Wednesday, June 13, 2007


"Today the Americans are still there [Kyrgzstan] and many of the tents have been replaced by concrete buildings. Bush has used his massive military build-up in Central Asia to seal the cold war victory against Russia to contain Chinese influence and to tighten the noose around Iran [Persia]. Most importantly, however Washington - supported by the Blair government - is exploiting the 'war on terror' to further American oil interests in the Caspian region....

In this rerun of the first great game - the 19th-century imperial rivalry between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia - players once again position themselves to control the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Today the US has taken over the leading role from the British. Along with the Russians, new regional powers, such as China, Iran [Persia], Turkey and Pakistan, have entered the arena, and transnational oil corporations are also pursuing their own interests
". "The New Great Game", by Lutz Kleveman, in

Once upon a time, in fact quite recently as 2003, as the above article in the London Guardian makes clear, it was the USA, which was seen as being the big winner of the new version of the 'Great Game', which re-emerged in the 1990's. Now of course that hiatus of American power, seems to be quite illusory. It is Moskva which now has
seemingly emerged as the 'winner' of the contemporary version of the 'Great Game'.
So much so in fact, that as recent talk in Kyrgyzstan about unification with
Moskva points to, it is Russia which is the only real player left in this strategic jeu (See Sergei Blagov's article in The following article confirms the same. And, it would appear that there are no markers indicating that the USA, will be able to battle back, from the strategic hole that it is in, anytime soon.

The battle for Central Asia: As Washington sees a reversal of fortunes in its post-9/11 gains in Central Asia, Russia steps in to fill the gap in its former backyard.

By John C K Daly in Washington, DC for ISN Security Watch (11/06/07)

"Since the peaceful implosion of communism in the USSR in December 1991, both the Russian Federation and the US have been maneuvering to sign up the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as clients.

Moscow watched nervously as the US developed joint military exercises in Central Asia, but after 11 September 2001, Washington managed to secure over-flight rights in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and the use of bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan for the war in Afghanistan.

While Russia had maintained the 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan since 1991, only in October 2003 did it open its first aerial base since 1991 in Kant, Kyrgyzstan outside of the Russian Federation, as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Reversal of fortune

Now events have gone in reverse. The US has lost its basing rights in Tajikistan; has been booted out of Karshi-Khanabad; and the Kyrgyz Parliament is considering shuttering Manas. Russia meanwhile has only boosted its strength in the region, reinforcing Kant and holding discussions with Turkmenistan about possibly returning to facilities there.

Russia currently has 25 bases beyond its borders, mostly radar tracking stations. Eleven are in Central Asian nations (four in Kazakhstan, five in Kyrgyzstan and two in Tajikistan). The Pentagon, by contrast, maintains over 800 foreign military bases, but it now look increasingly likely that it will lose its sole remaining Central Asian base in Kyrgyzstan.

While Moscow managed to maintain forces in Tajikistan even after the implosion of the Soviet Union, the remaining four "Stans" moved swiftly towards neutrality - a fact that Washington was quick to exploit, beginning in 1995 when NATO under its Partnership for Peace (PfP) program began to draw up joint training exercises under US supervision.

The August 1995 Cooperative Nugget exercise at Fort Polk, Louisiana involved US, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops. Cooperative Nugget exercises were also held in March 1997 and May 2000. Cooperative Osprey, another NATO PfP program was held in North Carolina in August 1996, where US, Dutch and Canadian troops joined with 16 PfP countries, including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in training exercises.

The Pentagon then swiftly moved to hold joint exercises in Central Asia, Russia's traditional "backyard." The first were NATO PfP Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion, or "Centrazbat" joint military exercises in 1997. The maneuvers took place in Chirchik, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in mid-September and involved Kazakh, Uzbek and Kyrgyz paratroops, which had trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina prior to an 18-hour 6,700-mile non-stop flight to Uzbekistan, were along with 500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division they participated in the largest airborne operation since World War II. The scenario was that the battalion was conducting operations against "dissident elements."

Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Catherine Kelleher said that the US presence in Centrasbat was justified because of the "potential for conflict." In a telling aside illuminating Washington's interest in the region's vast energy reserves Kelleher added "the presence of enormous energy resources" as a justification. In an even more revealing remark as to how the exercise would be interpreted in Moscow, NATO commander four-star Marine General John Sheehan, who led the drop, said simply: "The message I would leave is that there is no nation on the face of the earth where we can't go."

Similar operations were held annually through 2000, when more than 2,000 troops from the US, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Turkey, the UK and Russia participated.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 gave Washington an unparalleled opportunity to move into Central Asia. On 9 February 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the House International Relations Committee that "America will have a continuing interest and presence in Central Asia of a kind that we could not have dreamed of before." Within six months of 9/11, the Pentagon established 13 bases in nine nations in and around Afghanistan. Some of the groundwork for the US presence predated 9/11; Central Command General Tommy Franks had first visited Uzbekistan in September 2000, shortly after his appointment as CENTCOM Commander-in-Chief, following the visit up with a trip to Tashkent in May 2001.

Gains and losses

After 9/11, Kazakhstan on 8 December 2001 ratified a Status of Forces agreement with Washington, which allowed for over-flights, increased intelligence sharing and for coalition aircraft involved in Operation Enduring Freedom to be based in the country. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said his country was "ready to fulfill its obligations stemming from UN resolutions and agreements with the United States" to combat terrorism.

Washington still has overflight rights in Kazakhstan and signed a five-year bilateral military agreement in September 2003.

On 4 December 2001, Kyrgyzstan and the US concluded a Status of Armed Forces (SOFA) agreement, allowing the Pentagon to use the Manas airbase for the bargain rent of US$2 million annually. Manas was chosen by the Pentagon for its 14,000-foot runway, which was originally built to handle Soviet bombers, but could handle US C-5 Galaxy cargo planes and 747s in their 1,000-mile flight to Afghanistan. Of Kyrgyzstan's 52 airports, Manas was the only one with a lengthy runway and the only one capable of supporting international flights. An adjacent 32-acre field was designated as the site of a tent city for US personnel.

Relationships between Washington and Bishkek slowly began to deteriorate, however, a pattern that was exacerbated after Kyrgyzstan's March 2007 "Tulip Revolution," when it emerged that a number of American NGOs were actively supporting the opposition. Resentment in the new parliament also grew over the paltry rent paid for the use of Manas and the environmental damage inflicted by the incessant aerial operations.

Things came to a head on 6 December 2006 when US soldier Zachary Hatfield shot and killed 42-year-old Kyrgyz Aleksandr Ivanov, an ethnic Russian Kyrgyz civilian, at the airbase's entry gate. Despite Kyrgyz demands that Hatfield be handed over for trial - as the Main Directorate of Investigations of the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry filed charges under Article 97, Part 1 of the Criminal Code dealing with deliberate homicide - the US military spirited Hatfield out of the country on 21 March.

The incident left Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had earlier demanded that American servicemen stationed in the country be stripped of diplomatic immunity, in a difficult position. Kyrgyzstan subsequently raised the leasing fee for Manas to US$150 million annually, but a final agreement with Washington has yet to be finalized.

Four of Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary committees are now agitating to close Manas and expel its 1,200 US personnel. The Defense Committee, headed by Rashid Tagayev, is leading the initiative to force the government to cancel the 2001 military agreement with the US.

On 23 May, Committee for Defense and Security Deputy Hajimurat Korkmazov said in a statement: "The military actions in Afghanistan have ended, and today there is no need for the presence of an American military air base on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. If necessary, I will lead my people out to close the air base at Manas!"

While Bakiyev maintained that the US presence provided an important source of income, it is unclear at this point if he will be able to withstand the mounting parliamentary pressure.

In contrast, Kyrgyz Parliamentary Speaker Marat Sultanov has spoken about increasing military cooperation with Russia, enlarging the Kant air base and even returning Russian border guards to Kyrgyzstan's southern border after an eight-year absence.

Washington was also able to benefit from 9/11 by acquiring basing rights in Tajikistan's Kulob air base, along with France and Italy, about 48 kilometers from the Afghan border. At its height, the Pentagon maintained about 200 personnel with helicopters at Kulob, supported by French and Italian teams, but the endeavor was short-lived and wound up by the end of 2002. The Russians in contrast, never left.

In the aftermath of 9-11, Turkmenistan allowed coalition forces to use Turkmen airspace and refuel at Ashgabat airport. Washington's fumbled opportunity is most noticeable in Turkmenistan, where the death last December of President Saparmurat Niyazov opened up possibilities for a new relationship between Washington and Ashgabat.

It was Russia, however, that moved quickly to consolidate its relationship with Turkmenistan's new president, Gurbangeldy Berdymukhammedov, who visited Moscow on 23-24 April, while many political observers remained focused on the fact that the major item on the agenda was Turkmenistan immense natural gas reserves. The most notable aspect of the summit was that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Berdymukhammedov discussed reopening some Soviet-era military facilities that had been mothballed since the 1991 collapse of the USSR, including airbases.

Following his return to Ashgabat, Berdymukhammedov reportedly ordered the Ministries of Defense and Civil Aviation to coordinate the routes of international passenger airlines with the work of military installations, according to an ISN Security Watch source in the Turkmen Defense Ministry.

The sites under consideration are shuttered underground testing sites under Serkhatabad and west of Mary and several other complexes with military cities, airfields and missile silos.

Uzbekistan moved swiftly to support the Bush administration's so-called war on terror in the form of a Status of Armed Forces (SOFA) signed agreement on 7 October. In a telling moment, the allied air campaign in Afghanistan began an hour later. Under terms of the SOFA agreement, the US was allowed to use Uzbek airspace and base up to 1,500 military personnel at Karshi-Khanabad (K-2) in Sukhandariya province on the border with Afghanistan.

Washington's loss of influence in Uzbekistan can be summed up in a single word: "Andijan," where on 13 May 2005, Uzbek security forces fired into a crowd of demonstrators who were protesting the trial of local Islamic activists. While Tashkent maintained that 187 people, mostly "terrorist organizers," died during the Andijan unrest, tardily producing video shot by the protesters showing hostage taking, armed men, manufacturing of Molotov cocktails etc., human rights groups immediately went on the offensive and maintained that the actual death toll was far higher.

Washington's equivocal response led Tashkent on 29 July 2005 to inform Washington that it was abrogating the agreement permitting the US military to use the Karshi-Khanabad airbase under terms of the bilateral SOFA, giving the Pentagon 180 days to end its activities there.

While the Pentagon put a brave face on the directive, the loss of the army's Camp Stronghold Freedom Karshi-Khanabad logistics base just 96 kilometers from the northern Afghan border was a significant blow, as the 416th Air Expeditionary Group averaged 200 passengers and 100 tonnes of cargo per day on C-130H missions supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

On 21 December 2006, Russia gained the right to use Uzbekistan's Navoi air base in the event of emergencies or "force majeure" contingencies in return for military supplies.

A decade after the peaceful collapse of the USSR, US influence in Central Asia reached its apogee in the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since that time, however, Washington's policies in central Asia have led to a gradual withdrawal of support by nearly all the nations involved as they slowly reoriented their priorities again towards Russia.

There are many reasons for this, including local rulers' reluctance to be lectured by Washington on human rights as well as the Pentagon's stinginess in paying prevailing market rates for military facilities.

If the US is to regain a modicum of its former influence in Central Asia, then it is time for Washington to take a long hard look at the reasons for the gradual decline of its influence there

Dr John C K Daly is a Washington DC-based consultant and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.


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