With a helping hand from South Korea, the United States has reestablished a strategic presence in Uzbekistan - sort of. The development provides a boost for US efforts to press an offensive against Islamic militants in Afghanistan, and offers evidence that Russia's influence in Central Asia is waning.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov revealed on May 11 that a cargo airport in the city of Navoi is already being used for the airborne transport of NATO non-lethal supplies destined for coalition forces in Afghanistan. The announcement coincided with a state visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak. South Korea is overseeing a major renovation at Navoi airport that will turn the facility into a world-class air freight hub.
South Korea's involvement in the project provides a face-saving way for the resumption of US-Uzbek strategic cooperation, capping over a year of US diplomatic efforts to bridge the rift that opened amid the fallout from the 2005 Andijan massacre. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Karimov evicted US forces from an air base in Karshi Khanabad in late 2005 as a response to US protests over his administration's handling of the Andijan events.
The Uzbek-South Korean agreement regarding Navoi airport gives Karimov the ability to deny to Moscow that he has cut a deal with the United States. But at the same time, Washington stands to get what it needs - a transit base that can take over much of the load from the American base in Kyrgyzstan, which is scheduled to close this summer. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
During a joint news conference, Karimov and Lee did not dwell on specifics concerning how the Afghan supply operations will run out of Navoi. South Korean contractors are handling activities related to the airport's infrastructure upgrade. But the entity handling the logistics connected to the actual transit flights remains uncertain. The facility is managed by Korean Air, but it would seem reasonable to assume that US and/or European Union military personnel are somehow involved.
Karimov and Lee were careful to cast the airport announcement as a move driven by economic, not strategic, concerns. Boosting trade ties was the central theme of Lee's visit, and he emphasized that the Navoi facility's upgrade would be a key component in creating a "New Silk Road" linking East Asia and Western Europe. All of that may be true down the road, but in the immediate future, the airport stands to serve a vital function for coalition stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.
A spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Tashkent insisted in an interview with EurasiaNet that the transit deal was strictly commercial in nature. The arrangement could well prove to be a financial bonanza for the Uzbek government, via the involvement of state-controlled entities like Uzbekistan Airways, and for Korean Air's parent company, the Hanjin Group.
Although the deal was ostensibly completed between Uzbek and South Korean officials and business executives, the US military appears to have had a hand in its creation. According to a document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the US Transportation Command, or USTRANSCOM, in late 2008 conducted a "market survey" for transit solutions linked to the opening of the northern supply network for Uzbekistan. A document prepared for that market survey by Korean Air appears to sketch the parameters of the Navoi base agreement. The Korean Air document states that the Navoi hub would offer "an integrated commercial-based solution to meet US forces' transportation requirements to Afghanistan."
"[The] inter-modal option offers a combination of air and land transportation via transit at Navoi," the document added. "All air shipments arriving Navoi airport will be transferred to trucks and/or rail for land transportation to final destinations."
The document outlines that Korean Air is capable of transporting cargo originating from both Europe and the United States. Goods flying across the Pacific will be carried by Korean Air's Boeing 747-400s; goods requiring air transport from northern Europe will be by flown by Uzbekistan Airways' Airbus 300-600s or Ilyushin-76s from Navoi to Afghanistan. As of late April, Uzbekistan Airways has reportedly been leasing the Airbus 300-600s from Korean Air.
Korean Air claimed it could get non-military goods from Europe to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar by plane in 12 hours, and from the east coast of America to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 25.5 hours.
Security in Uzbekistan would be provided by a "local security service under contract." In Afghanistan, an "international private military company and/or a local security service" would be hired, the document added. For forwarding services within Afghanistan, the Korean company says, "exclusive trucking services will be provided by the joint venture company of Hanjin and its Uzbekistan partner."
According to Uzbek media reports, Navoi airport's cargo facilities will be upgraded to handle up to 300 tons of cargo daily under an $83.4 million program financed by the Fund for Reconstruction and Development of Uzbekistan and the national carrier. In addition, President Lee announced on May 11 that a $200 million credit line would be extended to Korean companies handling renovation work at Navoi.
Andrei Grozin, the director of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow, suggested that Navoi was capable of rendering the Kyrgyz base at Manas, outside of Bishkek, superfluous. "Its infrastructure is more or less developed," Grozin said of Navoi airport. "Of course it is not Manas or Tashkent airport [at present], but it can become so if time and money is invested." Grozin estimated that the needed upgrades at Navoi would cost about $200 million.
The structure of the Navoi agreement, and the way it is framed, leaves the Kremlin in a diplomatic bind, and thus can be viewed as a diplomatic masterstroke by Foggy Bottom. One of Moscow's chief geopolitical aims in recent years has been to end the American military presence in the region, a move underscored by the evident aid-for-eviction deal that it reached with Kyrgyz leaders in early 2009. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, Russia is diplomatically supportive of the still-developing northern supply network for Afghan counter-Taliban operations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Thus, Moscow technically has no grounds to complain about the Navoi operation, since the Americans won't nominally be in charge, even if they are calling the shots at a distance.
The Navoi announcement seems to turn the $2.15 billion aid package that the Kremlin extended to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev into a waste of money from the Russian viewpoint. Analysts in the region believe Russia's main motivation for offering the package was to drive the Americans out of Manas, which, at the time, was the sole facility in Central Asia that housed US forces.
Already, Russia has transferred roughly $450 million in cash and credits to Kyrgyzstan. It will now be interesting to see whether Moscow follows through on its $1.7 billion commitment to complete Kyrgyz hydropower projects. Ironically, it seems that Karimov's fierce opposition to Russian-Kyrgyz cooperation on hydropower plans helped drive the Uzbek leader to reengage with the United States, via the South Korean-connection. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"These steps are in Uzbekistan's interests [because] they increase [Tashkent's] political status and intensify the potential of partnerships with the US and NATO," Grozin said.