The future of the U.S. military deployment in Central Asia has been thrown into doubt by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Both local politics and the geopolitical dynamics have changed since the Andijan crisis in May and the July 10 Kyrgyz presidential election. As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) recently called for the eventual withdrawal of the U.S. from Central Asia, Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev have echoed these sentiments for a variety of reasons, calling into question the nature of the Western commitment to the region (Interfax, July 8; EDM, July 7).
Uzbekistan has been regarded as the most steadfast Central Asian ally in the war on terror since the opening of the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase to U.S. and coalition aircraft in support of operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. President Karimov now believes that the status of the base is open to question, despite its contribution to regional security and its ongoing operational significance relating to Afghanistan. Karimov was reportedly at the forefront of the SCO’s move to limit the duration of the U.S. military deployment in Central Asia, and seems quite happy, for his own political gain, to instigate such a public debate on the future of the American military in the region. Indeed, following the official communiqué released by the SCO after its summit in Astana, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry rapidly supported the SCO’s stance. The deployment was always intended to be temporary in its nature, aiding the operations in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and stabilize the country by authorizing flights from K2 to support humanitarian relief efforts and rescue operations close to Uzbek territory.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry has repeatedly stressed several key points to explain its reservations concerning the American presence in the country. The United States has made no payments to reimburse additional expenses incurred by Tashkent as a result of increasing security at the airfield, creating and maintaining the infrastructure there, or in coping with environmental damage and inconveniences to the local population. Payments for take-off and landing fees for U.S. flights have been sporadic, according to official Tashkent, despite widespread publicity that the U.S. has provided sufficient funding as compensation to the Uzbek government. These points should form the basis for future bilateral discussions between Washington and Tashkent regarding the future of the base (Kalkh Sozi, July 8).
It is abundantly clear that the shift in the Uzbek position finds its roots in the uprising in Andijan in May 2005, and its efforts to resist the outside investigations demanded by the U.N. and NATO and further advanced by some quarters in Washington. The recent relocation of U.S. aircraft from K2 to Mans in neighboring Kyrgyzstan offers little comfort to Washington’s planners and strengthens Karimov’s hand. Tashkent has reportedly banned U.S. C-130 night flights from K2. Consequently C-130 transport aircraft air refueling assets were moved from K2 to Bagram airbase 100 kilometers from Kabul, while C-17 transport aircraft have been diverted to Manas for interim landings, rather than the preferred option at K2. Such limitations being placed on the movement of U.S. aircraft has highlighted the growing sense of drift in Washington’s policy towards the Karimov regime and the latter’s aggressive resistance of Western efforts to internationalize the crisis in Andijan and bring to the forefront the whole question of human rights in Uzbekistan. Karimov has been buoyed in his campaign to assert his right to act as he did in Andijan through support from both China and Russia, the former particularly keen to seize any mechanism to limit the growth of American influence in the region (Delovaya nedelya, June 24).
The renewed sense of closeness to Moscow has been reflected within the Uzbek media, which has been fiercely attacking NATO’s calls for an international inquiry into the Andijan massacre. Its response predictably follows Moscow’s defense of its actions in Chechnya: accusing the West of double standards in the war on terror (Pravda vostoka, June 21). Such critiques serve to justify Karimov’s disregard for human rights and the misuse of security forces in the name of countering terrorism.
Karimov has found an unexpected new ally in Central Asia with Bakiyev’s presidential election victory in Kyrgyzstan. Also calling for discussion of the issue of the duration of the U.S. stay in the region, Bakiyev brought the future of the base at Manas into the public forum. “We all know that Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan provided their territories for military bases. Kazakhstan and Russia provided their air space and corridors for U.S. military aircraft to fly over. This means the whole world united and fought against international terrorism and the war in Afghanistan. There indeed had been a real war. Military aircraft and strong forces were used there. All this is not there now. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been held in Afghanistan. The situation has stabilized there. This means that now one can start considering the issue of the deployment of U.S. forces. Time will show when this will happen and how. I believe this will take place in line with the due procedure,” Bakiyev explained (Kyrgyz Television First Channel, July 11).
Moscow and Beijing have now succeeded for a variety of reasons in placing the issue of the American military presence on the agenda of the Central Asian leaders. Karimov may have hoped to utilize the issue as a means of prevaricating on Washington’s push for an inquiry into Andijan. He could not have bargained for support from Bakiyev. The net result may be to present the United States with the dilemma of weighing its policy of promoting human rights and democracy against its strategic interests.