Central Asia: Holbrooke Makes Stealth Tour on Afghan Support Mission
A reticent Richard Holbrooke completed a lightning tour of Central Asia on February 21, a trip designed to bolster regional support for NATO efforts in Afghanistan. Publicly, the Obama administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan received vague promises of support from Central Asian leaders. Experts say the lack of concrete news indicates that Holbrooke's regional swing was little more than a diplomatic courtesy call.
"We are talking to all the countries that have a concern in the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that is why we are here today," Holbrooke told journalists in Astana, according to local media reports.
The envoy was scheduled to travel to all five Central Asian capitals, though a trip to Ashgabat was cancelled at the last minute due to "scheduling conflicts," said an American Embassy representative there. After Astana, Holbrooke traveled to Georgia to meet with President Mikhail Saakashvili.
Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group, characterized Holbrooke's visit as "very perfunctory."
"Following the annual bilateral consultations established recently with Uzbekistan, a visit was in the cards. I suspect it was a very quick punching of a few cards. It certainly didn't look like he had much on his agenda here," Quinn-Judge said. "He probably had to go to Uzbekistan, [and] so also quickly went to the other ones [Central Asian capitals]." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
It was difficult to discern the substance of Holbrooke's various meetings, as his availability to journalists was limited. A press briefing originally scheduled to be given February 19 in tandem with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan was cancelled at the last minute. "It's the sort of visit where, if you don't have much to say, you don't talk much to the press," Quinn-Judge said.
No press availability was even scheduled for Holbrooke during the Tashkent-leg of his trip. Nevertheless, local news outlets reported on vague pledges of cooperation to bring peace to Afghanistan. But later in Astana, when asked if the United States was seeking to open a military base in Uzbekistan, Holbrooke said that "Uzbekistan does provide us valuable opportunities to transit material to Afghanistan and that's important. But a military base ? No."
Quinn-Judge discounted speculation that Holbrooke may have been seeking a new base. "I don't see any major shift at this point. I don't see if there's something that K2 could do that the other bases in the region could not do," he said, referring to the former US facility at Karshi-Khanabad. Uzbekistan evicted US forces from that base in 2005 amid acrimonious diplomatic exchanges connected to Tashkent's use of deadly force against protesters in Andijan in May of that year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Reopening a base is probably a lengthy procedure," Quinn-Judge continued. "The United States would prefer to stay in Central Asia as short a time as possible, because they want to stay in Afghanistan as short as possible."
"On a practical level, it seems sort of implausible [to open a new base in Uzbekistan]," Quinn-Judge continued. "If it would do any service to the [Northern Distribution Network] NDN, is hard to say. The NDN is moving along at a not fantastically successful level, but enough at this point to keep [US] Central Command happy." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In Tajikistan, Holbrooke spoke with Tajik President Imomali Rahmon about Afghan security, as well as energy and water issues. During a terse public appearance in Dushanbe, Holbrooke warned of the continuing threat of Islamic terrorists to the region's security. "I think the real threat in this region is less from Taliban, than from al Qaeda, which wants to train international terrorists," he said, stressing Tajikistan's "immense importance" in stabilizing Afghanistan for "ethnic, geographic and strategic reasons."
Azamat Temirkulov, a political scientist at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, interpreted the effort made by Holbrooke to distinguish al Qaeda from the Taliban as a subtle "change of strategy" in the American approach to the Afghan conflict.
"The United States is trying to find some room for negotiation and a common language with the Taliban," Temirkulov asserted.
Moreover, Temirkulov added, Bakiyev would see Holbrooke's decision to start his tour in Bishkek as a quiet show of thanks for allowing American troops to remain at the Manas airport, a transportation hub. Bakiyev had threatened to expel the Americans last year, only to change his mind after Washington offered to increase rent. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
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