US officials believe that Uzbekistan's eviction of American forces will cause only minimal damage over the near-term to Washington's strategic interests in Central Asia. At the same time, one senior US official says there is growing concern in Washington that the "correlation of forces" in the region is shifting against the United States.
Uzbek officials notified the United States on July 31 that US forces would have six months to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad (K-2) air base, located 90 miles north of the Afghanistan border. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Senior US officials believe that President Islam Karimov's administration took such drastic action because it perceived Washington to be behind the "color revolutions" that toppled the old orders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. US officials have denied having any direct involvement in the "color revolutions."
Following the May 13 events in Andijan -- when hundreds of civilian protesters were shot without warning by Uzbek security forces, Washington joined other Western capitals in demanding an independent international investigation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Uzbek government insists its forces were reacting to an Islamic radical uprising. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tashkent rejected the independent investigation proposal, and immediately limited night flights at K-2, which had been used to support ongoing US military operations in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The eviction notice was served shortly after the United States expressed support for the evacuation of Uzbek refugees from camps in the neighboring Kyrgyzstan to Romania. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Karimov administration officials had demanded that the refugees be returned to Uzbekistan, where they likely would have faced arrest and torture at the hands of Uzbek police. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The loss of the K-2 base by itself does not stand to seriously dent the American military's operational capabilities in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials say quietly. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has already visited Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to make alternate strategic arrangements. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The large US air base at Manas, outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, now seems destined to assume an increased share of the US supply and support air traffic. US assets will also be relocated to the Bagram and Kandahar air bases in Afghanistan.
US officials remain interested in maintaining both a civilian and military presence in Uzbekistan. According to a senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity, Washington would like to secure a continuation of over-flight rights. American authorities also deem an on-the-ground presence to be vital for ongoing efforts to contain the growth of Islamic radicalism in the Ferghana Valley, and to stem the trafficking of narcotics grown in Afghanistan.
While still interested in engaging the Karimov administration on a variety of issues, some Washington analysts expect the State Department to reach out to a wide variety of political actors in Uzbekistan -- including those perceived to be pragmatists within the Karimov Administration, as well as to moderate Muslim elements. The United States, analysts say, would consider working with Uzbeks who would potentially pursue a reform course and would be willing to cooperate with the United States on matters of common interest, including the fights against terrorism and Islamic radicalism.
As a hedge against the potential further deterioration of Uzbek-US relations, Washington will seek to expand military and security cooperation with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and possibly Tajikistan. In addition to military assistance -- including training programs in the United States and joint exercises in the region -- Washington is ready to offer Central Asian partners training, advice and logistical support for enhanced customs control and the monitoring of financial transactions potentially linked to terrorist operations.
While the looming closure of the K-2 base is not a strategic calamity for Washington, the Karimov administration's action has nevertheless unsettled US defense planners by demonstrating the rising power of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security grouping dominated by China and Russia. Just a few weeks before Uzbekistan ordered US forces out of the country, the SCO issued a call for the United States to set a date for the withdrawal for American troops in Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. US experts suspect that Moscow and Beijing exerted pressure on both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to close US military facilities in the respective countries. Karimov obliged, while President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's administration in Kyrgyzstan said that American forces could stay at the Manas air base as long as the Islamic radical threat remains in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan's foreign policy calculus these days seems driven by Karimov's desire to secure strategic backing for his regime. US military support for Uzbekistan has been accompanied by calls for improvements in the Tashkent's human rights record and for the implementation of economic reforms. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. China and Russia have both been far more tolerant of Tashkent's human rights practices, and both have expressed support for the Karimov administration's handling of the Andijan events. Shortly after the Andijan massacre, Karimov traveled to China, where he was welcomed with a "golden handshake" in the form of a $600 million natural-gas development contract. Meanwhile, Moscow stated that the Andijan events constituted an "internal affair" of Uzbekistan, and thus refrained from joining call for an independent international investigation.
US strategic planners are currently keeping a close eye on the rising level of strategic cooperation between China and Russia. The two countries are scheduled to hold their first ever joint military exercises from August 18-25. The combined land-sea-air maneuvers are expected to involve up to 10,000 troops in an around China's Shandong Peninsula and in the vicinity of the Russian Pacific port city of Vladivostok. Observers from other SCO member states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been invited to attend. Beijing and Moscow claim that the maneuvers are "aimed at fighting terrorism, extremism and separatism." However, US experts say the planned use of heavy bombers and conventional naval forces in the exercises indicate that China, at least, wants to use the maneuvers to intimidate Taiwan.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the co-author and editor of Eurasia in Balance (Ashgate 2005).