The presidents of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — held a summit of the SCO on July 5 in Astana. Their joint declaration requests the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition forces to set a date for leaving Central Asia. It is the first request of this type since the American-led forces established a presence in Central Asia in the autumn of 2001.
The joint declaration uses soft language in stating, “We support and shall continue to support the coalition’s efforts in conducting the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan. We note at the present time a positive trend toward stabilization of the internal situation there. Some SCO countries provide infrastructure on their territories for temporary deployment of the forces of coalition countries, as well military transit by land and air in the interest of the anti-terrorist coalition. Considering that the active [combat] phase of the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan has been completed, the SCO member countries deem necessary that the coalition countries involved should set the final dates for their temporary use of those infrastructure installations and stationing of their troops on SCO member countries’ territories” (Interfax, July 5).
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top foreign policy aide, Sergei Prikhodko, stated on the record that no one is giving “them” ultimatums or suggesting specific deadlines (though Prikhodko himself went on to suggest timeframes of up to a year and a half). Off the record, however, Russian officials, apparently including Prikhodko, told reporters, “A precise and clear answer is needed. We need to know until when the anti-terrorist coalition will use infrastructure facilities in SCO member countries for the operation in Afghanistan. This question is of practical significance both for us and for the countries” (Itar-Tass, Reuters, July 5). Meanwhile Uzbek President Islam Karimov, with Putin’s sotto voce approval last week in Moscow, has already suspended the landing of C-17 heavy transport planes as well as night flights at the U.S. base Karshi-Khanabad.
The assertion that the situation in Afghanistan is improving and that active operations are no longer necessary represents a change of spin by Moscow and other SCO members. It appears designed to imply that the United States and its NATO allies no longer need bases and installations in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to support military operations in Afghanistan. Until most recently, the official position in Moscow and other capitals did acknowledge that Afghanistan remained a source of threats to the region and indeed to Russia, thus implicitly justifying the continuing U.S.-led military presence in Central Asia. In recent months and weeks, the security situation in Afghanistan has actually deteriorated (see EDM, June 13, 27). Nevertheless, the SCO forum’s assessment veers in the opposite direction, apparently tailored to the new political objective of nudging U.S. forces from the area.
Partly contradicting its own assessment regarding Afghanistan, the SCO summit described the narcotics trade originating in that country as a major security challenge closely linked to terrorism and affecting all member countries. The summit decided to create a “SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group” to support anti-drug efforts, “stabilize the socio-economic situation,” and become involved in reconstruction programs in Afghanistan. If institutionalized, a Contact Group could clearly be used to erode the U.S. leading role with regard to Afghanistan. It could also become an avenue for Russia and some of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries to play tribal politics in Afghanistan.
Strikingly absent from the summit’s concluding documents and the presidents’ speeches was the United States. Clearly, a political decision had been made in advance to avoid any positive or negative mention of the United States and its NATO allies. However, speeches and documents did include veiled criticism of American and, more generally, Western policies and understanding of the region’s problems. The six presidents spoke of “the countries’ right independently to choose ways of development based on their specific characteristics,” “noninterference in internal affairs,” “sovereign equality and mutual respect,” “an adequate pace of reforms” — mostly coded terms opposing what these leaders regard as U.S.-inspired democratic revolutions with destabilizing effects in this region.
On the whole, the summit reflected a diminishing estimation of the ability of the United States to uphold its stated interests in the region or to assist Central Asian states in sustaining theirs. U.S. credibility in the region has gradually declined since the heyday of confidence in and expectations from the United States three years ago. Three recent events have palpably accelerated that decline: First, the Taliban’s reemergence as a fighting force in Afghanistan, against the backdrop of a booming drug trade that (on the coalition’s watch) endangers the neighboring Central Asian countries. Second, the misfired democratic revolution in Kyrgyzstan — an event widely seen as Western- (primarily U.S.-) inspired and destabilizing at least in the short term. And, third, the confused and uncoordinated U.S. response to the rebellion in Andijan, which has left Uzbekistan isolated from the West and once again dependent on Russia (and, to a lesser extent, China) for security assistance and diplomatic support.
(Interfax, July 5; see EDM, June 2, 22, 30, July 1)