Ever since Almazbek Atambayev won last month's presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan and promptly announced that he would close the U.S.'s Manas air base, there has been a lot of handwringing about Manas's future. Those inclined to armchair geopoliticking saw it as a victory for Russia, while others dismissed it as a bargaining ploy, an attempt to squeeze more money out of the Pentagon next time the terms of the base came up for negotiations. After all, that's what happened in the past when Kyrgyzstan's government threatened to close the base. But Lincoln Mitchell, writing in The Faster Times, has a different interpretation:
The situation today is different. Atanbaev’s position does not appear to be a case of simply trying to line his pockets with more American money, but has expressed his view based on his country’s geographical and strategic proximity to Russia and a fear that having a U.S. air force base just outside of his country’s capital could create security concerns for Kyrgyzstan. While this position is not what the U.S. wants to hear, it is also reasonable and can plausibly said to be representing the interests of the Kyrgyz people.
Atambayev in fact campaigned on a promise to close the base, calculating -- apparently correctly -- that that was a winning position. Mitchell continues:
Afghanistan's neighbors agree to cooperate on Afghanistan, but where's Uzbekistan?
Foreign ministers from Afghanistan and its neighboring countries gathered in Istanbul yesterday to discuss plans for maintaining stability in Central Asia after the U.S. and NATO start pulling their troops out of Afghanistan in 2014. At the meeting, participants signed a document (pdf) supporting what is called the "Istanbul process." The document is full of the sort of lofty platitudes that meetings like this usually produce, and is uncontroversial enough for countries with such diverse interests as China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran to have signed on. In a briefing after the meeting, a senior State Department official noted the broad support the statement got:
[W]e thought it was also interesting that Afghanistan’s neighbors and near-neighbors, and I include here Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran – as you’ll see from the statement, have really spoken in one voice to assure Afghanistan of their support for Afghan-led reconciliation and transition to Afghan national security forces.
But one country was conspicuously missing in the list of signatories: Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan was one of the 14 countries that, as recently as Monday, State Department officials were calling "key partners" in this. But the final list included only 13 signatories. And the State Department statements do not mention Uzbekistan at all. (All of the other post-Soviet Central Asian states signed on.)
The U.S. has been promoting its "New Silk Road" strategy lately, billing it as a means to bring prosperity, and thus stability, to Central Asia once the U.S. starts to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. (EurasiaNet has a story on it today.) But there are also some intriguing geopolitical aspects to the strategy which lurk under the surface of what is presented as a win-win sort of global commerce.
The "New Silk Road," I think, has a common intellectual pedigree with other programs from the mid-oughts to unite South and Central Asia, like the effort to tie together the electrical grids of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to place the Central Asian countries in a new State Department bureau, taking them away from Europe and connecting them with South Asia. What these all have in common is that they attempt to weaken the economic (and as a result, political) monopoly that Russia, by dint of the centralized Soviet infrastructure, has on these countries.
As Marlene Laruelle writes in a new book, "Mapping Central Asia," which includes a great chapter on the revived metaphor of the New Silk Road (on which more later): "The underlying geo-economic rationales of these Roads is to exclude Moscow from new geopolitical configurations." (Laruelle, incidentally, is a fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, chaired by Fred Starr, Washington's biggest booster of the New Silk Road.)
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai raised a few eyebrows this weekend by suggesting that he would go to war against the U.S. -- the country without whose protection he would have been run out of Kabul years ago -- on the side of Pakistan. Reports the New York Times:
“God forbid, if there is ever a war between Pakistan and America, then we will side with Pakistan,” [Karzai] said in the interview with Geo Television, which was conducted partly in Urdu, partly in English. He added that Afghanistan would back Pakistan in a military conflict with any other country, including its archrival, India...
The prospect of a war between the U.S. and Pakistan is, of course, remote, and Karzai's statement was likely a ham-handed attempt to declare Kabul's loyalty to Islamabad, as tension between the two capitals has been rising; there have been high-profile attacks in Afghanistan originating in Pakistan, and Afghanistan just signed a strategic partnership agreement with India.
"This is not about war with each other," said Gavin Sundwall, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "This is about a joint approach to a threat to all three of our countries."
Anonymously, the interpretations were less generous: "It was totally careless, unnecessary and, yes, irresponsible," said one Afghan official [to the Journal]. "He hasn't pleased anyone except, maybe, a few Pakistani generals."
A Washington task force headed by two U.S. senators has released a report on Georgia and its relations with the U.S. and Europe, "Georgia in the West: A Policy Road Map to Georgia's Euro-Atlantic Future." It makes a variety of recommendations for U.S., European and Georgian policymakers, including some provocative ones in the security realm:
-- Propose an international security presence in the occupied territories: As part of an effort to go on the offense diplomatically, the United States should work with its allies to lay out a clear vision of what security arrangements should be in the context of a fully implemented cease-fire agreement: an Abkhazia and South Ossetia in which additional Russian forces and border guards have withdrawn and security is provided by a neutral international security presence working closely with local authorities...
-- Advance Georgia’s NATO aspirations. US officials should use the NATO summit in Chicago to advance NATO’s commitment to Georgia’s membership aspirations in practical ways, including by adopting a package of intensified cooperation, reiterating that Georgia will become an ally, and making clear that the NATO-Georgia Commission and Georgia’s Annual National Programme are mechanisms through which Georgia can eventually achieve membership...
Master Sgt. Scott Sturkol, Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
U.S. Air Force C-130 transport aircraft at Karshi-Khanabad base in Uzbekistan in 2005
The press service of the U.S. Air Force's Air Mobility Command (whose mission it is to transport troops) has written a brief history of the war in Afghanistan, which turned ten years old on Oct. 7. And one of the three parts is dedicated to the role of Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad base, or K2. It is a straightforward account of the base's operation, some quotes by then-top Pentagon officials Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Myers about the importance of the base, and then this:
Although the 416th Air Expeditionary Group stopped operations in Uzbekistan in mid-2005, many elements of its former mission are in use at other locations. Most notably is the 774th EAS which now operates from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan...
This neglects to mention that the US "stopped operations" there because the government kicked them out, after the State Department objected to the Andijan massacre.
Now, I'm almost certainly reading too much into a press release written by a staff sergeant in Illinois (with no disrespect intended), but this is interesting reading in light of recent events. The U.S. and Uzbekistan are now somewhat tight again; Uzbekistan is allowing massive amounts of U.S. military cargo to pass through en route to Afghanistan, and the U.S. has removed restrictions on military aid. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even suggested that Uzbekistan is making progress on democratization and human rights. Does this rose-tinted history fit in to this story somehow? (It's also noteworthy that Kyrgyzstan's Manas base, where Air Mobility Command continues to operate to this day, does not receive a mention in the history.) Something to ponder...
Iran's movement of an oil rig toward Azerbaijan's territorial waters in the Caspian Sea in 2009 caused Baku to fret about its lack of military capacity to handle such a threat, and to seek advice from U.S. officials on what to do, recently released Wikileaks cables show.
The cables make for some fascinating reading, and seem to provide some real insight into the strategic thinking of both the Azerbaijani and U.S. governments about the threat of conflict in the Caspian. They make it clear that Azerbaijan is afraid of both Iran and Russian threats against its gas and oil infrastructure in the Caspian, and that U.S. embassy officials are eager to prevent any such conflict because of the economic disruption that it would cause.
The crisis, which seems not to have been previously reported, began in November 2009, when Iran moved its new Alborz-Iran rig into waters that were disputed between Azerbaijan and Iran. The U.S. shared some (unspecified) intelligence information to Ali Asadov, senior energy advisor to President Heydar Aliyev to which Asadov responded:
"This situation is challenging, your information shows this. This tension will escalate." Asadov did not outline specific responses the Azerbaijani government planned to undertake. Rather, like many of our GOAJ interlocutors, Asadov appears to be gathering information and weighing Azerbaijani options, in light of superior Iranian naval strength."
Asadov's assessment of the situation is worth quoting at length:
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov is betting on NATO rather than the CSTO to help secure his country as the U.S. forces begin to leave Afghanistan in 2014, according to a report on the website uzmetronom (in Russian). The report doesn't cite any hard data, but uzmetronom is pretty well connected with government officials in Tashkent and their analysis certainly makes sense, given the trends of the last few years, in which Karimov has pulled away from Russia and its favored security bloc, the CSTO, while increasing its cooperation with NATO.
"The fact is that Islam Karimov has never considered the CSTO as a real force that could counter the military threat from the outside," the report says, adding that Karimov's top concern as the U.S. starts to withdraw from Afghanistan will be border security. "One solution: to develop contacts with U.S. and NATO as much as possible."
Since the U.S. has moved to remove human rights-related restrictions from military aid to Uzbekistan, the Obama administration has been criticized for abandoning its scruples for the sake of Tashkent's cooperation on hosting supply lines to Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about that yesterday, and she said there has been progress on human rights and political freedoms:
With respect to Uzbekistan, we value our relationship with Uzbekistan. They have been very helpful to us with respect to the Northern Distribution Network. They have also been helpful with Afghanistan in terms of reconstruction. They are deeply involved in assisting Afghans and the Afghan Government to try to rebuild and make Afghanistan a more prosperous, peaceful country. We believe that our continuing dialogue with officials of the government is essential. It always raises, as I have and as others from our government continue to do so, our concerns about human rights and political freedoms. But at the same time we are working with the Uzbeks to make progress, and we are seeing some signs of that, and we would clearly like to deepen our relationship on all issues.
Now, that contention is going to get a lot of scrutiny. She didn't give any examples of how the situation in Uzbekistan has improved. The most recent Freedom House rankings, for example, give Uzbekistan the lowest possible score, as they have for several years.
Most of the coverage of the news that the U.S. has decided to resume military aid (specifically, money to buy equipment, or Foreign Military Financing) has focused on why the U.S. did it, including this story from yesterday on EurasiaNet. But another question is: what does Uzbekistan get out of it? An obvious answer is, money, but the amount of money in question (at least so far) is very small, $100,000.
Maybe this will just open the door to more money in the future. But looking at the Wikileaked cables that describe the back-and-forth between the U.S. and Uzbekistan governments over the question of FMF, it doesn't seem that Uzbekistan is particularly concerned about the stuff per se, but in a more symbolic significance. For example, this cable from February 2010, after President Islam Karimov called for strengthening relations with the U.S.:
The fact that Karimov has effectively tasked his government to advance the relationship with the U.S. presents an important opportunity at a critical time as the USG manages the Afghanistan plus up. Karimov and the GOU are seeking legitimacy and recognition in two ways: First, they want the recognition and prestige that would accrue from a visit by Secretary Clinton to Uzbekistan. Second, they want to see progress on the issue of military-technical cooperation and what they know would be the concomitant lifting or waiving of the Congressional restrictions on FMF and IMET. Our challenge is to leverage this opening to our best advantage, but we cannot assume that time is our ally. The GOU is clearly looking for "signals," and, as part of any additional NDN-related requests, we would be well-served to be able to offer tangible responses to the Uzbeks on the question of a high-level visit or military-technical cooperation.