Is America Losing its Strategic Hold on Central Asia?


Over the past two years, US relations with former Soviet Central Asia nations have collapsed, with Uzbekistan removing US Air Force air bases in 2005. For the United States be able to rapidly deploy troops to Middle East and Asian contingency locations, or have Air Force theater strike capability in the future, the US will need new Central Asian allies soon. One of these potential allies could perhaps become Turkmenistan. There are indications, that following two decades of isolationist policies of Saparmurat Niyazov’s iron rule, a new era may start in this former Soviet republic. With the death of Niyazov, last December, the new Turkmenistan President, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, has already signaled his openness for liberalization.

Although it might be too early to assess what this means to his view on relations with the United States and the West, analysts already contemplate this nation, based strategically along the Caspian, Afghanistan and Iran, becoming a potential ally. But not only the US has interest in Turkmenistan; its huge large untapped natural gas reserves (estimated at 2 trillion cubic meters) are of substantial interest to Russia and Europe. Until now, Turkmenistan is selling the bulk of its natural gas to Gazprom, the dominating Russian oil cartel, for processing so that the Russians can sell Turkmenistan natural gas to other countries. It would be much of advantage for the Turkmen to have an alternative shipping route for its natural gas via a pipeline through the Caspian Sea and tap into a new pipeline that could end up in Europe, thereby freeing Eastern Europe of the tyranny of Gazprom. Its geopolitical status as a stable neutral country bordering Iran and Afghanistan also offers considerable strategic advantages.

But there are other important assets at stake. The former Soviet Republic used Turkmen air bases as springboard for its 1979 invasion into Afghanistan. Some of these were extended into strategic air bases and could be used by US Air Force deployments in the region. Mary air base (also sometimes referred to by its pre-Soviet name of Merv is located just 60 kilometers north of the Afghan border in the Murgab river valley and is the largest airbase in Central Asia. Other bases could become available at Ashgabat, Nebit-dag and Serdar. To win over the government, Washington could offer financial incentives in the form of loans, foreign investment and increased access to the IMF and the World Bank. America could also ease Turkmenistan’s security concerns by strengthening military ties in return for the use of Turkmen airspace airbases.

US Transport Command C-17 and KC-135s parked at Manas airfield in Kyrgyzstan

In July 2005, after the war in Afghanistan and Iraq saw an indefinite troop presence of U.S. forces in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting at its summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, urged them to set a timetable for withdrawing their troops from member states. The SCO incorporates the Peoples Republic of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Since then, Uzbekistan has asked the U.S. to leave the important Karshi-Kanabad (K2) Airbase. Accordingly, the Pentagon has expressed growing reservations over the future of US air and military bases in central Asia.

Even the US major strategic air base at Manas Kyrgyzstan is coming under pressure. The landlocked, but strategically located Kyrgyzstan has emerged as Washington’s sole front-line state for confronting terrorism in Afghanistan and Manas airbase, located strategically close to the Chinese border of Xinjiang, is being critical to U.S. counter-terrorism strategy in Central and South Asia and has been a major asset for US forces in the region. But last December a serious incident at Manas, when a U.S. serviceman, from the base, fatally shot a Kyrgyz civilian at a checkpoint near the base, now threatens Washington’s sole remaining military facility in the former Soviet Union.

Lines of USAF C-130 tactical airlifters parked at K-2 airfield in Uzbekistan.

K-2 air base closure seems not to have had a drastic impact on US operations in southern Central Asia. The Afghan Bagram airbase near Kabul started receiving greater traffic, although not always fully secure for sustained operations. But the US aims to shift its logistical workload carried by K-2 eastwards to the Caspian region. Reports circulate already that the US will replace K-2 activities with a new airbase situated either at Nasosnaya near Baku, or Ganca in western Azerbaijan, which may indicate a clear shift in focus to the Caspianm environment. Perhaps significantly, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov visited Washington soon after the K-2 eviction notice was served. US re-engagement in the Caspian would constitute a reversion to its pre-11 September regional policy. This prioritized the Caucasian states, firstly as a means to counter Russia’s tendency to view the region as its exclusive domain, and, secondly, to secure East–West hydrocarbon extraction and transit corridors that usefully avoided both Russia and Iran. A further move into Turkmenistan could complete this strategic deployment.

Refocusing on the Caspian basin would make sense in the context of the maturation of its major hydrocarbon extraction and transit projects. The giant offshore Kashagan oilfield in Kazakhstan will be on stream by 2007, and should be able to link with the newly completed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline soon afterwards. Moreover, the South Caucasus Pipeline project, currently under construction, is intended to link the vast Central Asian and Caspian natural gas reservoirs with the growing markets of Central and Eastern Europe. Although the Caspian basin’s significance as a global supplier of oil and gas should not be overstated, a strengthened US and Euro-Atlantic geopolitical presence in the region will provide additional security functions to combat terrorist activity directed at offshore oil facilities, strengthen commercial ties and offset China’s rapid emergence as a major commercial player in the Caspian basin.

Indeed, China has become a major player in this region. In a successful bid to tap Kazakhstan’s oil, China’s state owned CITIC Group has recently won approval from the Kazakhstani government to buy the Karazhambas oil field (owned by Nations Energy of Canada) located near Aqtua on the Caspian Sea. This deal, worth US2$ billion, follows another bid, when Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, approved the sale of Petrokazakhstan to China National Petroleum (CNOOC) in 2005. China is aware, as does the Anglo-American axis that energy is the key to its own national security, and China’s power elite is willing to resort to dramatic measures for every drop of oil and every watt of electricity.

Moreover, barely acknowledged by the Western media, both China and Russia have conducted war games in Central Asia, in collaboration with their own coalition partners. Of special interest are these activities in Central Asia, under which military exercises involving the participation of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are conducted under the Collective Security Treaty Organization, (CSTO). The Peoples Republic of China and Kazakhstan have also initiated war games last August. A similar operation was conducted last year by the PRC and Tajikistan, under the code-named “Cooperation-2006”. The fact is that in recent years, China has sought to make it presence felt in Central Asia to secure its strategic, economic and geo-political interests. Geographically, China is contiguous to three Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western region of Xinjiang shares common history, tradition and culture with all the five former Soviet, central Asian republics.

Russia is also stepping up its military presence in this region. In late September, Russia conducted air war exercises over a large part of its territory, extending from the the Saratov Air Base in the Volga region, to the very frontiers of Alaska and North America. These war games already prompted the scrambling of NORAD fighter planes. Last October 2006, in the latest round of Central Asian war games under CSTO auspices, joint Russian-Kyrgyz war exercises were held at Russia’s Kant airbase located some 30 km. from the Kyrgyz capital. Officially described as an “anti-terror drill”, these high profile exercises involved the deployment of Russian and Kyrgyz special forces units.

Russia’s top brass and defense minister Sergei Ivanov were in attendance for the launching of the event. Reports indicate, that Russia’s 201st motorized infantry division in Tajikistan planned to redeploy its helicopters and planes, sofar using parts of Dushanbe airport, to the newly reconstructed Aini airbase, sharing its facilities with the Indian air forceMiG-29 stationed there.

There is a consistent pattern to this recent development. These war games are not isolated events. They are part of a carefully coordinated endeavor, in response to the US-NATO military build-up in the region and should also be considered as acts of deterrence, intended to display military capabilities in deterring military action by a US led coalition.

What is of growing concern to the Pentagon seems to be Russia’s recent upsurge in military activities in sensitive regions and Central Asia seems to be Russia’s high priority strategic objective. Three star general Michael Maples, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, warned that the Russian Army’s combat and theater-level training is now at its highest since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The United States is concerned because the Russian Defense Ministry is focusing on rearmament, modernization of available weapons and efforts to revive the defense industry. On February 7, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov addressed the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, at the Government Hour and said his Ministry would receive 821 billion rubles ($30.98 billion, or Euro 23.87 billion) in 2007, of which over 144 billion rubles ($5.43 billion, or Euro 4.19 billion) will be spent on the acquisition of new weapons. It is obvious that Russia’s theoretical opponents are worried about its enhanced defense capability, which seems to confirm the fact that Sergei Ivanov’s statements are not a mere rhetoric. Central Asia will no doubt remain high in focus during the next few months.