Don’t Base U.S. Forces in Central Asia

June 23, 2021
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In headlines reminiscent of a bygone era, journalists this week reported rapid gains made by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province. This follows grim news that at least 24 Afghan commandos were killed in a battle with Taliban fighters in Faryarb Province. Amid the upsurge in violence and concern that the withdrawal of U.S. forces (scheduled for completion by September 11) will precipitate a Taliban takeover, Washington continues searching for a way to maintain its ability to collect information and project power into Afghanistan—perhaps by establishing a residual presence in neighboring Central Asia.

Ahead of the planned withdrawal, U.S. officials have been quietly engaging their Central Asian counterparts. In early May, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, reportedly visited the region to scope out possibilities for potential deployments after the withdrawal. Meanwhile, media in and around Central Asia have been full of rumors about U.S. plans.

Of course, the idea of a limited U.S. military presence in Central Asia as an adjunct to its strategy for Afghanistan is hardly new. After the first bilateral agreements were negotiated in the fall of 2001, the United States maintained forces at Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, until 2005, and at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, until 2014. The Central Asian states also provided airspace access, use of their roads and railways, and other kinds of support to U.S. and allied forces. As Western involvement in Afghanistan has waned in recent years, so too has reliance on Central Asian airspace, infrastructure, and bases. Central Asia’s diminished importance to the Afghanistan conflict has also coincided with growing attention to the region on the part of its large neighbors Russia and China. Today, with a more contested geopolitical landscape in Eurasia, and with the Biden administration emphasizing democracy and transparency, the re-deployment of U.S. forces to the region would be both difficult and counterproductive.

 

 

Compared to the period immediately after 9/11, neither Central Asia’s internal conditions nor the broader regional environment are conducive to a U.S. military presence. Whatever their contribution to meeting America’s objectives in Afghanistan and despite U.S. efforts to encourage transparency, pre-2014 basing agreements fed perceptions that Washington was reinforcing the region’s entrenched corruption and authoritarianism — entering into opaque contracts with companies connected to local elites and turning a blind eye to crackdowns on opposition and civil society. Though leadership changes in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have modestly improved the prospects for regional cooperation, and a young and burgeoning population has propelled new waves of democratic activism across Central Asia, the challenges have only grown more difficult. The pandemic has severely strained public health systems and dimmed the region’s economic prospects. Police continue to respond to social activism with repressive tactics, aggravating social tension.

And while China and Russia were largely supportive of the initial U.S. offensive against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist groups in Afghanistan, their calculus has evolved in recent years, with neither likely to look favorably on a permanent U.S. staging presence in Central Asia. The quality of both countries’ relationships with the United States has meanwhile plummeted amid regional tensions elsewhere, human rights abuses, information operations, and other challenges. Even while both countries see risks to regional stability in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, they also perceive opportunities to capitalize on a security vacuum and to position themselves as regional powerbrokers.

Washington’s self-acknowledged challenges with balancing support for democracy, transparency, and security throughout its history of “base politics” in Central Asia, not to mention its more difficult relationships with Beijing and Moscow in an era of great-power competition, suggest the need for caution. In the current strategic environment, maintaining even a limited physical presence in Central Asia will be much more difficult than it was in the first years after 9/11.

As the United States prepares for the next stage in its decades-long Afghan odyssey, it needs to have a realistic view of Central Asia’s role. That could mean boosting funding for ongoing technical assistance and efforts to support economic reform and partnering with the Central Asian governments on border security, information sharing, training, development assistance, and other forms of non-military cooperation. It should stop short, however, of stationing U.S. forces in the region.

Thanks but No Thanks

America’s pre-2014 experience in the region should provide a note of caution. With transparency and governance little better today, Washington runs the same risk of being dragged into the region’s murky politics, at a time when the Biden administration has placed new emphasis on battling transnational corruption and kleptocracy.

The Central Asian states themselves are also generally warier of a permanent U.S. military presence than they were in the wake of 9/11. Of the five countries in the region, three — Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan — would be theoretically viable locations of for U.S. forces (Kazakhstan lacks a border with Afghanistan while Turkmenistan’s policy of “positive neutrality,” not to mention its extreme political isolation, would likely preclude it from being a partner). All have strong reasons for caution — not least warnings from the Taliban that any state hosting U.S. troops will open itself up to retaliation. Meanwhile, Central Asian leaders today are also more sanguine about the possibility of Afghanistan falling under control of the Taliban, which, in contrast to the 9/11 era, now shares their concern about transnational jihadists linked to the Islamic State.

U.S. forces left Uzbekistan in 2005 amid backlash over then-President Islam Karimov’s bloody suppression of an anti-government uprising in the Ferghana Valley town of Andijon (after Karimov had tried to use negotiations over renewing the base’s lease to press the U.S. into opposing an investigation). The U.S. troop presence at Manas lasted until 2014, but became caught up in Kyrgyzstan’s murky politics, despite multiple U.S. diplomatic initiatives to promote economic reform and political liberalization.

It also made Kyrgyzstan into the object of strategic competition with Moscow. Russia used its platform in the local media and quasi-nongovernmental organizations to stoke hostility to the U.S. presence, playing up incidents involving U.S. forces to sow anti-American sentiment throughout the region. With Moscow consistently pressuring the Kyrgyz government to expel U.S forces from Manas, Washington found itself drawn into a bidding war, agreeing to repeated rent hikes as the price for maintaining its access. It also became enmeshed in a corrupt scheme that, Congress found, “deliberately and illicitly used … fuel contracts to bribe Kyrgyzstan’s two past presidents.”

Led now by populist President Sadyr Japarov, who was vaulted from jail to power in a political crisis last fall, Kyrgyzstan remains not just politically volatile, but increasingly authoritarian. In May 2021, it lost an ill-conceived border conflict with neighboring Tajikistan that caused extensive damage to villages along the border and provoked widespread anger about the Kyrgyz military’s weak response. While Bishkek might entertain a U.S. presence to gain leverage with its neighbors, its turbulent politics make it an unattractive partner for the U.S.

Uzbekistan, conversely, has become more open and stable under current President Shavkat Mirziyoev — albeit in fits and starts. One area where Mirziyoev has not departed from his predecessor though is in jealously guarding Uzbekistan’s sovereignty. Mirziyoev remains committed to a 2012 constitutional provision blocking the presence of foreign troops on Uzbek soil (thereby guarding against the kind of brinksmanship between the United States and Russia over Manas that roiled politics in Kyrgyzstan before U.S. forces finally left).

In part because of Mirziyoev’s reforms, moreover, Tashkent today is more self-confident about dealing with Afghanistan. While Karimov was obsessed with the potential for extremism to spill across the Afghan border (thanks in part to the Taliban’s protection of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), Mirziyoev’s Uzbekistan has become a more assertive diplomatic actor, maintaining its ties to Uzbek militias in northern Afghanistan while also carrying out negotiations with the Taliban. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, meanwhile, is a shadow of its former self. Former U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan George Krol told us that Tashkent would prefer to receive U.S. weapons and other equipment to enhance its own power projection capabilities rather than consent to the presence of American forces.

The other country Khalilzad visited, Tajikistan, is something of a wild card. Despite its resounding victory in May’s border clash with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan under President Emomali Rakhmon remains weak, impoverished, and potentially volatile, with Rakhmon — in power since 1992 — seemingly grooming his son to succeed him. It also has a large Russian military presence left over from the 1990s civil war, as well as a number of Chinese paramilitary and security contractor forces patrolling the remote border region with Afghanistan. While Rakhmon’s government could conceivably be induced to accept a U.S. presence for the right price, Tajikistan’s much greater economic reliance on both Russia and China make it unlikely to become what one analyst we spoke with termed a “Central Asian Djibouti” that leverages its location to provide basing rights to all comers.

Great-Power Competition Comes to Central Asia

Another major challenge the United States would face in any effort to restore a military presence in Central Asia is the very different state of relations with both Russia and China. In 2001 and 2002, neither China nor Russia raised objections to a U.S. presence in Central Asia, which was congruent with their own campaigns against Islamist militancy. Today, however, with Washington stepping up deployments and the tempo of exercises in Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the Indo-Pacific with the explicit objective of deterring Russia and China and contesting their influence in these regions, it is hardly surprising that officials and analysts in Beijing and Moscow perceive the prospect of U.S. security cooperation with the Central Asian states through the lens of geopolitics rather than counter-terrorism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin actually assented to the initial deployment of U.S. forces to Central Asia. Yet with the Taliban driven from power, militant attacks declining, and U.S.-Russian relations strained by Putin’s consolidation of power, the war in Iraq, and the outbreak of the first “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, Moscow soon came to question the need for a U.S. presence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, Moscow persuaded its partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — including China — to adopt a statement calling on Washington to set a timetable for the departure of it forces. Russia also strongly backed Karimov’s rejection of calls for an international inquiry into the Andijon events that precipitated the departure of U.S. forces from Karshi-Khanabad.

The departure of U.S. forces from Manas would similarly remain a Russian priority. In 2009, then-Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev secured over $2 billion in loans from Moscow, reportedly on terms that included expelling U.S. forces. When Bakiyev then renewed the U.S. lease on Manas (dramatically increasing the rent in the process), Russia supported the uprising that drove him from power in the fall of 2010.

While the Obama administration was able to finesse Russian opposition, including by renaming the base a “transit center,” the nationalist appeals of Bakiyev’s successor Almazbek Atambayev centered on securing a U.S. departure.

Moscow had a hand in Atambayev’s opposition, holding out the lure of membership in the Russian-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union, which would allow Bishkek (and its vast number of migrant workers) to maintain access to the Russian market. It also pressed to amend the charter of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Kyrgyzstan is also a member, to requiring member states to give unanimous approval to the presence of foreign military forces on the territory of any member. After the Kyrgyz parliament voted in 2013 to close the base, the Obama administration — drawing down the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan and seeking to maintain its tottering reset with Moscow — declined to engage in a bidding war to maintain it.

While China was never as exercised about the U.S. presence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan before 2014, the combination of the Belt and Road Initiative and the growth of Sino-U.S. strategic competition globally have left Beijing today similarly hostile to any new U.S. presence in Central Asia.

In 2001, China was only beginning to focus on the security dimension of its relationship with Central Asia. Concern about Taliban support for Xinjiang-based separatist and extremist groups inclined Beijing to support the effort to drive out the Taliban and establish a strong state in Afghanistan. Beijing’s interest in the region subsequently grew in line with its concern about the situation in Xinjiang and the belief that economic development and higher living standards would insulate the wider region from extremism.

Security considerations also underpinned China’s regional vision for Belt and Road Initiative, which provided a framework for large-scale infrastructure and other investment in Central Asia. With its location astride the principal transit corridors of the initiative, Central Asia has assumed an outsized — relative to its population and economy — importance in Chinese strategic thought. One of the initiative’s major objectives is to overcome the so-called Malacca dilemma: China’s inability to secure maritime lines of communication against the United States in the event of a crisis. Any U.S. military footprint in Central Asia, however small, would appear to Beijing as a threat to that objective.

While emphasizing that the Belt and Road Initiative aims to promote mutually beneficial economic development and “win-win” outcomes, China has increasingly asserted itself politically in Central Asia. Its deployment of paramilitary and security forces to Tajikistan coincides with a higher profile diplomatic role, new energy deals with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, along with arms sales and training across the region.

As China adopts a higher profile in the region, it is increasingly signaling to others, including the United States, to stand back. The statement issued after the May 2021 meeting of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with his Central Asian counterparts emphasized that “Central Asia is neither a stage for any power to engineer a colour revolution nor a place where any power can attempt to sow seeds of discord.” And yet like Russia, China has also inserted itself into the Afghanistan peace process. As the United States pulls back, China has promoted its own role as a mediator between Afghan factions (including the Taliban), and suggested it may be open to deploying peacekeepers once U.S. forces have left.

Read the Room

The early years of war in Afghanistan (2001 to 2005) marked a high-water mark for U.S. influence in Central Asia. For the past several years, China and Russia have recognized the changes in American domestic politics that were pointing towards an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. In response, both have begun hedging against that eventuality by carving out more active roles for themselves, committing resources and deepening relationships with local actors. Given the preponderance of Sino-Russian influence in a region along their borders and the ability of Beijing and Moscow to impose unacceptable costs (from the disruption of energy transit to information operations of the kind Moscow unleashed against Bakiyev in 2010), Washington would face a high bar convincing Central Asian leaders to take the risk of accepting a permanent U.S. presence — especially at a time when Washington’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan faces widespread skepticism.

Sino-Russian opposition is not the only, or even the most important reason for the Biden administration to be wary of deploying forces to Central Asia. The U.S. experience at Karshi-Khanabad and Manas is a reminder of the moral and political compromises attendant on security cooperation with authoritarian regimes. While national security may at times be given as justification for such compromises (e.g., U.S.-Saudi relations), the stakes for Washington as it pulls out of Afghanistan do not rise to that level, especially as it can achieve many of its post-withdrawal security objectives, including intelligence gathering inside Afghanistan, through less visible means.

Faced with growing Chinese and Russian influence, the Central Asian states have sought to exercise independence by engaging with the United States. However, for Washington to have a positive impact in the region, it needs to continue encouraging liberalization and transparency, which haggling over basing rights threatens to compromise, especially if the United States can get the regional governments to provide lower profile cooperation on counterterrorism and intelligence gathering, coupled with temporary access to facilities on a case-by-case basis. As in Kyrgyzstan before 2014, a permanent, visible U.S. presence can become an easy target for nationalist and populist appeals, which Russia (and likely China) would be only too happy to foment. Whether or not the original deployment of U.S. forces to Central Asia was a justified response to the 9/11 attacks and irrespective of efforts to mitigate the contribution of the American military presence to local corruption and authoritarianism, it produced unanticipated and unwelcome consequences that any new deployment would only exacerbate.

As the United States plans for the next, post-withdrawal phase of its decades-long effort to stabilize Afghanistan, engagement with its Central Asian neighbors will remain an important element of any strategy. To be successful, though, that engagement must stop short of the direct military presence the United States maintained until 2014.

 

 

Jeffrey Mankoff is a Distinguished Research Fellow at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) and the author of the forthcoming book Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security.

Cyrus Newlin is an Associate Fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Special Operations Command (Photo by Staff Sgt. Steven Colvin)