08 August 2005
A strategic reversal for Washington in Central Asia
In the post-Cold War era, one of the problems facing American foreign policy-makers is how to strike a balance between Washington’s strategic interests which sometimes require dealing with and appeasing authoritarian regimes and its desire to promote democratization which requires pressuring these regimes to launch political reforms and criticizing their violations of human rights.
It is such incertitude that has recently resulted in the United States losing its way in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, where it has been pressing for democratic reforms while also wanting to maintain its military presence.
Late last month Tashkent asked the US to pull its 800 troops out of Karshi-Khanabad, a key airbase used by the Americans to back their military operations in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Americans took over the base shortly after the September 11 attacks to launch war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, initiating the first Western military presence in Central Asia since the time of Alexander the Great. The base has been since a symbol of US-Uzbek multi-dimensional cooperation, initiated in 1992 but increasingly developed to the level of strategic partnership after Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s visit to Washington in 2002.
Justifying the move, Uzbek officials said that large-scale military operations against terrorism have come to an end in Afghanistan and, therefore, there was no sense in keeping American troops in the country. They also accused the US of not paying the landing and takeoff fees for its flights, not reimbursing Uzbekistan for the costs incurred in guarding and servicing the base, and not compensating the country for ecological damage.
Observers, however, linked the move to President Karimov’s displeasure at Washington’s criticism of his regime. In recent months, the US has joined other Western countries and groups in condemning the bloody repression of an uprising in the southern Uzbek town of Andijan in May that left several hundred dead and in calling for an independent investigation.
Another reason of the Uzbek action could be Karimov’s fear that Washington might attempt to destabilize his government, especially with reports saying that the Americans were behind the wave of regime changes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan and US President George W. Bush praising these developments and describing them as “just the beginning” of the “march of freedom around the world”.
The loss of access to the Karshi-Khanabad base is unlikely to set back US military operations in Afghanistan as Washington has options for compensation for the loss. This include the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, where about 1200 military personnel from the US and South Korea are stationed, and Tajikistan, where the Americans has operational rights. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan agreed last month to continue cooperating militarily with the US as long as that needed for stabilizing situation in Afghanistan.
However, the Uzbek move has placed in doubt the future of the American influence in one of the region’s most important countries. It could be seen as a strategic reversal for the US and a victory for Russia and China, both of which seem now to be overtly challenging Washington for dominance in energy-rich Central Asia.
Being confronted by Al-Qaeda-backed Muslim separatist movements, Moscow and Beijing had remained silent on the arrival of American troops in 2001 at their doorsteps to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That time, they perceived it as being in their interests. But now that they feel less threatened, they are pushing for an end to US military presence in the region, using all tools at their disposal and saying it poses challenge to either their countries’ stability or energy security. Nothing reflects this better than Russia and China using their influential positions in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to pressurize the other four members (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) to call on the US at their July 5 summit in Astana to set a date for the withdrawal of American personnel from bases in the region.
So far, only Uzbekistan has been enthusiastic to work in line with the SCO declaration. This suggests that the Karimov regime has decided to shift its foreign policy towards Russia and China, which are not expected to criticize its human rights records or support its opponents. It has been said that Karimov, who received a warm welcome in Beijing soon after the Andijan massacre, was backed by promises of substantial aid and investment by China to make up for any economic loss resulting from dislodging American forces from Uzbekistan. He also seems to have backing from the Russians, with whom he has already signed a pact for strategic cooperation.
Dr. Abdulla Al-Madani
Academic researcher and lecturer in Asian affairs
Date: August 8, 2005