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US Switching From Afghanistan to Central Asia

The hypothesis that the US is planning a partial relocation of its military infrastructures from Afghanistan to Central Asia appears to be gaining momentum. A dead giveaway, according to columnist Aleksandr Shustov, is the heigthened intensity of Washington’s diplomatic transactions with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and the consequent loss of Moscow’s influence in the region.

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By Aleksandr Shustov

Contrary to President Obama’s pledge, the US has no intention to turn the page on the military foothold in Afghanistan. In fact, the US plans to reinforce its presence in the region by partially relocating the pertinent military infrastructures to Central Asia.

The US and NATO have lost grip on Afghanistan’s southern, Pashtun-populated provinces on which the defiant Talibs long imposed the Sharia law. Afghanistan continues to host several key US military bases - in Bagram, Shindand, the Nangarhar Province, Kandahar, and in the northern Mazār-i-Sharīf - after Washington’s unpublicized (but as of today sustained) talks with the Talibs produced the corresponding agreement and the US partially withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. The arrangement - in line with the Greater Middle East strategy which implies multiple tailorings of the country’s borders - reads as a de facto partition of Afghanistan based on the ethnicity principle.

Washington is going to offer Central Asian republics background roles of transit hubs supplying the coalition efforts in Afghanistan or, if necessary, helping to dispatch additional contingents of Western troops to the country. The plan to deploy US special forces in Central Asia and Pakistan was unveiled back in September, 2009. The Pentagon’s wishlist includes the stationing of mobile special operations groups in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan with the stated goal of tightening the security along the coalition’s northern supply route, though it is easily predictable at the moment that their actual mission will not be limited to the task.

Information about the US blueprint for constructing military infrastructures in all of the five Central Asian republics surfaced in August, 2010. The US Central Command’s counter-narcotics fund is going to pour over $40m into building military training centers in Osh (Kyrgyzstan) and Karatog (Tajikistan) plus a canine training facility and a helicopter hangar near Almaty (Kazakhstan), and into upgrading border-crossing checkpoints in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. A far-reaching US agenda looms behind the geographic distribution of the facilities, considering that Saraghs, the checkpoint in Turkmenistan, is sited at the republic’s border with Iran, and the Kyrgyz checkpoint is located near Batkent, in the strategic sector of the Fergana Valley.

Kyrgyzstan is given priority on the US Central Asian agenda. In August, 2008, Washington and Bishkek opened negotiations over the construction of a training center in the Batkent province. The idea was shelved in April, 2010 in the wake of the ouster of former Kyrgyz president K. Bakiyev but reanimated shortly thereafter. According to Central Asia expert A. Knyazev, full groundwork for the project is in place in Batkent. In the meantime, Russia’s bid to establish a training center for the Collective Security Treaty Organization, also in Batkent, seems hopelessly defeated. On top of that, in the summer of 2010, the Kyrgyz administration renewed under wraps the US lease of the Manas airbase sited in the proximity of Bishkek.

Dushanbe is contemplating a military base deal with Washington similar to the one sealed by Bishkek. In addition to financial perks (in Kyrgyzstan, the total generated by the Manas lease makes a handsome $60m annually), having a US military base on the premises would boost the Tajik administration’s self-confidence vis-a-vis Russia. Tajikistan’s Ayni airbase located in a Dushanbe suburb may be a likely candidate. The Tajik military engagement with the US is gaining momentum against the backdrop of a lasting chill between Moscow and Dushanbe, whose array of contentious issues includes the lease of the Ayni airbase to an air group of Russia’a 201st military base and the presence in Tajikistan of Russian military advisers consulting the republic’s military on border security. Moreover, prospects are dim for the stay of the whole 201st base in Tajikistan beyond 2014, the year the lease of the base to Russia expires.

Russian defense minister’s scheduled visit to Tajikistan was postponed indefinitely after Tajik foreign minister Hamrokhon Zarifi held talks with NATO Secretary General’s special representative for Central Asia and the Caucasus James Appathurai on June 22. Tajik foreign ministry released a statement indicating that the discussions revolved around the relations between Tajikistan and NATO, their interaction in the framework of the Partnership for Peace program, and such themes as Afghanistan’s border security and domestic reconciliation. A day later, on June 23, US ambassador to Tajikistan Ken Gross met with Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon.

As for Moscow, it is clear that it risks seeing its influence over the Central Asian republics dwindle while the US is “withdrawing” from Afghanistan and switching to Central Asia.

Aleksandr Shustov is a columnist for the Strategic Culture Foundation.

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