Even if the United States emerges victorious in the battle for Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, it still faces a big challenge in winning the war in Afghanistan. The only likelihood at present is that Russia, through its meddling in Central Asia, will pose a major obstacle to US and European Union efforts to defeat the Taliban insurgency.
Negotiations over the fate of the Manas air base are ongoing, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov has confirmed. The government bill proposing the closure of the base now seems unlikely to face a parliamentary vote until mid February, leaving time for Washington and Bishkek to modify the current lease terms. But if no agreement can be reached, bullish US defense officials are now insisting the loss of Manas would have only a minimal effect on military operations in Afghanistan. Russian experts agree that in the larger logistical scheme of the war there, the Manas air base, although convenient, is not the only transport hub on the market.
The most nettlesome aspect of recent developments for Western strategic planners is Russia's double-dealing. On February 4, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced on state television that Moscow sought "full-fledged and comprehensive cooperation" with US and NATO forces. Despite the conciliatory rhetoric, however, US and European officials are increasingly convinced that Russia's move to give a massive economic aid package to Kyrgyzstan was intended as a bribe get bring about the closure of the American base there. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
US strategic planners are now examining their options. They are also trying to calculate what impact, if any, the potential loss of Manas would have on efforts to get a new supply network via Central Asia up and running. The so-called Northern Distribution Network is a critical element in the surge being planned for Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Oksana Antonenko, a Russian specialist with the Institute of International Strategic Studies in London, said the proposed Northern Distribution Network was guaranteed to be plagued with problems -- whether the Manas base was operational or not.
"In theory it's a good idea; in practice it's just full of an unbelievable amount of challenges. One has to negotiate with the Russians. That's hard going and they've not even started talking about anything remotely resembling military supplies," she told EurasiaNet.
"The Central Asians too are very difficult to negotiate with, although there have been improvements in relations, especially with the Tajiks, who are very keen to cooperate. But there's a real worry that a northern corridor could spread instability in Afghanistan's north," Antonenko continued. "A lot of the instability in the south [of Afghanistan] has been linked to criminal groups with ties to the Taliban plundering supplies through the [Pakistani] corridor. If that dynamic moves north, it could seriously impact regional security."
Tajikistan is willing to help, but the country's geographic position means that supply routes there would need massive investments. "Tajikistan would require a very large investment for which there has not been an incentive to explore seriously until now. . . . The assumption in Washington has always been that the Kyrgyz might be difficult and want a bargain, but they are not going to dare to kick the Americans out," Antonenko said.
Azamat Temirkulov, a political scientist at the American University of Central Asia, said the closure of the Manas base would in no way scupper America's and NATO's plans for Afghanistan. The real issue is Russia's regional and international position. "As US officials said, they will find another way to Afghanistan. Maybe Uzbekistan would welcome [back] a US base," he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"But the broader strategy of the Russian Federation is an attempt to increase its influence across the ex-Soviet Union. They tried to do this in the Caucasus; they tried in their relations with Ukraine and Moldavia; now they're trying to do this in Central Asia," Temirkulov said.
Abdugani Mamadazimov, chairman of the National Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan, said recent Russian attempts to exert influence over Tajikistan had been ham-fisted. After Medvedev's January 22 statement that no regional country should tap hydropower reserves without Moscow's consent -- a move seen in Dushanbe as a slap after years of Russian promises to help complete the Rogun hydropower project in Tajikistan -- Abdugani said that sentiment in Dushanbe was shifting away from Russia and toward the United States.
"Tajikistan is very much offended by Moscow," Mamadazimov said. "Certainly, Tajikistan can't leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization, but Tajikistan is negotiating with Americans. Regarding the peoples' attitude towards Americans, some are eager to help."
The $2 billion aid package that Russia has promised Kyrgyzstan has further inflamed emotions in Dushanbe, Mamadazimov added. "You know after Medvedev's visit [to Uzbekistan in January] some very angry people started talking even about closing the Russian base in Tajikistan, and some talked about raising the rent for it." But he went on to say that Tajikistan would find it hard to ditch the Kremlin, even if it waned to.
"Even if we say 'yes' to a US airbase in Tajikistan, which is a national interest, it would be problematic. Because we have to carry out our responsibilities according to Collective Security Treaty Organization, where Moscow's opinion is very vital," Mamadazimov added.
Antonenko suggested that after the Manas situation is settled, one way or another, the United States and Russia will begin jockeying over Uzbekistan. Tashkent maintained a strong strategic partnership with Washington until 2005, when the fallout over the use of force used by Uzbek security forces against civilian demonstrators in Andijan caused a rupture in bilateral relations. Subsequently, Uzbek leaders moved into Moscow's orbit. But in 2008, President Islam Karimov seemed to sour on his partnership with the Kremlin, and Uzbekistan now seems like a country very much in play. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Uzbekistan is the ideal place [to run supplies through]," Antonenko said. "It's got the infrastructure -- facilities already exist there -- it's got the right location and geography to be able to quickly link in with major infrastructure in Afghanistan. The Uzbeks are also looking for a bargain. Everybody is in the market now with the global economic crisis, but also strategically it's in their interests."
The Kyrgyz, she added, might still emerge triumphant from the current controversy. "It'd be sensational if they got money from the Russians and Americans at the same time. It wouldn't surprise me: typical Central Asian diplomacy," she said.
Deirdre Tynan is a EurasiaNet correspondent in Bishkek. David Trilling contributed reporting.