U.S Diplomatic Rescue Mission Secures Military Base, for Now
By Brad Macdonald
Thursday, June 7, 2007 Desperation in recent negotiations reveals America’s vulnerability in Central Asia.
Central Asia has been critical to America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, South Asia and the Caucasus. After 9/11, the U.S. military established large bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which played important strategic roles in the war in Afghanistan. Today, America’s only military base in Central Asia is in Kyrgyzstan, but it plays an instrumental role in the Pentagon’s military objectives in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and even Pakistan.
To many people, Central Asia
is little more than a backwater to the Middle East. But the reality is that the region has become a strategic battleground over which great powers are now wrestling for influence. Central Asia is the soft underbelly of Russia and plays an instrumental role in Russia’s energy industry. For China, Central Asian states are potentially massive suppliers of oil and natural gas. With Moscow becoming increasingly bellicose, Central Asia is becoming a focal point of European energy policy. Central Asia even acts as an important territorial buffer for Iran.
In recent years, these regional anti-American behemoths have worked hard to dislodge America’s presence from Central Asia entirely. Russia and China’s first successful strike at America’s presence in Central Asia occurred back in 2005 when both nations (at the vanguard of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization) pressured Uzbekistan to kick America out of its base in the Uzbek city of Khanabad.
Middle East Newsline reports that Iran has been stepping up its efforts to deny America military bases in the region: “Officials said Iran has raised the prospect of funding and defense cooperation to several key Central Asian states. They said Iranian delegations have been visiting these countries with offers of weapons shipments, training and help in energy” (June 5).
This week, America survived another attack on its last remaining base in Kyrgyzstan—but it came at a high cost. Literally.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to Kyrgyzstan on a rescue mission to secure the continued operation of a U.S. military base near the Kyrgyz city of Bishkek. He was fully aware of what was at stake. There was a distinct sense of desperation. Think tank Stratfor noted the pressure on Mr. Gates to secure a deal: “The threat of eviction from Manas—the last U.S. base in Central Asia—comes at a tense time for Washington, as it is focused on negotiations in Iraq and Pakistan, one of its largest regional allies, is internally spinning out of control” (June 5).
But the government of Kyrgyzstan was not without pressure of its own. “The meeting comes as Kyrgyzstan’s government is mired in chaos, the opposition is calling for the eviction of U.S. forces and Russia is beginning to increase pressure on Bishkek to evict the Americans” (ibid.; emphasis mine throughout). Pinned between American and Russian ambition, the Kyrgyz government faced a tough decision.
For now, Kyrgyzstan has opted for the highly lucrative option of allowing the Americans to stay. Prior to 2006 America paid $20 million a year to operate its base from Kyrgyzstan; that figure has now increased to $150 million, or roughly the equivalent of 7 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product.
Though Gates returns home with confirmation that America may continue to operate from Kyrgyzstan, the wallet of the American government got a lot lighter. More importantly, the tense atmosphere settling over the Central Asian region shows that America’s military footprint in Kyrgyzstan, and therefore Central Asia, is temporary.
That President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s decision was motivated by economic expediency rather than genuine concern for U.S. interests in having a base in Kyrgyzstan is revealing. It raises the question of what Kyrgyzstan might do in the time ahead as it faces increasing pressure from Russia, China and Iran to renege on its promises to America.
Clearly, the Kyrgyz government is motivated by what is politically or economically expedient. Three conditions surrounding this week’s decision reveal how short-lived Kyrgyzstan’s agreement with America will probably be.
First: The government of Kyrgyzstan is in a state of flux and could soon change, which would likely mean turning its back on America. President Bakiyev’s pro-American decision did not sit well with a nation wracked by political unrest and social upheaval. Even the national parliament, as the International Herald Tribune recently showed, opposes the U.S. military base in the country: “The Kyrgyz parliament has urged the government to evict the Manas base. Just last month, the Foreign Ministry said any use of the base beyond the Afghanistan operation would be ‘unacceptable’—an apparent reflection of concerns it would be used for strikes inside Iran or Iraq” (June 1).
Since 2005, deep internal crises splitting the Kyrgyzstan government have destablisized the nation, causing chaos and sparking protests involving tens of thousands of people. Prior to the visit by the U.S. defense secretary this week, the protests increased, a telling sign of the anti-American sentiment within the population. Among Kyrgyz officials, “The U.S. presence at Manas Air Base is one of the most fiercely debated topics ...” (Stratfor, op. cit.).
The fact that the current government allowed America to remain in Kyrgyzstan does not guarantee America a long-term presence there. The president’s decision was strongly opposed by large segments of the population, the Kyrgyz parliament and many political opponents. Should these politicians ever assume power—which is entirely likely in such a politically volatile environment—the question of an American base in Kyrgyzstan would surface once again.
Second: The Kyrgyz government is growing increasingly reliant on Russia, to the point of assuming a subservient position that will make it difficult for it to operate against the wishes of the Russians. May saw a perfect example: “On May 21, citing internal security concerns and the constant threat from Islamist militants, the Kyrgyz parliament officially requested that Russia increase its troop presence on Kyrgyzstan’s southern border and expand personnel at Russia’s Kant Air Base” (ibid.). The Kyrgyz government sought Russia for assistance, despite America having a military base right there.
Kyrgyzstan will increasingly be drawn into the Russian sphere of influence; as this occurs the pressure will mount on the Kyrgyz government to ensure its loyalties lie with Moscow. Be assured, purging Central Asia of the American military is a Russian interest.
Third: Kyrgyzstan faces increased pressure from fellow Central Asian nations to evict America. Stratfor wrote,
Uzbekistan, which supplies Kyrgyzstan with most of its electricity and natural gas imports, has threatened to cut supplies unless Bakiyev reconsiders the Manas arrangement. … The pressure certainly will increase ahead of the August 30 sco summit. Kyrgyzstan is hosting the event, and Bakiyev is scrambling to find ways to fund the large summit. China and Russia each have said they will help, but they are certain to bring up the fate of the U.S. base at the summit.
Though Bakiyev is sticking to his guns for the moment, pressure to evict the Americans is heating up to a boiling point.
In the coming weeks and months, expect America to face increased opposition from Russia, China and Iran in Central Asia. This week, the United States secured its military base in Kyrgyzstan, at least temporarily. But current trends inside and outside of Kyrgyzstan show that America’s presence in the nation, as well as Central Asia as a whole, is about to end.
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