U.S. Military Base In Uzbekistan Would Destabilize Region
May 22, 2013
Uzbek quest for US weapons could dent Central Asia
2014 is approaching, and so is the deadline for the withdrawal of US-led coalition forces from Afghanistan. Leon Panetta, the then-US Defense Secretary, in 2012 announced that by the end of 2014 coalition forces would cease any combat operations and would be limited to normal military duties in the country. Moreover, [Afghan President] Hamid Karzai, in a recent interview, gave approval to allowing nine US military bases even after the pullout.
With the United States wary of transporting heavy weaponry out of Afghanistan, offers have been made by the Central Asian states, such as Uzbekistan, in return for some of the latest arms and equipment that they lack. According to a report by The New York Times, policy makers in Washington took Uzbekistan’s offer so seriously that the United States has partially lifted a set of arms sales restrictions that has been in place for about a decade.
Last year, in June, reports started to surface that Uzbekistan that faces international arms embargoes due to widespread human rights violations, started negotiations for a possible arms-transit and military base deal with the USA, that would help the coalition forces take its equipment out of Afghanistan, whereas Tashkent would benefit by acquiring the state-of-the-art weaponry. Kazakhstan’s newspaper Liter, on August 15 last year, predicted that a possible deal for a US base in Uzbekistan could be reached when US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake visited Tashkent.
Uzbekistan, for long has been indicating shifting its alliances and partners. One of such indications was its withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military cooperation initiative between Russia and Central Asian states [as well as Armenia and Belarus]. It would have been difficult for Tashkent to enter into military negotiations with the United States if it were a member of the CSTO, but abandoning the CSTO freed it from coming under any pressure.
In terms of geostrategic importance, the most feasible gateway for cargo withdrawal is Pakistan, yet it seems that the coalition forces want as many alternatives as possible, such as Uzbekistan, in case Islamabad decides to go against its deals with NATO and close the NATO supply line, or even ask for more money.
Such a move by Uzbekistan would mean it wants to turn its back on Russia, a neighbour that supports much of the Uzbek workforce. Russia, even after the Soviet disintegration, has maintained a substantial influence over some of the Central Asian states, but this influence has mostly been in the form of mutual cooperation and better relations.
In another move, NATO’s representative for Central Asia James Appathurai held meetings with Uzbek ministers in March this year, in what seemed to be a move to gain Uzbek support against Russia.
James Appathurai, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy and NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, in Uzbekistan on March 27, 2013
If the United States is successful in establishing a military base in Uzbekistan, it would entail bad political consequences, and hence play a role in destabilising not only Central Asia, but also South Asia, as the anti-US sentiment and motivation for radical Islamists could fuel a wave of militancy that could also spill over into Russia, one of the most important states in the region. Such concerns were raised by a Russian military expert, Lt Gen Leonid Sazhin¸ saying, “Although Americans claims that they are fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan today, it will be them who, by deploying their facility in Uzbekistan, will lead Taliban members there.”
A base in Uzbekistan, that neighbours Afghanistan, could also be used for surgical strikes, and even drone attacks, into neighbouring Afghanistan, that could also raise major human rights concerns and sour relations with Kabul.
If the United States is successful in establishing a fully operational base in Uzbekistan, this would also worry China, another regional power, as it has already shown concerns over the bases surrounding it, known as the ‘ring of fire’. In any case, Uzbekistan needs to decide whether such a venture would be beneficial for the country and the region or will bring chaos in the long run.
The writer is a Programme consultant and Content Editor at the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad, belonging to Frontier Region of Pakistan. He is currently pursuing his higher Studies in Public Policy and Conflict Management in Germany. He tweets as @faruqyusaf and can be reached at email@example.com