Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Time For Concern

Losing the Steppes


At their summit this week, Russia, China, and four Central Asian countries asked the United States and its allies in the antiterrorist coalition to set a date for withdrawal of their forces from Central Asia. It is the first such request from any party in the region since the American-led forces established a presence at air bases and other facilities in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in late 2001.

Those forces and assets in Central Asia are key to U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan now and into the foreseeable future. They are also a long-term necessity given the wide array of possible contingencies in this strategically vital and unstable region, from the energy-rich Caspian basin --- key to Europe's energy security in the years ahead --- and Iran through Afghanistan and Pakistan and all all the way to western China.

Rightly aghast at the force-withdrawal request, U.S. diplomats are rushing to repair the damage in Central Asian capitals. The Pentagon had been telling the rest of Washington for months that this was coming, but its warnings were scarcely heeded. The Russian and Chinese presidents, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao, were the prime movers behind the "time to go home" call issued July 5 at the six countries' summit in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital. It was the first major statement issued by the SCO since Moscow and Beijing created it in 2001 to offset the growing American influence in Central Asia. At that time, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan joined the organization pro-forma and with varying degrees of reluctance.

In fact, since then Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and even Tajikistan (which still hosts Russian troops) have mostly sought to cast their lot with the United States and have allowed American-led coalition forces on their territories. Kazakhstan even offered such an arrangement on its own initiative, though it was not taken up by Washington. Their governments shared America's perceptions of the threats posed by international terrorism and radical Islam; they counted on effective U.S. security assistance to ensure and consolidate their stability; and they expected an infusion of foreign aid to reward the basing and transit arrangements.

Now, however, they seem to be lining up behind Russia and China in asking those forces to leave. The main argument is that the situation in Afghanistan is basically stable and that the main phase of the coalition's operations has been completed -- an assertion that represents a stark about-face by Russia and other SCO members. Until most recently, the official position in Moscow and other capitals acknowledged that Afghanistan remained a source of threats to the region and indeed to Russia, implicitly justifying the U.S.-led military presence in Central Asia.

In fact, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. Active operations by American and allied forces have recently intensified in response to Taliban attacks. NATO is preparing to deploy additional forces there to provide security for parliamentary elections in September, as well as to increase the number of the NATO-run Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The Central Asian bases that support U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan are needed as much as ever.

U.S. diplomats in Central Asian capitals are now arguing that the request to set a date for withdrawal is premature. However, SCO's assessment is not meant to reflect the security situation in Afghanistan or around it. Rather, Moscow and Beijing want to nudge the U.S. and allied forces from Central Asia. China does not want an American military presence near its western borders, and Mr. Putin is bent on reclaiming Russian leadership in the region.

Diplomats at the summit stopped short of phrasing the request as an ultimatum or naming specific dates for the withdrawal. Nevertheless, Mr. Putin's top foreign policy aide, Sergei Prikhodko, suggested that process might take from several months to a year and a half. Off the record, Russian officials were telling the press -- in fact, signaling to Washington -- that they want "precise and clear answers" about withdrawal timelines.

Timetable or not, some Central Asian governments have already begun placing limits on U.S. activities in their countries and sidling up to Moscow. Last month, Uzbek President Islam Karimov suspended the landing of C-17 heavy transport planes, as well as nighttime flights, at the U.S. base Karshi-Khanabad. And in a meeting two weeks ago with Mr. Putin, President Karimov signaled that he is poised to rely more heavily on Russia as his country's main security partner. Russia is now planning a ground-force joint exercise in Uzbekistan for the first time since the end of the Soviet era.

Some months ago, Kyrgyzstan's then-president Askar Akayev bowed to Moscow and forbade AWACS reconnaissance flights out of Manas, the U.S.-led airbase in Kyrgyzstan. Then in April, Mr. Akayev was ousted by a putative democratic revolution that has brought political confusion and social anarchy. Last month, new prime minister Felix Kulov, a Soviet-era police general and would-be strongman, called for a second Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan. (The first one was established in 2003, only a few miles from the American base, and potentially capable of interfering with its operations). Mr.Kulov, while pro-Russian, at least is not anti-American. But the postrevolution government's presumably pro-American minister of foreign affairs, Roza Otunbayeva, hastened to endorse SCO's call for a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces. This could not have been the U.S. game plan in supporting regime change in Kyrgyzstan.

Sadly, U.S. credibility in the region has eroded since 2002-2003. Three recent developments have accelerated that erosion. First, the Taliban has reemerged as a fighting force in Afghanistan, against the backdrop of a booming Afghan drug trade that affects Central Asia and much of Eurasia. Partly contradicting its own assessment regarding Afghanistan, the SCO summit described the narcotics trade originating there as a major security challenge. Unfortunately, the U.S.-led coalition has tolerated this narcotics boom, undermining its own political and economic reconstruction efforts for the sake of expedient arrangements with drug- and war-lords.

The second eroding factor was the misfired democratic revolution in Kyrgyzstan -- an event seen as destabilizing in the short term at least. And third, the confused and uncoordinated U.S. response to the May 13 rebellion and crackdown in Andijan has left Uzbekistan isolated from the West and once again dependent on Russia for security assistance and diplomatic support.

Once it weathers -- as it should -- the call for withdrawal of its forces, the U.S. needs to move beyond emergency-handling, to a thorough review of its long-term policy on Central Asia. In a region so strategically vital to the U.S. and to energy-hungry Europe, diplomacy needs to find the right balance between the requirements of military access and those of revolutionary reforms. Policy must be geared to ensuring a long-term presence, and not be clouded by short-term political considerations in Washington or splendid isolation by the European Union.

Mr. Socor is a senior fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, publishers of the Eurasia Daily Monitor.

(via global-geopolitics)

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