Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 185

On October 5 in Tashkent, U. S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held talks that opened the way for the first officially reported landing of American combat forces in Uzbekistan. Some 1,000 elite U.S. mountain troops arrived there on October 7. These and other U.S. forces will participate in American-led operations against terrorists and their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.

While limited in both scope and duration, this mission has the potential to inaugurate a new era in global geopolitics for three reasons. First, as never before, Western forces will be operating from the landlocked heart of Eurasia, which all geopolitics deemed out of reach for the Western powers. Second, the U.S. military presence effectively erases the “red line” that Moscow had drawn around the former Soviet perimeter, from Central Asia to the Baltic region. And third, the current operation–as Rumsfeld defined it in Tashkent–reflects long-term American and, more broadly, Western interests in Asia, and will likely be followed by the establishment of a long-term U.S. presence in the region.

The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, accepted some calculated risks to the country and to himself in making this opening possible. By the same token, Uzbekistan has acquired a stake in a long-term U.S. presence, which has become indispensable to Uzbekistan’s security and to postconflict stability in the region overall.

In his concluding briefing in Tashkent, Rumsfeld underscored that the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign is not directed at the Muslim religion, nor at Afghanistan or any particular country, but solely at terrorist organizations “in order to make sure that they would not have an opportunity to repeat those horrific acts in the future. Above all, it should be clear to everyone that our interests, U.S. interests in Uzbekistan, are long-term interests.” This view on the postconflict stage dovetails with the publicly expressed view of Uzbekistan, and almost certainly also with the tacit expectations of other Central Asian leaderships.

Rumsfeld and Karimov announced that they have agreed on the broad terms of the U.S. military operation out of Uzbek territory. These terms entail certain restrictions, which are however formulated in ways that seem both flexible and provisional, and in any case open to renegotiation. Uzbekistan makes available “one of its air bases” for the use of American forces. The U.S. aviation to be deployed there is defined as “transport aircraft and helicopters,” thus seemingly excluding combat planes. The American aircraft and ground troops will participate in search and rescue missions and also humanitarian missions in Afghanistan, with no mention made of battle missions. Uzbekistan will share its intelligence on Afghanistan and on the Central Asian region with the United States.

If immediate precedent is any guide, Tashkent’s publicly stated terms on cooperation with the United States are deliberately understated. Several times in the wake of September 11, Karimov announced that Uzbekistan would open its “airspace” to U.S. aviation. Uzbek officials, however, speaking on background and undoubtedly with Karimov’s authorization, promptly interpreted “airspace” as implying landing rights and use of airports as well. Similarly, Uzbek officials systematically denied–prior to October 5–the reported arrival of first elements of U.S. aviation and ground military personnel in Uzbekistan. Yet, as is now clear, these elements had begun arriving shortly after September 20. These Uzbek denials and understatements were necessitated not only by military secrecy, but also by concern over possible retaliation from the Taliban, or arm-twisting by Moscow.

Viewed in that light, Karimov’s October 5 limitations on the American latitude of action are not to be taken literally. Notwithstanding the “one air base” proviso, American planes have been reported landing at two bases at least. Furthermore, a dividing line between “search and rescue” missions and actual combat missions in Afghanistan is difficult to define conceptually, easy to cross in practice and hardly enforceable in any case.

Uzbekistan at this juncture does not want to serve as a staging ground for American air bombardment of Afghan territory. Yet the indications are that Uzbekistan accepts and indeed favors air strikes against Taliban air defense forces. The official rationale is security of civilian flights inside Uzbek air space and protection of humanitarian air cargoes destined for Afghanistan’s population. Those rationales can, however, be extended to cover other types of situations and missions.

Even more significantly, Rumsfeld and Karimov agreed that the sides would in short order draw up a legal document, formulating reciprocal obligations and guarantees. Karimov will almost certainly seek the inclusion of those three “prerequisites” to Uzbek-U.S. military cooperation, which he had listed on September 26 and October 1 to assembled Uzbek officials. Those prerequisites were: no involvement of Uzbek troops in ground operations in Afghanistan, guarantees–implying mainly American ones–for the security of Uzbekistan’s territory and the inviolability of its borders, and technical assistance to Uzbek forces.

At the October 5 briefing, Karimov also held out the possibility of negotiating an agreement on U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan, along the lines–he said–“that the United States has with many countries where it stations military units and troops.” While the envisaged legal document would seem to have the markings of a mutual security treaty, the suggested agreement on bases would seem to have those of a status of forces agreement. Such documents, if finalized, would codify the first quasi-alliance between the United States and a former Soviet-ruled country that has decided to stake its future on links with the West (Uzbek Television, Zhahon, Khalk Sozi, Western news agencies, October 5-7; see the Monitor, September 18, 24, 26, October 2-3; Fortnight in Review, September 28).