contingents' presence in those countries".

"No one is telling them it should be tomorrow, in a month, in five months or in a year-and-a-half, but it's just straightforward that SCO members know by when the anti-terrorist coalition will leave," said Sergei Prikhodko, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the aftermath of September 11, the US established military bases in two SCO countries (both former Soviet republics) - Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, besides using bases in Pakistan as a staging point for its operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Russia also has a base in Kyrgyzstan at Kant - that has about 500 Russian troops and 20 combat and transport planes and helicopters. Moscow is planning to double the number of troops at the Kant base. Russian troops have been based in Tajikistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but a recent agreement between Moscow and Dushanbe has formalized the legal status of Russian troops there.

While the arrival of American troops at their doorstep did trigger worry in Russia and China, neither country objected vigorously to the US setting up bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan post-September 11. Both the Russian and Chinese governments are confronted by mounting Islamist radicalism and separatist movements on their soil that are believed to be fueled and financed by al-Qaeda. The US-led military operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda were therefore perceived in Moscow and Beijing as being in their interests.

That perception changed with the negatives from the US military presence in Central Asia beginning to outweigh the positives. This has been the case particularly with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which welcomed the American forces with open arms in 2001.

The wave of regime changes that has swept through the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and the mass uprising in May in Uzbekistan, triggered alarm in Moscow and the Central Asian republics. The reported role of the US in the ouster of pro-Moscow regimes in these countries was viewed in Russia as a pointer of things to come: the continuing presence of the Americans in the region would only erode further Russia's influence in Central Asia.

Unlike Russia, which had misgivings regarding the American presence, Uzbekistan was a close ally of the US in the initial stages of the "war on terrorism" (Uzbekistan has been one of the top recipients of US security assistance in Central Asia in recent years). But fearing Washington's attempts to destabilize his government, President Islam Karimov began mending fences with the Russians last year when he signed a pact for strategic cooperation with Moscow.

Then in April, Uzbekistan pulled out of a US-backed grouping of the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Moldova (GUAAM). In May, when the US and other Western nations called for an international probe into the Andijan uprising in Uzbekistan in which hundreds of people are believed to have died, Karimov imposed restrictions on the US air base in Uzbekistan.

Apparently, Karimov is convinced that the US is out to oust his government and this was behind his energetic espousal of the SCO declaration. Reporting from Astana on the SCO summit proceedings, The Hindu newspaper's Siddharth Varadarajan wrote that for the Karimov government "getting the SCO to ask for the US forces to leave the region is a safe way of telling the Bush administration that it is no longer welcome to use Uzbek territory".

Significantly, Rumsfeld's visit to the region did not include Uzbekistan.

While the reported US role in the wave of revolutions in former Soviet republics prompted Russia and the Central Asian republics to band together with regard to the pullout of American troops from the region, China's interest in achieving this, prompted by other concerns, is no less.

China has invested heavily in Central Asia to enhance its energy security. It is constructing a 1,000-kilometer pipeline from Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region to its own northwestern Xinjiang region. Expected to be ready by the end of 2005, the Karaganda pipeline will be a vital link in a 3,000-kilometer project that will link China to the Kenqiyaq oil field farther west and to the Caspian Sea.

China is also working with Uzbekistan to develop its oil fields in the Ferghana Valley and has invested in hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. China also is interested in Central Asian markets. An unstable Central Asia could result in a spillover of conflicts into its already restive Xinjiang province. It has sought to secure its borders through firming up its relations with Central Asian governments. It has poured more resources into maintaining the SCO than any other member state. The American presence in Central Asia is seen in Beijing as posing a challenge to its energy security and stability.

Both Russia and China believe that Washington's interest in bases in Central Asia has little to do with its ongoing Afghanistan operations. The Karshi-Khanabad base is located 120 miles north of the Afghan border, suitable for supporting combat operations in northern Afghanistan. US combat operations in Afghanistan today are almost exclusively confined to the country's south and southeast. Moreover, the US has mega-bases in Afghanistan. It has no problems basing as many troops and equipment as it wants to in that country, making the Central Asian bases strategically redundant for operations in Afghanistan.

It is obvious that the US bases in Central Asia have less to do with Afghanistan today and more to do with serving as "lily pads" from which troops may be leapfrogged to nearby trouble-spots at a moment's notice. Under peacetime circumstances, these "lily pads" or operating facilities would be manned by small groups of forces, which would expand to accommodate a rapid influx of personnel and equipment in the event of crisis. In early 2004, during a visit to Uzbekistan, Rumsfeld observed that Uzbekistan was a prime candidate to host a potential US operating site.

The Uzbek government has indicated that it is more than miffed with the US role in the region. A recent Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs communique was scathing in its criticism of Washington's failure to live up to its obligations under the agreement that governs the operation of the Karshi-Khanabad base. Among other things, it accused the US of not paying the landing and takeoff fees and not reimbursing Uzbekistan for the costs incurred in guarding and servicing the base.

In reaction to the SCO demand for a deadline, a US spokesman is reported to have said that while the Central Asian bases were "important for both the global war on terror as well as operations in Afghanistan", the bases were not crucial. "We always have a range of options. And there's no one facility that is, you know, so critical that we couldn't manage without it."

These words masked real concern, as evident by Rumsfeld's quick visit to the region.

But what could work in the US favor is that SCO members are wary of each other. Russia is concerned about China's deepening influence and engagement with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and China is keen to weaken Russia's political grip over these countries by enhancing its economic links with these countries.

Both see the US as a check on the growing influence of the other. And while the smaller SCO countries might be wary of the US role in ousting governments in the region, their economies have benefited immensely from the presence of Western bases on their soil. The Manas base, for instance, is pumping about $156,000 a day into the local economy and accounted for about 5% of Kyrgyzstan's entire gross domestic product in 2003.

The geopolitical balance in Central Asia might have tilted against the US following the SCO's declaration, but it has already tilted some way back with Rumsfeld's whirlwind diplomacy.

The Central Asian republics could reconsider their decision if the US was willing to pay a higher price for the continuation of its bases more fees for the bases, complete non-interference on domestic issues in these countries.

The battle for control of Central Asia still could go either way.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

Foul play in the Great Game
(Jul 13 '05)

China knocking on Russia's door
(Jul 6, '05)

Revolution, geopolitics and pipelines 
(June 30  '05)

 
 



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