Preparing to Leave: America’s Waning Power in Central Asia
After more than a decade of conflict, America is reducing its footprint in Afghanistan. Although it seems likely that America and Afghanistan will come to terms on a security agreement to ensure that a residual force of 8,000 to 12,000 soldiers remains in country to carry out counterterrorism missions and training for the Afghan National Army, the dream of an American-led nation-building effort capable of changing the economic and social climate of the country seems now far-fetched. Indeed, there will be no direct combat role for the majority of troops that remain, with most assigned to regional posts and not to the countryside with Afghan units.
While many will heave a sigh of relief and be eager to exit a country that has been a thorn in America’s side for more than 12 years, the reduction in American troops carries with it not only a decrease in the influence the U.S. will be able to wield in Kabul but also runs the risk of further diminishing America’s already limited presence in all of Central Asia. Indeed, developments are taking place across the region that, when combined, amount to a significant reduction of U.S. foreign interests and values and mark the end of its clumsy, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to exert influence in an area of strategic importance.
Take Kyrgyzstan. The Pentagon recently announced that Kyrgyz officials had asked the U.S. military to leave the Manas air base. Also known as the Transit Center at Manas, the base has served as a transfer point for nearly every soldier arriving in or departing from Afghanistan, as well as for substantial amounts of matériel since 2001. The decision to evict the Americans came on the heels of prosecutors’ decision in New York to drop extradition charges against Maxim Bakiyev, the son of the former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
The U.S. had initially sought to extradite the younger Bakiyev from the U.K. to face trial on charges to commit securities fraud and obstruction of justice but announced last May that they were dismissing the case.
Mr. Bakiyev and his father are loathed figures in much of Kyrgyzstan, and it is believed that the Bakiyev family stole hundreds of millions of dollars while in power from 2005 until President Bakiyev was ousted in an uprising five years later, forcing him and his family to leave Bishkek. Although Almazbek Atambayev, Kyrgyzstan’s current President, ran for office in 2011 promising to evict the Americans from Manas, members of Parliament were not particularly keen on shutting it down.
American rent paid on the base amounts to $60 million per year (nearly 3% of the national budget) and other expenditures made by the base contributed an additional $80 million to the economy. These are large figures in a remote country such as Kyrgyzstan, where widespread poverty is rampant and foreign investment scarce. Nonetheless, the decision to dismiss the case against Mr. Bakiyev proved so incendiary that members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly to oust the Americans from the base last June, illustrating that U.S. officials’ belief that the airbase’s economic impact would trump domestic concerns over corruption was unfounded.
Unable to find another country in Central Asia willing to lease a facility, the U.S. delayed announcing its eviction from Manas until last October. The U.S. will now have to transit military personnel and cargo headed to Afghanistan out of Romania for the duration of the war. The move westward indicates that America’s influence ends at the western edge of the Black Sea, thousands of miles farther from Afghanistan than the airbase in Manas. What is more, the U.S.’s inability to find a country in the region prepared to lease an airbase for the removal of troops and equipment from Afghanistan is illustrative of Washington’s poor standing in the region and failure to develop strong bilateral ties with any country bordering on Afghanistan since 9/11.
The eviction from Manas is not the first time American forces have been asked to leave a military installation of significant importance. In 2005, Uzbekistan’s President, Islam Karimov, ordered American forces to leave the Karshi-Khanabad air base after American officials had called for a human rights investigation into a massacre of more than 700 people by Uzbek soldiers in the eastern city of Andijan. Clearly, the U.S. was right to voice its concerns over the killings and would have been compliant in their perpetration had it chosen to do otherwise, but its inability to continue to operate out of Karshi-Khanabad made the durability of its presence in Manas even more important.
Unfortunately, the lesson that the U.S. seems to have drawn from its criticism of Andijan is to continue to provide military aid to other Central Asian republics who engage in extrajudicial killings rather than voice concerns. For example, in Tajikistan, more than $3 million dollars in American assistance was provided to an elite military unit in 2012 who in that year killed civilians in a murky operation which the government still refuses to discuss.
That Central Asian autocrats can end their relationship with the U.S. so abruptly as in the cases of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and also continue to receive funding even though they commit gross human rights violations, as in Tajikistan, indicates that short-term military interests in Afghanistan completely dominate foreign policy initiatives in the region. And while the military bases and distribution networks provided by the Central Asian republics certainly help the U.S. to funnel equipment and soldiers more quickly to Afghanistan, they also give these countries’ autocratic rulers enormous leverage in negotiations with their western counterparts concerning issues unrelated to military access.
The U.S.’s myopic view of its relations with Central Asia – that expediency in the development of logistical operations to supply its forces in Afghanistan trumped all other concerns – undercut the hard, political work that American diplomats and other government and business officials in the region need to engage in with their Central Asian counterparts to establish robust, bilateral ties capable of changing the region’s leaders’ calculus about the benefits of a strong U.S. presence in the region.
Even though American officials state that they are not abandoning Central Asia, and, in fact, will leave a legacy behind, previous announcements made by high-ranking U.S. officials touting America’s commitment to Central Asia now seem overblown. For instance, in October 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heralded what was called a New Silk Road Initiative where, “Tajik cotton could be turned into Indian linens” and “Turkmen gas fields could help meet both Pakistan’s and India’s growing energy needs,” laying the foundation for a visionary proposal intended to link Central to South Asia via Afghanistan while reducing Central Asia’s economic dependence on and political ties with Russia. And while the proposal is admirable in scope, little has yet to be achieved.
Even more frustratingly for U.S. policymakers, the clout Russia wields over its former vassals seems to have increased since the announcement. For example, the Kyrgyz government has allowed Russia to expand its airbase, Kant, doubling its number of warplanes by the end of this year, in exchange for $1.1. billion in military aid, a write-off of nearly $500 million in debt, and financing for hydropower plants. And during a tour of the region this fall, China’s President Xi Jinping proposed his own Silk Road economic belt and immediately set out to expand Beijing’s influence in the region, signing deals worth tens of billions of dollars in pipeline and road projects, all of which head toward China.
U.S. military officials, like Ms. Clinton, are also keen to stress that they will not abandon Central Asia once the majority of troops in Afghanistan have left. The problem for military leaders is that the aid they provide only seems to enhance the power of dictators whose policies they ostensibly oppose, rather than creating resilient states capable of managing the threats emanating from Afghanistan.