Is Kazakhstan Offering Aktau As A Manas Replacement?
Kazakhstan's foreign minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov met his U.S. counterpart Hillary Clinton at Tuesday's OSCE meeting in Vilnius, and the two discussed the U.S.-Kazakhstan strategic relationship, in particular Astana's contribution to the U.S.'s efforts to boost regional transportation links.From an Interfax report via BBC Monitoring (which I can't find online):
The Kazakh Foreign Ministry's press service said that, during the meeting, Clinton expressed "profound" gratitude to Kazakhstan for its efforts to assist the international coalition in Afghanistan, noting a key role of the country in promoting regional integration and as a link in interaction between North-South, East-West.
As was emphasized by the secretary of state, the USA welcomes such specific efforts of Kazakhstan as ... a proposal to establish a transport and logistics centre in the Aktau Sea port," the Foreign Ministry press release says.
At a conference today in Washington on the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eric McGlinchey, a political science professor and Central Asia expert at George Mason University had an interesting theory about that statement. He noted that Kyrgyzstan, with its new pro-Russia president Almazbek Atambayev, has threatened to shut down the air base the U.S. operates at the Manas airport, and that Kazakhstan is showing more signs of cooperating with the U.S. "We're already beginning to see the writing on the wall: Kyrgyzstan says 'goodbye' to the United States, and Kazakhstan says 'Hello, come on in,'" McGlinchey said.
So is Kazakhstan presenting Aktau as a Manas replacement, as McGlinchey is suggesting? There are obvious problems: Aktau is considerably farther from Afghanistan than Manas is, for one. And given that Kazakhstan got spooked out of sending four officers to Afghanistan earlier this year because of a Taliban threat, it's hard to imagine that they would go along with something like this.
But Aktau is already a "critical" part of the Northern Distribution Network, according to a Wikileaked State Department cable from 2009:
Aktau port also plays a critical role in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), facilitating the transit of non-lethal military cargo to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. As reported in reftel A, Aktau Port's Novikov told the Ambassador on July 16 that Aktau fully supports the NDN and is prepared to increase its capacity to process vessels and unload containers.
That cable, titled "THE STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF AKTAU SEA PORT," details how the U.S. had tried to further develop the port to increase its capacity, but that the U.S. Trade and Development agency blocked the program because it could benefit Iran, which trades with Kazakhstan through the port as well.
Given that Aktau is a sea port, as well, it could be the sort of multi-modal facility the U.S. is looking for. And Kazakhstan seems to have big plans for Aktau as a civilian shipping facility. At another recent conference, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Washington Erlan Idrissov noted the quote that U.S. officials have become fond of citing, by India's prime minister, who said: “I dream of a day, while retaining our respective identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul.” Idrissov said his vision was that one would have "breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Aktau and dinner in Dusseldorf." Leaving aside the improbability of completing that journey in one day, it's clear that Kazakhstan is trying to position Aktau as a transcontinental logistics hub. And if there's anything that the U.S. government would decide could override the Iran issue, it would be helping the war effort in Afghanistan. Would Kazakhstan accept U.S. help developing Aktau in exchange for letting it be used as a military transit facility for a while? On balance it still seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.