The U.S.'s Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan could be a target for "enemies," there's no way to be sure that corruption has been rooted out from the lucrative fuel contracts for the base, and Russia is Kyrgyzstan's strongest military partner. That's according to Roza Otunbayeva, the former president of Kyrgyzstan who made her first visit as ex-president to Washington this week. She was in town to receive an award from the Eurasia Foundation, and also took a bit of time to sit down with The Bug Pit to discuss some of the big issues in Kyrgyzstan and the region. Below is our interview, edited for clarity.
The Bug Pit: It's been argued that the focus on Afghanistan has distorted the U.S.'s policy toward Central Asia and made it “oversecuritized.” Do you agree?
Otunbayeva: No, it's not fair.... The United States responds to all our needs immediately. When we had the tragedy in 2010, we had two [military] bases, Russian and American. None of them were involved in our internal affairs, but the U.S. responded to our tragedy immediately, with the OTI program. Of course, I can't deny that that Manas is a tool for the U.S. But I don't think Kazakhstan or Tajikistan either will tell you that now only Afghanistan is the highlight of our relations, no.
BP: Manas has strengthened your relations with the U.S. and brought the government a lot of revenue, but it's also led to a lot of corruption, including at very high levels. Overall, is Manas a good thing for Kyrgyzstan?
Two days after Kazakhstan's top space official suggested that the country was reexamining its agreement with Russia on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the country's deputy prime minister sought to tamp down such speculation.
While Kazcosmos head Talgat Musabayev was quoted as saying the Russia-Kazakhstan agreement -- which is supposed to last until 2050 -- "has run its course" and that Kazakhstan was "formulating a new, all-encompassing agreement on Baikonur," Deputy Prime Minister Kairat Kelimbetov quickly sought to clarify Astana's position, that it was committed to the current agreement. Reports Central Asia Newswire:
“As you know, in 2004 [Kazakh] President Nursultan Nazarbayev and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the term of the lease of the Baikonur cosmodrome until 2050,” state media reported Kelimbetov as saying.
“The Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, of course, confirms the commitment of those arrangements. In October 2012, Presidents Nazarbayev and Putin instructed the intergovernmental commission to study the question of sharing the Baikonur cosmodrome and the following year to work out the appropriate changes to the regulatory framework of our cooperation.”
The story also notes the Russian press reaction to Musabayev's comments, which it describes as "explosive":
Russian media, including Pravda and Kommersant, has dismissed the threat as a low-level official posturing before the Kazakh parliament and does not believe the threat to preclude Russian use of the facilities to be viable.
When looking at the future security situation of Central Asia, discussion invariably leads to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. As its name suggests, it has roots in Central Asia, but since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and Pakistan began in 2001, the IMU has turned its focus to those battlefields. And the group's Central Asian founders, Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani, have both died. But there is much speculation that, after the U.S. starts to leave Afghanistan in 2014, that an emboldened IMU may again return to Central Asia. Those discussions, unfortunately, are usually short on knowledge about what the IMU is actually doing now.
A recent piece in Foreign Policy, "The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Down but not out," looked at the current state of the group and its strategy. And what was most striking, from the perspective of a Central Asia watcher, was how little discussion there was of that region. The piece devotes one sentence to the IMU's activities in Central Asia: "The group also continued to issue statements about events in Central Asia such as brutal attacks on Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan by gangs of Kyrgyz youth in 2010."
The piece notes that the group has been revitalized by the charisma of its "chief juridical voice," Abu Zarr Azzam, whose strategic focus is on South Asia:
Debris from space launches at Baikonur land on the Kazakh steppe.
Kazakhstan may suspend the current agreement allowing Russia to use Kazakhstan's territory for its main space-launch center, Baikonur, the head of Kazakhstan's space agency has said. Currently, Russia pays Kazakhstan about $115 million a year to lease Baikonur, under an agreement scheduled to last until 2050. But it looks like Kazakhstan may be rethinking that agreement. From the AP:
Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency cited Kazcosmos head Talgat Musabayev as telling parliament that proposals are being considered to bring the Baikonur facility under Kazakhstan’s jurisdiction....
“The rent agreement on Baikonur adopted in 1994 has run its course. The head of state held talks with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and has tasked us with formulating a new, all-encompassing agreement on Baikonur,” Interfax-Kazakhstan cited Musabayev as saying.
So why is Kazakhstan doing this? The AP notes:
It is unclear what is motivating Kazakhstan’s decision to push for a revision of arrangements on Baikonur, but it is known that it has been pushing for an increased role in the space industry.
Russia also has been moving to reduce its dependence on Baikonur, constructing a new launch facility in the Russian Far East. In a 2008 interview, Musabayev suggested that Kazakhstan was coming up with contingency plans in case Russia decided to leave Baikonur:
U.S.-Turkey relations are at their strongest in recent years, and the most significant reason for that is Turkey's decision last year to host a new NATO radar connected to the alliance's air defense system against the missile threat from Iran. That is according to two experts who spoke this week at the Brookings Institution.
One of the experts, Brookings's Ömer Taşpınar, said that after Turkey's fallout with the U.S.'s close ally Israel, which highlighted worry that Turkey could be "moving East," relations between Ankara and Washington have rebounded to the point where some call it a "Golden Age" of bilateral relations. Part of the reason for that is the Arab Spring, which has elevated Turkey's relevance in Washington.
"But more tangible, more concrete, what put Turkey under a positive light, in 2011, was Turkey's very strategic decision to say 'yes' to most radars necessary for the anti-missile defense system under the framework of NATO. That decision, in my opinion, was almost a make-or-break move for the Obama administration in terms of testing Turkey's commitment to NATO, testing Turkey's commitment to the trans-Atlantic partnership."
Another of the experts, Soli Özel, said that the radar has ensured that the U.S. will not be excessively concerned about Turkey's political system -- that confidence in Ankara's "strategic Westerness" will override any concerns about its "political Westernness," despite concerns that Turkey may be backsliding away from democracy:
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says that NATO was ready to offer his country the long-coveted Membership Action Plan to join the alliance but that "events of recent months" have scuttled those hopes. That seems to contradict statements made a day earlier by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in which he said there were never any such plans.
Saakashvili was speaking to Georgian journalists in Warsaw, on the way back to Georgia from NATO meetings in Brussels, reports Civil.ge:
“We were permanently making progress in respect of NATO [integration]. At Bucharest summit [in April 2008] we failed to get MAP, but we got a direct declaration that Georgia will become a NATO member and it was a real geopolitical breakthrough. Then NATO-Georgia Commission was established [in September, 2008]… Then we received a status of an aspirant state [December, 2011]… Then there was a statement at the NATO Chicago summit [in May, 2012] that at the next summit NATO should expand and that Georgia was one of the major candidates,” Saakashvili said....
“Yesterday [December 5] NATO-Georgia Commission meeting was held in Brussels. After the elections we had a chance of receiving MAP, because at the time discussions were ongoing that because elections were held so well and because we had a consensus between the new [government] and the President about NATO membership, there was a chance of at last getting this MAP by December – I was personally told about it at the very highest level,” Saakashvili said....
“Unfortunately, events of recent months – and I am saying it with great regret – did not allow us [to get MAP].”
“Yesterday’s [NATO-Georgia Commission] meeting was held actually without having new institutional progress [with NATO],” Saakashvili said.
Although Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO military back in July, traffic there is still moving so slowly that the coalition forces haven't even moved all of the goods that had backed up there -- meaning the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia remains the key means of supplying foreign forces in Afghanistan. That's according to Air Force Col. Robert Brisson, chief of operations for U.S. Transportation Command, in a recent interview with Military Times.
U.S. military officials have spent the past five months wrangling with the Pakistanis over a formal legal agreement and also working to clear out the roughly 7,000 shipping containers that were stalled in transit when the Pakistanis abruptly closed the border crossings in November 2011.
Coalition forces are only able to get between 10 and 50 cargo trucks per day across the border, compared to around 100 before the border was closed, Col. Brisson said.
“We haven’t booked any new cargo into the ports of Karachi and Qasim to move northbound, nor have we started moving new cargo heading southbound out of Afghanistan,” Brisson said.
New cargo may begin moving in late December or January, he said.
The U.S. and Pakistan are still working out the terms of the new agreement to ship goods through that country, and apparently the biggest sticking point is the question of transit fees.
US diplomacy in Central Asia must adapt to a drastic shift in underlying assumptions, a leading American expert on the region contends. Two decades ago, when the five Central Asian states gained independence, regional leaders welcomed Washington’s diplomatic involvement. But today, this is not necessarily the case.
The U.S. spent about $1.3 billion in Central Asia on supplies for its troops in Afghanistan over the most recent fiscal year, including $820 million in Turkmenistan alone. The $1.3 billion represents a sevenfold increase from the previous year, according to figures provided to The Bug Pit by the Defense Logistics Agency, the Pentagon agency in charge of supplying forces. The totals for fiscal year 2012, broken down by country, were:
Kazakhstan: $137.3 million
Kyrgyzstan: $218.1 million
Tajikistan: $11.7 million
Turkmenistan: $820.5 million
Uzbekistan: $105.9 million
DLA was unable to provide any detailed numbers about what was bought in each country, but that eye-popping $820 million in Turkmenistan was certainly almost entirely fuel. In general, the money went to "bottled water, sodas, juices, pasta, bakery items, lumber, plywood, cement, concertina wire, generators, rebar, fuel drums, corrugated steel, galvanized steel coils, and feeder cable. We also support the region by purchasing fuel and paying associated transportation costs," the DLA said in a statement.
The agency has made efforts to boost its Central Asia buying:
"DLA has conducted market research extensively in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan for a wide range of products... DLA has consistently increased procurement in the region since FY08. DLA increased local procurement in the five Central Asian States by over 700% when compared to FY11 figures. In January 2012, DLA placed a liaison officer in the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan and one in the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan to help foster increased local procurement efforts."
The goal for the upcoming fiscal year is slightly more than this year, $1.31 billion.
Senior Airman Brett Clashman, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing
General William Fraser, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, visits the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan while on a tour around Central Asia, October 2012
The U.S.'s top military logistics officer, just returned from a trip around Central Asia, has enthusiastically endorsed the notion that American military supply routes in the region can be transformed into a civilian "New Silk Road" after the U.S. pulls its forces out of Afghanistan.
In an interview with American Forces Press Service, General William Fraser added a senior military voice to the apparently re-emergent argument that the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) will act as the foundation for a transformation of trade in Central Asia:
Recognizing that U.S. shipments will diminish over time, leaders in nations supporting the NDN see the routes established to support the war effort in Afghanistan as a path to economic progress, Fraser noted. “I think the NDN is opening up opportunities for the future that these countries can capitalize on,” he said.
Nations are working together in unprecedented ways as a result of NDN agreements and exploring ways to streamline their import and export procedures to encourage cross-border commerce.
“We are already seeing some of that,” Fraser said. “As they look forward to the future, these countries know that the military is not going to be doing things at the same level that we have been for a long time. So they are looking for ways to capitalize on what has happened as a result of the Northern Distribution Network.”
Ambassador Dennise Mathieu, Fraser’s foreign policy advisor who accompanied him on the trip, said these efforts fit into the State Department’s vision of a “New Silk Road” that offers new potential in one of the least economically integrated areas of the world.