NATO’s 59th annual gathering is a glittering affair with an ambitious agenda. According to the media group on NATO, security leaders from NATO’s 26 member states were joined by representatives from an additional 23 nations involved in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program (Rompress, April 2). Albanian President Bamir Topi and Prime Minister Sali Berisha along with Croatian President Stjepan Mesic saw their nations invited to join the alliance even as the hopes of Macedonia, Georgia and Ukraine were deferred for at least a year.
If the European and U.S. media concentrated largely on the drama surrounding Georgia’s and Ukraine’s efforts to join the alliance, more seasoned political observers noted that the real issue was, in fact, NATO’s faltering peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.
Viewed from such a Eurasian perspective, the most notable non-NATO participants in this summit are Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. For all three nations, the summit represents an unparalleled opportunity to remind NATO that their participation is essential if any solution is to be found to the turmoil roiling Afghanistan. Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been Partnership for Peace members since 1994.
The reluctance of European NATO members to give full support to American calls for more member troops in Afghanistan was vividly illustrated at the February NATO summit in Latvia, when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that if NATO failed to increase its troop commitments, there could become a “two-tiered alliance” “with some allies willing to fight and die to protect people’s security and others who are not.”
In essence, Russia is offering an interim quid pro quo to NATO; in return for the alliance stalling on the issue of Georgia and Ukraine. Putin has dangled the possibility of Russian territory being used to transit logistical materiel for NATO forces in Afghanistan. On the issue of Russian logistical support for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “If we pretend to be offended and block this transit, the efficiency of the combat against terrorism, which is not very good as it is, will worsen dramatically; and the only result will be that in the absence of a restraining factor, all these drug traffickers and terrorists will feel freer in planning their actions in Central Asia and the Russian Federation. . . . Russia’s pragmatism and interests prompt us to support the activities of those who are trying to deal with the terrorists in Afghanistan” (Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei, April 2). If NATO decides to take up Russia’s offers of transit, however, there would still remain the issue of the materiel passing through a neighboring central Asian country, as Russia does not share a frontier with Afghanistan.
For Turkmenistan, Berdymukhammedov’s attendance at the summit is the clearest sign yet that he is abandoning his predecessor’s policy of neutrality. Former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, for all his declarations of neutrality had, in fact, close relations with the Taliban.
It is with Uzbekistan, however, that the alliance’s greatest opportunities in Afghanistan lay. Uzbekistan shares an 85 mile border with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan’s strategic value was not lost on the Kremlin, with the USSR launching its December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan from there.
After the collapse of the USSR, Uzbekistan showed its solidarity with Washington in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Less than a month after the terrorist attacks President Karimov signed a Status of Armed Forces Agreement with Washington permitting the US military to use its air base at Karsi-Khanabad, K-2, just 60 miles from Afghanistan in Uzbekistan’s Qashqadaryo province. This was instrumental in supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, which swiftly drove the Taliban from power. The following year the Uzbek government also agreed to allow a German Bundeswehr aviation unit attached to the ISAF to use its Termez air facility, only 37 miles north of Afghanistan’s Mazar-e Sharif.
The Washington-Tashkent arrangement remained workable until the tragic events in Andijan on May 12 and 13, 2005, which saw many Western governments harshly criticize events there before the facts were fully known. Friction over the issue between the Pentagon and State Department led Tashkent to withdraw from the SOFA agreement on July 29, with the Pentagon evacuating the base in November.
The first sign of new moderation in Washington’s approach to rebuilding U.S.-Uzbek relations came on January 24 when U.S. Central Command Commander Admiral William J. Fallon visited Uzbekistan, where he was warmly received. In this context President Karimov’s visit to Bucharest can be seen as a reciprocal gesture.
On Thursday Karimov addressed the summit, stating his belief that NATO’s evolution towards incorporating a political structure would stimulate the further development and strengthening of the Euro-Atlantic partnership.
Karimov then cut to the heart of the issue, Afghanistan, and stated directly, “I would like to state that Uzbekistan stands ready to discuss and sign with NATO an agreement on providing for a corridor and transit through its territory to deliver non-military cargos through the border junction Termez-Khayraton, practically the sole railway connection with Afghanistan.” Peace in Afghanistan would have a broader regional impact; as Karimov remarked. “In Uzbekistan we distinctly realize that achievement of peace and stability in Afghanistan would be a decisive factor of security, which opens up big opportunities to resolve the vitally important problems of the sustainable social and economic development of an entire Central Asian region.” Karimov concluded with a deft piece of diplomatic balancing of Moscow’s and Washington’s interests, urging a resumption of negotiations for peace in Afghanistan within the framework of the 6+2 grouping, which operated from 1997 to 2001, along with United Nations’ support, consisting of representatives of states neighboring on Afghanistan plus the U.S and Russia (www.ferghana.ru, April 3).
As distasteful as Washington may find it, the tepid response in Bucharest to the Bush administration’s calls for ballistic missile defense and alliance expansion serve as a brusque reminder that NATO remains an alliance rather than a military coalition whose policies are dictated solely by Washington. Uzbekistan’s call for a renewal of the 6+2 negotiations stands in stark contrast to 29 years of military operations in Afghanistan, which have failed to pacify the country and instead led directly to the horrific events of 9-11. Karimov’s proposals offer a potential roadmap leading to peace in Afghanistan, which more than six years of Operation Enduring Freedom have signally failed to achieve. There is little doubt that many of the NATO officials attending the summit in Bucharest will study the Uzbek proposals with greater interest than the calls for ABM systems or alliance expansion, even as Washington calls for yet more troops to be sent north of the Khyber Pass.