BACKGROUND: On January 9, 3,000 U.S. troops arrived in Kyrgyzstan to supplement the 1,500 troops already stationed in neighbouring Uzbekistan. Agreements have been made for the use of Tajik and Kazakh airfields for military operations, and even neutral Turkmenistan has reportedly granted permission for military overflights. As a consequence, Russia’s role as Central Asia’s principal security manager is under threat. The Central Asian regimes have seized on the opportunity presented by the terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the subsequent military operation in Afghanistan to diversify their security relations. There are three reasons common to all the states for these overtures. The first is money. The economies of the Central Asian republics have performed badly for a decade. Uzbekistan has already secured $150 million in grants and loans from the U.S. in return for its cooperation, with the prospect of more to come from the IMF. The other states, especially desperately poor Tajikistan, will be hoping to get their share, whilst Kazakhstan is seeking U.S. support for its application for WTO membership. Secondly, the authoritarian governments of the region hope that U.S. patronage will deflect international criticism of their human rights records and failure to democratize. Indeed, two days before the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Tashkent in early December 2001, the Uzbek parliament actually voted to offer President Islam Karimov the presidency for life. Thirdly, they hope to obtain U.S. military support in their battle to suppress Islamist rebel groups based in and around the Fergana Valley, some of whom are known to have had links with Al Qaeda. This task may be made easier by the death of Juma Namangani, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, in the Taliban defence of Kunduz last November. In addition, each state has its own agenda. Uzbekistan has gradually slipped out of Russia’s security orbit over the last three years and now, with US sponsorship, has the chance to assert itself as a prominent and autonomous player capable of fundamentally influencing the region’s political dynamics. Kazakhstan’s long shared border with Russia and its ethnically mixed population ensures that it cannot break with Russia and nor, given the largely cordial relations it enjoys with Moscow, does it want to. However, President Nazarbaev’s struggle for regional supremacy with Karimov dictates that he cannot stand by and allow Tashkent to forge a close strategic partnership with Washington. Nazarbaev’s trump card in the diversification of his security options is the considerable Western investment in the hydrocarbon reserves of the Caspian basin. The lucrative possibilities of extending the oil and gas pipeline systems to the markets of southern Asia may tempt the US to maintain some sort of security presence east of the Caspian Sea. Both the two smaller states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, will be hoping that Western engagement will successfully overlay intra-regional tensions, specifically those caused by Uzbekistan laying unmarked border mines inside Tajik and Uzbek territory.
IMPLICATIONS: The longer-term implications of U.S. troop deployments in Central Asia are still difficult to gauge. Central Asia has been transformed from a strategic backwater to the crucible of international diplomacy and, in this new geopolitical environment, it is Russia’s Central Asia policy that will require greatest adjustment. Moscow was happy to see the destruction of the Taliban, and President Putin has scored some important diplomatic gains in recent months in return for Russian cooperation, most notably de facto Russian membership in NATO for non-collective defence tasks, tacit U.S. support for Russian accession to the WTO, and a more understanding attitude to Russian military operations in Chechnya. In the short run, these benefits are likely to outweigh objections, but if there is no timetable for the departure of the U.S. military from Central Asia, Moscow is likely to perceive the U.S. response to terrorism as little more than an excuse to extend Washington’s military reach deep into Russia’s backyard. Already, the Russian military press and members of the Duma have expressed their disenchantment with U.S. policy, and their suspicions are only likely to increase as long as the US remains opaque about its ultimate intentions and exit strategy. China also initially acquiesced in the US action in Afghanistan not least because of evidence that Al Qaeda was training Muslim separatists operating in the Xinjiang Autonomous Province of western China. Beijing has generally deferred to Russia in Central Asia on security issues, preferring instead to focus on expanding trade links across the region. However, permanent Western military involvement on its western borderlands will be strongly opposed, particularly if it is in any way institutionalised through, say, NATO structures. The Central Asian states are acutely aware that being part of the CIS security umbrella would be entirely insufficient to deal with any Chinese military threat so any security commitments they are able to extract from the U.S. or NATO would be greatly welcomed. The Sino-Russian response strategy was unveiled at a meeting in Beijing on January 7, 2002. It consists of the transformation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), hitherto a forum for border demilitarisation and trade promotion, into a regional security structure capable of conducting joint anti-terrorist operations. As all the Central Asian states (bar Turkmenistan) already belong to the SCO, this should be viewed as a direct attempt to reduce the rationale for a Western security presence in the region. Whether the Central Asian republics will be convinced remains to be seen.
CONCLUSIONS: The problems the West may face if it engages more deeply in Central Asia are threefold. Firstly, both Russia and China may feel encircled and this could, in the medium-term, lead to counter-measures and a spiral of insecurity. Secondly, the West may wind up supporting regimes every bit as illiberal and prone to violence as the groups it is purporting to destroy. Finally, the West may encourage expectations upon which it cannot deliver. Uzbekistan, for example, is a complex and volatile state. If it becomes involved in armed conflict with a Central Asian neighbour, what then would be the West’s role, how could it be fulfilled and how much blood would it be prepared to shed?AUTHOR BIO: Michael Denison is a Ph.D. Candidate ate the University of Leeds, United Kingdom.
Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved