Last week, the US Congress held one of its most comprehensive hearings in years regarding US policy toward Central Asia. The members and invited expert speakers discussed the diverse goals the United States is pursuing in the region and the obstacles to their realization (House Foreign Affairs Committee, July 24).
In their view, the main US objectives in Central Asia are promoting these countries’ security against terrorist threats, ensuring their sovereignty and autonomy from the other great powers, encouraging US and European energy projects and other economic relations with these countries, and improving these countries’ human rights records and democratic governance. The main obstacles to their achievement are the resurgence of Islamist extremism in the region, the conflicts among the Central Asian countries, and the limited political pluralism found in many of these regimes.
Although the Western media did not provide much coverage of this July 24 hearing of the Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the meeting received considerable coverage in the Central Asian media. Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, delivered the main testimony at the hearing. Since Blake represents official US policy, his authoritative comments naturally received the most media attention.
Much of the coverage, like the hearing, focused on how the Central Asian countries have and could support US policy in Afghanistan. The decision of Kyrgyzstan’s government, recently reaffirmed, to require the US military to cease using the Manas Transit Center in 2014 aroused much congressional concern.
Assistant Secretary Blake explained that the United States was in preliminary talks with Bishkek and other Central Asian governments about continued US military access in the region beyond 2014, but Washington first had to agree with Kabul what role the Pentagon would play in Afghanistan after 2014 before determining the precise support it needed from neighboring counties. The Afghan-US negotiations on a new security cooperation and status-of-forces agreement will only be completed next year. “Based on that, we’ll then have a much clearer sense of what kind of facilities we’re going to need in Central Asia and elsewhere,” he stated (House Foreign Affairs Committee, July 24).
The local media noted that Blake reaffirmed that the United States, while desiring to retain access to Manas beyond 2014, was not seeking permanent military bases in Central Asia (Central Asian News Service, July 26). The Russian government is encouraging Kyrgyzstan to end the lease as scheduled. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said, “We believe that there will be no need for a center in the near future in connection with the planned withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan” (ITAR-TASS, July 25).
The members of Congress said that Kyrgyzstan’s authorities had made clear their intent to end the Pentagon’s lease in 2014, but Russian media sources, recalling how earlier Kyrgyzstani governments had reversed their previous policies on ending the US military presence in Manas, expressed skepticism about whether it would really be closed (News Asia, July 25).
The Russian ITAR-TASS News Agency also noted that Representative Dan Burton, chairman of the subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, said that the delegation of congressmen, which he led to Central Asia earlier that month, had raised the issue of bases for the US military in Kyrgyzstan and also “in a neighboring country” (ITAR-TASS, July 25). The delegation had visited Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the Kyrgyz Republic. Earlier Russian media had reported that the delegation had inquired about a possible US military base in Tajikistan, something denied by Tajikistan’s government (Vzglyad, July 6; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, July 12).
At the hearing, Blake praised Uzbekistan for being “a critical part of regional support for Afghanistan” as well as for “building a rail line connection between Afghanistan and Central Asia and providing electricity that benefits the people of Afghanistan.” Blake added that, “We also appreciate Uzbekistan’s central role in the Northern Distribution Network” (House Foreign Affairs Committee, July 24), through which supplies reach the US forces in Afghanistan.
Some of the members were extremely critical of Pakistan for blocking NATO supplies through its territory since November 2011. Recalling the more than $20 billion in assistance that the US government had provided Pakistan in the last decade, Representative Ted Poe said he did “not believe Pakistan is a friend of the United States and really not a friend of Central Asia.” In his view, “We don’t need to pay Pakistan to betray us. They seem to do it – they will seem to do it – for free whether we pay them or not.”
The Kazakhstani media noted how Blake had praised Kazakhstan for its nonproliferation record and Astana’s role in helping prevent other countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In addition to being the first former Soviet republic to renounce all its nuclear weapons, Blake noted Astana’s contribution to averting the further horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons (Regnum, July 25). In response to the first question at the hearing, by Representative Burton, Blake praised Kazakhstan’s “quiet dialogue” with Tehran to dissuade Iran from pursuing an atomic bomb (Regnum, July 25).
At the time of the hearing, Alice Wells, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Security Council, was in Astana meeting with Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov. According to Kazakhstani sources, they discussed issues of regional and global security, including issues of stabilization of Afghanistan, as well as further enhancing bilateral trade and economic cooperation. Kazykhanov detailed Kazakhstan’s support for Afghanistan’s economy as well as its other contributions for regional security. Wells reportedly praised Kazakhstan’s global leadership in strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime as well as Astana’s support for regional integration (Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan, July 24).
Finally, Assistant Secretary Blake also commended Turkmenistan’s humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, as well as its contribution to Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction (Central Asian News Service, July 26).
Central Asian governments, as well as US officials, are eager to continue cooperating on regional security despite the departure of most US and NATO combat forces from Afghanistan in a few years. In addition to direct defense cooperation, they also want to expand economic and energy partnerships that will strengthen stability throughout Central Asia. Yet, progress on these issues will depend on overcoming other impediments such as differences over human rights and democracy issues.