The former Soviet republics of Central Asia are not teeming with US servicemen, but more than 1,000 troops are based in Uzbekistan, and US forces have been allowed to use air-bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Americans are not about to pull out, as Russia and China would like them to, now that the ‘war’ in Afghanistan is over. The US government sees their presence as an expression of American power and is not likely to withdraw them under Chinese or Russian pressure, particularly if that pressure is exerted publicly.
The Americans are pursuing a twin approach that seeks to reassure the Chinese and Russians that they are not increasing their presence in the region, while at the same time giving others no reason to believe that they will pull out when the ‘war’ is over. Jim Kolbe, a US congressman leading a delegation of five US representatives to Central Asia, said on January 13 that Washington was unlikely to increase its military forces in the region; once the first stage of the anti-terrorist campaign is over, the US will deploy its troops elsewhere, he added. But Tom Daschle, US Senate majority leader, told the rulers of Uzbekistan that the US presence “is not simply in the immediate term”.
The fact that Russian conservatives and military leaders resent the US presence, and might undermine president Putin’s authority if he tolerates it, is seen by Washington as a factor to be taken into consideration. Putin is, after all, an ally in the ‘war on terrorism’, and a coalition of Russian politicians and generals would be capable of engineering his downfall, as ex-president Gorbachev would agree. But this factor is not decisive and recent warnings by Russian politicians and army leaders against an American presence in Central Asia have been publicly ignored.
In mid-January, for instance, Gennady Seleznyov, the speaker of the Russian parliament, said that Russia “would not approve of permanent US military bases in Central Asia”. Konstantin Totsky, head of the Russian Border Guards, warned that the US presence could be tolerated only as long as the anti-terrorist operation lasted. Moscow has followed all this up with delegations to Central Asian capitals to warn them to reject any long-term American military presence.
But the region’s leaders (except Saparmurat Niyazov, the president of Turkmenistan, which is contiguous with Afghanistan) have ignored Russia’s warnings as they have China’s. They know that both Moscow and Beijing, which have ‘anti-terrorist’ pacts with their countries, have failed to help them defeat the Islamic groups that have been trying to overthrow them. They also know that Moscow has failed to overthrow the ‘Afghan terrorists’, whom the Russians accused of arming and training their enemies before the US removed them from power.
Seventeen months ago four Central Asian rulers held a summit in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to appeal to Russia to reimpose its authority on the region, and to the international community to end the civil war in Afghanistan, which they claimed was “destabilising the entire region”. Admitting openly on August 21, 2000, that they were under serious threat, they appealed to Moscow to come to their aid and join them in ending the “terrorist menace”. The leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, perhaps realising that Moscow could not do so by itself, also enlisted the international community’s assistance to throw the ‘terrorists’ out of Afghanistan.
One of the rulers, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, who is now one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the US’s presence in the region, explained the reasons for the appeal for help: “centres of Islamic extremism” operating out of Afghanistan were targeting the governments of Central Asia “to divert them from their chosen secular and democratic path...we cannot guarantee security in Central Asia as long as the civil war in Afghanistan continues, because the rebel groups at the root of the problem are there.”
Karimov and the others now believe that the US has almost sorted out the “Afghan problem” and is powerful enough, unlike Russia, to protect them against local ‘terrorists’. According to newspaper reports on January 18, the Uzbek leader told visiting senior Russian officials that his country was also getting substantial financial rewards from the US presence. “The flight of an American aircraft is benefiting my country to the tune of $8,000 per take-off, and what will I be able to secure for ending the US military presence in Uzbekistan?” Karimov was quoted as asking his Russian visitors Gennady Seleznyov and foreign minister Igor Iganov.
President Bush will find it difficult to resist the temptation to exploit the situation. His demonstrated ability to maintain a military presence in the “strategic backyard” of Russia and China will appeal to his increasingly chauvinistic countrymen, and may even help to secure his re-election for a second term.
But the US presence is not essentially about Bush’s re-election. Washington’s primary interest is in the region’s huge oil and gas reserves; the military presence will help its attempt to grab a lion’s share of those mineral resources, and the Bush administration is fully prepared to use its military capabilities for that end. It has requested from Congress the largest increase in the US defence budget for 20 years.
The only adversaries that are not likely to be impressed are the Islamic movements that Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’ is primarily targeting. The US’s presence in Central Asia can only reinforce support in the region for them, as even Western analysts are beginning to warn Bush.