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Interview: The U.S. Military Presence In Central Asia

RFE/RL Central Asia analyst Daniel Kimmage interviewed Roger McDermott in London on 19 May. McDermott is a research associate at the University of Kent and the author of "Defeating Global Terrorism: Developing the Antiterrorist Capabilities of the Central Asian States."

RFE/RL: What military facilities does the United States maintain in Uzbekistan?

McDermott: The United States was granted vital access to facilities at Karshi-Khanabad, by the government of Uzbekistan, in support of the U.S.'s violent overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. The deployment includes around 1,800 personnel, constituted of air support and logistics personnel, military police, and a Special Forces battalion, which provides direct counterterrorist training to the Uzbekistani armed forces.

RFE/RL: How important are these facilities to operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

McDermott: Access to Karshi-Khanabad proved to be a vital element in the rapid military success in Afghanistan, as well as providing a continued suitable base from which to launch offensive air operations in search of Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] remnants in Afghanistan. Although the U.S. does not directly pay for its use of the base, increased levels of economic aid, which followed the deployment, are seen as an important quid pro quo. Moreover, the political influence of the U.S. military presence, though small in numbers, far exceeds its military significance. That is to say, without the entry of U.S. forces to the country and host nation support for the Global War on Terrorism [GWOT] the U.S.-Uzbek Strategic Partnership signed in 2002 simply would not have taken place.

RFE/RL: What is the main purpose of the U.S. air base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan?

McDermott: Kyrgyzstan granted basing rights to U.S. and coalition personnel in support of combat and combat support units at Manas airport. Each takeoff and landing at Manas costs the U.S. $7000-$7500.

RFE/RL: How do these facilities fit in with the "lily-pad theory" of military bases?

McDermott: In the context of the U.S. examining the possible closure or downsizing of its current European bases, there has been speculation that new bases could be established elsewhere, including within the Central Asian region. Such bases, known as "operating sites" and "lily pads," remain an attractive option for Pentagon planners, aware of the sensitive nature of any suggestion of permanent bases in the region, since the bases could be used during a crisis to allow access and support. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has continued to praise the role of Uzbekistan and access to Karshi-Khanabad in the GWOT, whilst seeking to downplay the prospect of a permanent U.S. military presence. Karimov's government would most likely be open to any plans for its facilities to be used as "lily pads."

RFE/RL: How have Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan benefited from military cooperation with the United States?

McDermott: Servicemen from both countries are gaining greater access to U.S. military training, methods, thinking, and operational techniques. The U.S. has stepped up military-to-military training in both countries with priority given to counterterrorism training, border security, assistance in developing a Non-Commissioned Officer [NCO] corps. Though clear advances have been made, there is a long way to go in promoting military reform in these countries, which remain beset by the problems of Soviet-legacy forces; large, unwieldy, and inefficient management structures, aging weapon systems, shortage of spare parts, lack of troop mobility, and many more. A key stumbling block in the path to greater cooperation is the lack of larger numbers of officers in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with sufficient English language training to benefit from U.S. military training programs.

RFE/RL: How long do you think the United States will continue to maintain these facilities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan?

McDermott: Opposition to the permanent basing of the U.S. military comes mainly from Russia [and China], and to assuage their concerns the official line in Washington has been that these forces will remain in the region until the job is complete. This means until Afghanistan is fully stabilized. It is, however, open to question as to what this time scale involves. U.S. and NATO access to bases in Central Asia will most likely emerge, though perhaps not on a permanent time scale. For the foreseeable future the U.S. and its allies will strive to stabilize Central Asia, which will demand deeper security assistance and an expanded role for NATO.
Though Uzbekistan has proven a key U.S. ally in the GWOT, problems have emerged which pose a potential risk of undermining that relationship. U.S. aid to Uzbekistan, which reached $87.4 million in fiscal year 2003, has been jeopardized as a result. In December 2003, [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush did not certify Uzbekistan as making progress under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program for human-rights criteria. Since then, responding to a near constant wave of criticism from human-rights groups over Uzbekistan's poor human-rights record and authoritarian regime, Washington has been forced to take these issues seriously. Indeed, the U.K. ambassador in Tashkent, Craig Murray, has also publicly criticized the Karimov regime several times, drawing comments in diplomatic circles as to the surprising nature of his approach in making such statements about the host country. Nevertheless, the strategic partnership with the U.S. remains intact, primarily because the Pentagon's views have had ascendancy over the State Department on these issues. Unless Tashkent addresses these areas in the coming months, pressure will grow on the Bush administration to revise its relationship with Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL: How would you describe Russian views on the U.S. military presence in Central Asia?

McDermott: Underlying the political rhetoric from Moscow are genuine concerns that the U.S. will press ahead with an unclear agenda within a region traditionally regarded as being within Russia's sphere of influence. Indeed, Russia has solid ties with these countries culturally, politically, economically, and, in most cases, militarily. Russia has sought to strengthen the Collective Security Treaty Organization with its Central Asian members, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, through joint military exercises, forming the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces, strengthening its military capabilities through the opening of an air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, in November 2003, and using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] [to facilitate] a role for Uzbekistan, which hosts the SCO Regional Antiterrorist Center in Tashkent. Moscow has also fostered closer bilateral relations with its Central Asian neighbors in an attempt to stem the rising influence of the U.S. In many of these initiatives, the old "zero-sum game" -- which perceives American advances at the expense of Russia -- have underpinned the security thinking.

RFE/RL: Do you see any prospects for U.S.-Russian military cooperation in Central Asia?

McDermott: The critical test will come in the aftermath of the NATO summit in Istanbul in June 2004, which will mark a significant deepening of the Alliance's partnership with Central Asia and the Caucasus. If Russia can be persuaded to recognize that a confluence of security interests exist between its own interests and those of NATO, then cooperation will be possible. What is clear, however, is that the U.S. and NATO are seeking to stabilize the region and Russia's cooperation -- even if restricted to the political sphere -- will be a critical component of this strategy.

RFE/RL: Do you consider that the United States will increase military cooperation with any other Central Asian countries?

McDermott: Kazakhstan -- this is the one Central Asian country that is likely to witness continued expansion of its military cooperation with the U.S. This took a step forward in 2003, with several months of negotiations between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Kazakhstani Ministry of Defense, culminating in the signing of a five-year bilateral military cooperation agreement. It envisages U.S. assistance to develop military infrastructure in Kazakhstan's western region in order to promote its security capabilities in the Caspian Sea, antiterrorist training, enhancing its air power capabilities, equipping the Navy, and strengthening national training facilities. Kazakhstan also became the first Central Asian country to deploy elements of its national peacekeeping battalion beyond the region, sending 27 servicemen to Iraq in August 2003 to carry out water purification and demining duties.

RFE/RL: Do you consider that the foreign military presence -- both Russian and U.S. -- acts as a stabilizing or destabilizing factor in Central Asia?

McDermott: The success of the U.S. in removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan addressed one of the most significant threats which had faced Central Asia. Moreover, coalition operations decimated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group with the declared aim of overthrowing the government of Uzbekistan. Currently, there are concerns within some Central Asian capitals that the U.S. may not see the job through, perhaps distracted by Iraq, [and will] leave the region without fully stabilizing Afghanistan. If the U.S. and NATO can stabilize Afghanistan and impart, through training and reform initiatives, enhanced civil-military control and professionalism within the region's armed forces, the security situation will continue to stabilize. This must be coupled with political and economic reform within these countries. Russia plays an undervalued role, maintaining military and security links with Central Asia. The possible withdrawal of Russian border guards from Tajikistan, reportedly requested by Dushanbe, could undermine further the security of the Afghan-Tajik border and make more difficult attempts to stem the flow of illegal narcotics from Afghanistan.

Roger N. McDermott is an honorary senior research associate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is also the author of "Defeating Global Terrorism: Developing the Antiterrorist Capabilities of the Central Asian States," published in February by the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.