BACKGROUND: Between 2001 and 2005, the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps were supporting operations in Afghanistan primarily from the Karshi-Khanabad air base in southeastern Uzbekistan, also known as “K2.” However, in 2005, Uzbekistan’s government evicted the U.S. from Karshi-Khanabad after disputes arose over rent payments and U.S. criticism of Uzbekistan’s human rights abuses in suppressing the Andijan uprising earlier that year.
In December 2005, U.S. forces began using “Ganci,” which was later renamed the “The Transit Center at Manas International Airport.” Located outside of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, it became the sole facility in Central Asia supporting U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The base’s importance soon increased significantly, with high level visits between U.S. and Kyrgyz military officials becoming commonplace. The Transit Center also had a significant economic impact for Kyrgyzstan because it provided jobs to locals, rent payments to the Kyrgyz government for the use of the airbase, and U.S. servicemen and women purchased local commodities in the airbase’s vicinity.
The U.S. lease for the use of the airbase is set to expire in 2014 and Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has consistently stated that the lease will not be renewed. This would leave the U.S. without a base in Central Asia for the first time since 2001 and result in a loss of U.S. influence in the region as well as opportunities to engage high level officials in the host country. Behind Atambayev’s decision is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is offering Kyrgyzstan an aid package of over US$ 1 billion, on the main condition that Kyrgyzstan does not renew the U.S. lease in Manas. Putin has long sought to expel the U.S. from its “backyard,” and without a base in Manas, Putin would be closer to achieving this goal. It is unlikely that Atambayev will be able to resist Russia’s offer, raising the likelihood that the U.S. days at Manas are numbered.
Much of the U.S. focus on Central Asia since 2005 has been predicated on its use of the Manas Transit Center. However, this focus has ignored some other important reasons for Central Asia’s importance to the U.S. The five Central Asian countries are ideological bastions against Islamic extremism to the region’s south, such as in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, none of the five countries in the region are openly hostile to the U.S. Despite Uzbekistan’s anger at the U.S. in 2005, this never translated into the anti-Americanism seen elsewhere in the Muslim World. Rather, it was a means for President Islam Karimov to send a message to the U.S. and other Western nations about the consequences of criticizing his government’s record.
Other U.S. interests in Central Asia include the geostrategic goal of preventing another power, such as Russia or China, from dominating Central Asia as the USSR did in the twentieth century, access to the region’s resources, the region’s role in trans-Eurasian trade, and the promotion of democracy and liberal values. However, the military interest dominated U.S. relations with Central Asian states throughout the 2000s. With the lease of the Transit Center in Manas set to expire and lacking a clear strategy for the U.S. military to stay in Central Asia after the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. may not have the capacity to pursue any of its interests in Central Asia.
IMPLICATIONS: The Transit Center at Manas has provided the U.S. military with an important vehicle for dialogue and engagement between the U.S. government and its Kyrgyz counterparts. With the cessation of U.S. operations at the Transit Center, it is unclear what will become the key vehicle for U.S.-Kyrgyzstan dialogue. The American University of Central Asia (AUCA), located in Bishkek, is now the main enduring physical legacy of the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan. While this institution provides valuable opportunities for academic exchange and research, it will not provide the same avenue for high-level dialogue between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan. According to Muratbek Imanaliev, President of the Institute of Public Policy in Kyrgyzstan, “if Manas Airbase is removed from Kyrgyzstan, all our contacts with the U.S. government will stop … the Transit Centre at Manas is the only channel and mechanism of U.S.-Kyrgyzstan contact.”
Russia is also planning to reassert its presence in Kyrgyzstan after the U.S. military departs the Transit Center at Manas. Rather than creating a so-called “civilian logistics center” with the U.S., which the U.S. proposed as an alternative to using the Transit Center as an airbase, Atambayev is considering establishing a “joint Kyrgyzstan-Russia logistics center” at Manas airport. This logistics center would simultaneously further President Putin’s longstanding objective of restoring Russian influence in the former Soviet space and reduce the number of U.S. military forces close to Russia’s borders, which Putin has also long desired.
The U.S. seems to have a “plan B” in store after Manas, however, which is to establish a military base or Rapid Response Center in Uzbekistan. The acrimony between the U.S. and Uzbekistan that existed in 2005 has settled and such an agreement could prove beneficial for both countries. It would allow the U.S. to maintain a presence in Central Asia, while also allowing Uzbekistan some leverage against Russia, whose influence is rising in rival countries Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Moreover, a Rapid Response Center would help both the U.S. and Uzbekistan respond to the possible flow of militants from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other Central Asian militant groups have stated that Central Asia remains their ultimate goal, even though they have been training and carrying out attacks with the Taliban for much of the last decade.
As evidence of a possible pro-U.S. turn in Uzbekistan, it ended its membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in December 2012 (See 20 February 2013 issue of the CACI Analyst). This could be interpreted as a move that is motivated by the country’s intention to allow the U.S. to set up a military base in lieu of a closer alliance with Moscow. The CSTO requires members to get permission from other members before allowing foreign military bases on their soil, but now Uzbekistan is not bound by this clause, freeing Uzbekistan up to allow a U.S. base. There are concerns in Uzbekistan that a renewed U.S. presence in Uzbekistan could motivate the Taliban and other militants, including the IMU, to label Uzbekistan a U.S. “puppet” and provoke them to target Uzbekistan for its cooperation with the U.S. It remains unclear whether these concerns will override the possible economic benefits of the U.S. paying for basing rights and the ability of Karimov to use an alliance with the U.S. to ward off Russian influence in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
CONCLUSIONS: After having expended more than ten years worth of resources for the war effort in Afghanistan since October 2001, it would represent a failure for U.S. foreign policy if it left Central Asia without a way to maintain enduring high-level contacts to the governments in the region. The Transit Center at Manas had value not only in facilitating the war effort in Afghanistan, but also providing an avenue for U.S. engagement in Central Asia. After the Afghanistan War, there are likely to be many political, economic and social changes in Central Asia, but without a base in the region it will be difficult for the U.S. to exercise leadership to promote democratic values, economic integration regional security.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is a non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai, China and an Analyst of Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation.