Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 147

On July 25-27, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to shore up those countries’ commitments to support the American-led coalition. Both countries were wavering. Earlier this month, Moscow and Beijing had orchestrated demands in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to set deadlines on the presence of U.S.-led anti-terrorist forces in Central Asia. Nevertheless, elements within the respective leaderships seemed prepared to work with the United States in ensuring the continuation of its military presence (see EDM, July 6, 8, 19).

At a joint news conference with Rumsfeld in Bishkek, Defense Minister General (ret.) Ismail Isakov declared that Kyrgyzstan would continue hosting the Manas air base “until the situation in Afghanistan normalizes.” Isakov, in unison with Rumsfeld, proceeded to describe the situation in Afghanistan as necessitating considerable efforts for some time yet. However, Isakov clearly stated, “The presence of the air base depends entirely on the situation in Afghanistan” — a thesis that inherently limits the timeframe for that presence.

According to the Kyrgyz communique, Rumsfeld discussed with Isakov a considerable expansion of U.S. security and military assistance programs with Kyrgyzstan, including: building or modernizing training ranges in the country, setting up a training school for junior ranks of peacekeeping units, providing the Kyrgyz military with IT programs, and supplying unspecified assistance to that military’s aviation component (this may refer to delivery of helicopters, as Kyrgyzstan does not have an air force).

In a separate comment, President-Elect Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s press secretary, Avazbek Atakhanov, argued that threats not only in Afghanistan, but also from terrorism worldwide, as seen recently in the London bomb attacks, justify the continuing presence of U.S.-led forces at Manas. This latter argument (unlike that linked to Afghanistan) seems designed to defend basing arrangements of indefinite duration with the United States in Central Asia.

This is not the first time that Bakiyev’s press secretary has publicly differed with the president on this issue. Bakiyev had several times in recent weeks endorsed Moscow’s position, claiming that the situation in Afghanistan was approaching normalization, and that the coalition’s presence in Central Asia is therefore becoming unnecessary. This is the heart of the Moscow-Beijing argument for a clear deadline to be set on the coalition’s military presence in Central Asia.

Bakiyev did receive Rumsfeld in Bishkek, but the Kyrgyz official press releases did not cite any Bakiyev remarks on this issue. The newly elected president did acknowledge the U.S. contribution to the successful presidential election.

Between the SCO’s July 5 summit and Rumsfeld’s visit, several U.S.-supported, pro-democracy NGOs and political groups added their voice to those elements in the power structures that favor continuation of the U.S. military presence. Several NGOs, notably the Kyrgyz Human Rights Committee led by Ramazan Dyryldayev, urged that Russia’s Kant air base be closed also, in the event that a decision is made to close Manas.

In Tajikistan, President Imomali Rakhmonov and other officials confirmed to Rumsfeld that the country’s air space would continue to be made available to air forces of the United States and other coalition members, under the existing agreements, in the framework of operations in Afghanistan. Tajikistan hosts a small contingent of the French air force. French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was Dushanbe on July 21 to firm up that arrangement.

In their meetings with Rumsfeld, Tajik officials underscored the urgency of curbing the Afghan drug trade. They called for assistance to Afghan farmers to grow crops other than opium and for interdiction of the drug flow from Afghanistan at the country’s border. Minister of Foreign Affairs Talbak Nazarov dwelt on this issue at the joint press conference. Rumsfeld cited the need for European countries — the main recipients of Afghan drugs — to tackle this problem. The United States is set to provide assistance for construction of a bridge that would link Tajikistan with Afghanistan across the Panj River.

Rakhmonov and Nazarov acknowledged the need for U.S.- and NATO-led operations in Afghanistan to continue until the Taliban movement — “this serious potential threat to Central Asia” — and other “remnants of terrorist groups” are suppressed, and Afghanistan’s political system takes shape. Thus, the rationale for continuing Tajik support to American operations is clearly reaffirmed.

Rumsfeld’s tour did not include Uzbekistan, where the authorities maintain a calculated level of uncertainty over the future of the U.S. air base at Karshi-Khanabad. According to Rumsfeld, the issue of U.S.-Uzbek military cooperation is to be solved at the level of the U.S. president.

Timed to Rumsfeld’s tour, a Nezavisimaya gazeta interview with Dmitry Simes, director of the Nixon Center in Washington, advised the Kremlin that its call jointly with Beijing to set deadlines on the U.S. military presence in Central Asia is regarded in Washington as a challenge to U.S. interests. “It would be an error to have the bases closed suddenly, seemingly by fiat, it would look like an openly hostile move … not like a move by Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, but a move forced on them by Beijing or Moscow. This could damage Russia’s relations with the United States.” However, if Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan tell Washington that the bases must be closed, the bases will cease to exist, Simes is cited as saying. “But this must be done by those governments, not by the SCO” (Nezavisimaya gazeta cited by Interfax, July 26).

(Akipress, Kyrgyz Television, Avesta, Tajik Television, Interfax, July 25-27)