Even though the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan appears to be drawing to a close, Washington is building up its military presence in Central Asia to protect what it describes as its long-term interests, in an area Russia and China consider part of their sphere of influence. The move could have dramatic consequences in a region in which some countries are seeking to reduce their dependence on Russia for security reasons.
Prague, 11 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States, which has gained a foothold in Central Asia over the course of its antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, is now considering ways to consolidate its military buildup there in a bid to raise its political profile in the region.
The move is likely to prompt much gnashing of teeth in Russia and China, as the two nations traditionally regard Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan as their backyard.
Since the beginning of the U.S. offensive against Afghanistan's Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network, the Pentagon and its allies have been using Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as a rear base for military operations and as a corridor for humanitarian aid.
Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have no Western troops on their territories, but they have offered their respective airspaces and airfields to U.S. planes for operations in Afghanistan. Allied military experts are currently inspecting Tajik airfields in anticipation of future missions in the region.
Some 2,000 U.S. soldiers are already deployed in former Soviet Central Asia, mainly on Uzbekistan's southern Khanabad airfield, near the Afghan border. On 28 December, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said he has set no deadline for U.S. troops to pull out of the base.
Although the U.S.-led anti-Taliban operation appears near its end, the Pentagon is building military facilities at Manas international airport -- some 30 kilometers outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek -- which could house up to 3,000 troops. And the Kyrgyz parliament last month agreed to let the U.S. military set up a base at Manas for one year.
In another sign the U.S. is settling into the region, "The New York Times" of 10 January reported that U.S. military planners are also considering rotating troops in the region every six months, increasing technical support for and conducting training exercises with Central Asian countries.
Washington's aims in the region remain unclear. U.S. analysts say a long-term military presence in the region is needed to avoid a possible comeback of the Taliban and to ensure that all remnants of Al-Qaeda are rooted out. They also argue that U.S. troops are needed to protect the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that is being deployed in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to help the new interim government maintain peace.
But there are indications that Washington might pursue broader goals. In comments last month to the U.S. Congress's Foreign Affairs Committee, Elizabeth Jones -- the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs -- notably said President George W. Bush's administration hopes a permanent U.S. presence in Central Asia will boost regional economic development and sustain democratic reforms in the region.
Speaking on 7 January at Bagram air base, near Kabul, visiting U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman made remarks that also indicate a significant shift in Washington's policy.
"We learned at a very high and painful price the cost of a lack of involvement in Central Asia on 11 September, and we're not going to let it happen again."
In even more straightforward comments reported by "The New York Times" on 8 January, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary James Wolfowitz said that, by upgrading its military presence in Central Asia, the U.S. wishes to send a clear message to regional countries -- especially to Uzbekistan -- that it will not forget about them and that it "has a capacity to come back and will come back in" whenever needed.
Uzbekistan has proven to be a key ally to the U.S. in its anti-Taliban campaign, and there is speculation that Karimov's authoritarian regime might receive substantial economic aid in return.
Uzbekistan's state-controlled newspapers published details on 6 December of an economic agreement negotiated a few weeks earlier in Washington under which the U.S. reportedly pledged to allocate up to $150 million in loans and grants to sustain economic reforms in the Central Asian state.
A report published on 6 January in "The Washington Post" said that, in addition, the Bush administration is planning to abrogate a Cold War-era bill that places conditions on a number of former Soviet republics' trade relations with the U.S. based on their human rights records.
The daily quoted U.S. officials as saying that the countries that could soon find themselves upgraded include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Russia is expected to benefit from a similar decision as early as this spring.
The planned move has already stirred controversy among regional analysts, who believe it could send the message that the U.S. is ready to condone human rights abuses in some of these countries in return for their loyalty.
Anticipated financial compensation for granting support to a U.S. military buildup in the region is also being discussed in Kyrgyzstan, where Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev last month said the presence of thousands of American soldiers would be a gold mine for his impoverished country.
Former presidential spokesman Kabai Karabekov is a pro-government deputy and the chairman of a parliamentary committee on information policy. In an interview with RFE/RL, Karabekov said the parliament's decision to allow U.S. troops and planes was prompted by long-term strategic considerations rather than by short-term financial expectations.
"The situation in Central Asia is changing and, should we fail to adapt to the new political environment, Kyrgyzstan -- not the Americans -- would be in trouble. I think that the decision [to allow the construction of a U.S. base at Manas] is purely political and that it is, first and foremost, aimed at securing the safety of our borders. That we have agreed to give this base to the Americans should not be seen only as a support offered to the United States. It also shows that the Americans are supporting Kyrgyzstan in its fight against terrorism."
Karabekov said many in Kyrgyzstan fear that the situation in Afghanistan will remain volatile for a long time and hope the presence of U.S. and other NATO troops in the country will deter armed guerrillas from crossing the border.
Before 11 September, Kyrgyzstan saw the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as the main threat to its security. IMU fighters conducted several deadly armed raids in Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken region in 1999 and 2000, before seeking refuge in Afghanistan.
The U.S. administration blacklisted the group -- which was blamed for a series of bomb attacks in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, two years ago -- as among organizations linked to Al-Qaeda.
Fears of armed incursions from Afghanistan have been used by Moscow to justify its military presence in neighboring Tajikistan, where an estimated 20,000 Russian soldiers remain deployed in the capital, Dushanbe, and along the 1,400-kilometer-long Tajik-Afghan border.
Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan are members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, a Russian-led military alliance that also includes Armenia and Belarus.
Speaking yesterday to reporters in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, the speaker of Russia's State Duma, Gennadii Seleznev, warned Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that any decision to allow foreign troops on their territory should not be made without Moscow's consent.
"I think that presidents, governments, and parliament members will very carefully analyze what the status of the [foreign] army units expected to be deployed in Kyrgyzstan or in Uzbekistan will be, how they will behave in Tajikistan, on which legal grounds [they will be deployed], for which period of time, et cetera. These, of course, are all issues to which we cannot remain indifferent. CIS countries that are members of the Collective Security Treaty, including those I just mentioned, cannot take a single decision without consulting each other. We do not wish to see permanent U.S. bases appear here in the Central Asian region."
How Moscow could respond to a long-term U.S. military deployment in the region is uncertain, but comments made by regional political leaders suggest that Seleznev's veiled threats are unlikely to dissuade Central Asian states from allowing Western troops and bases on their soil.
Kyrgyz deputy Karabekov pointed out that Moscow failed to provide expected support to Bishkek when the country was combating IMU fighters and made it clear that this circumstance could prompt Kyrgyz leaders to look elsewhere for military assistance. Asked whether Kyrgyzstan's membership in the CIS Collective Security Treaty could possibly hinder plans to allow U.S. troops on a long-term basis, Karabekov said: "I do not believe that this factor will slow things down. If all Collective Security Treaty members behave [like Russia], I think that this treaty will not live very long. You know, the flying distance between here (Bishkek) and Moscow is longer than the distance between Bishkek and Kabul. We, too, must think about our security."
Should Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan go ahead with plans to allow U.S. and NATO troops on their soil on a long-term basis, this could raise the profile of another Central Asian republic -- Turkmenistan -- in the eyes of Moscow.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan has pursued a policy of stated neutrality. Turkmenistan is not a member of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, and Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov has boycotted most CIS summits since 1992.
Turkmenistan refused to open its airspace and airfields to U.S. warplanes during the anti-Taliban campaign. On 7 January, Niyazov rejected a German request to allow military aircraft providing support to the UN-mandated ISAF to use Turkmen airfields.
On 9 January, Niyazov held talks with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to prepare for his planned visit to Moscow later this month (21 January). A correspondent for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reports that, during the talks, Niyazov rejected a Russian offer to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an economic and security forum that, besides leading members Russia and China, includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
SCO foreign ministers met on 7 January in the Chinese capital, Beijing. Experts note the assembly produced few concrete results and argue that its future would be seriously challenged if the U.S. maintains a military presence in the region and if Central Asian countries continue to look for an alternative security umbrella.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Turkmen services contributed to this report.)