Robert Simmons, the NATO secretary-general’s special representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, told a news conference in Moscow on March 5 that the Alliance welcomed Uzbekistan’s willingness to provide its military base at “Khanabad” for use by some NATO states. The confusion over Khanabad and Termez, two separate facilities, provoked an immediate response in Moscow. A senior military-diplomatic official told Interfax that Uzbek officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministry had denied any agreement with Washington on access to Khanabad. The Russian official described Tashkent representatives as being “very surprised” by Simmons’ statement, characterizing it as “a revelation without any foundation.” “My view – and our Uzbek colleagues share it – is that, in his statement, Mr. Simmons most probably mixed up Khanabad with Termez, because it is Termez that Germany uses as a transhipment base. As regards the Khanabad aerodrome, it has been noted in Tashkent that not a single German aircraft has ever landed there,” the source explained (Interfax, Moscow, March 5).
In fact, as these events unfolded in Moscow, it was quickly clarified. Since Uzbekistan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) it is legally obligated to advise its allies, including Russia, of any changes in military relations with third-party countries. Indeed, this obligation applies to all members of the CSTO and is one of the mechanisms through which Moscow learns of all the details of U.S. military engagement in the region.
Yet Simmons had in fact responded to a question concerning U.S. military personnel being seen recently at Khanabad, which has not been officially confirmed or denied. He explained that Khanabad had never been a NATO base, but it had served as a transit point for U.S. and NATO personnel for airlifts into Afghanistan. A number of NATO states, participating in military operations in Afghanistan, had used Khanabad particularly for refueling purposes. During this period, Uzbekistan had also closely cooperated with a number of NATO members although this cooperation was suspended following the uprising in Andijan on May 13, 2005. Germany, in the meantime, has maintained close relations with Tashkent and has continued using its access to the humanitarian “friendship bridge” at Termez in southern Uzbekistan as a transit point for delivering materials to Afghanistan, rather than for purely military purposes.
In his comments Simmons highlighted how far military relations have evolved and improved between the United States/NATO and Uzbekistan. As he said, “The situation has somewhat improved of late against the background of some events, particularly the discussions of human rights issues with EU countries. Uzbekistan is demonstrating its readiness for cooperation. In this regard, we are satisfied with the fact that the authorities of this country are ready to make available this base for use by other countries besides Germany. As far as I understand, the USA is starting to use this base, and naturally we can welcome this,” Simmons concluded (Regnum, March 5).
U.S. military servicemen are now allowed, on certain conditions, to use the military air base in Termez. Previously only Germany had been given access as part of humanitarian assistance to NATO operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. State Department issued a statement on March 5 clarifying that from now on “individual Americans to the NATO international staff can use the German ‘air bridge’ from Termez to Afghanistan.” These individuals would be from the civil advisory and administrative structure of the Alliance, and access granted would be granted only on a “case-by-case” basis. “The USA does not have direct access to any of the military facilities in Uzbekistan on a mutual basis,” the press service said. Thus, not only was the original reporting mistaken in terms of the location, but also in giving the impression of large numbers of U.S. troops arriving in Termez and transiting Uzbek territory on the way to Afghanistan (Itar-Tass, March 5).
But the real issue raised by the publicity about U.S. access to Termez is the wider challenges facing U.S. military basing in the region. Beyond Uzbekistan, protests against the U.S. military presence at Manas, near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, are being planned for April, while the Kyrgyz mass media continues to fuel the controversy surrounding the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan (24.Kg, March 3). Khanabad may well be in the sights of U.S. military planners, in the search for a stable and durable arrangement for the projection of U.S. military power into Afghanistan, as well as “sending a signal” to Iran. However, such options are limited in Central Asia, not least since despite Kazakhstan’s close military cooperation with the United States, it would avoid at all costs hosting a U.S. military base, eschewing the disapproval of Moscow and Beijing.
According to Alisher Komilov, a project manager at the Institute for Strategic and Regional Research under the president of Uzbekistan, the issue of Khanabad has not yet been discussed at a bilateral level between Washington and Tashkent. “The airbase in Khanabad, which was previously used by the Americans, is currently provided to the German side,” Komilov said during his attendance at the 68th Rose-Roth seminar of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Baku. The Uzbek expert signaled continued U.S.-Uzbek political dialogue, with a possible warming of military relations. Komilov recognized the importance of Afghanistan for Uzbekistan’s security, which is a factor in seeking common ground with Washington, “We are absolutely not interested in NATO’s reducing its presence in or withdrawal from Afghanistan” (Itar-Tass, March 6).
Speculation concerning U.S. basing options in Central Asia remains high. Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, president of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems in Moscow, believes that NATO member states want a permanent rather than temporary presence in Uzbekistan. “NATO countries, and above all the USA, are most likely to move after awhile from the temporary, sporadic use of military facilities in Uzbekistan to a permanent presence there. This is not in the interests of Russia or the Central Asian states themselves,” said Ivashov (Interfax, March 5). Ivashov used to be chief of the Main Directorate for International Military Cooperation in Russia’s Defense Ministry, and if these views are currently respected in that department, it suggests the type of discussion and influence with counterparts in defense ministries in Central Asia. After three years of being cold shouldered by the West, Uzbekistan is gradually moving center stage in connection with Western strategic interests in Afghanistan.