NATO airbase in Kyrgyzstan: Leaving or staying
Referring to deterioration of the situation in his country, President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai asked his Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiyev to permit NATO to retain its airbase at Manas. The request appeared several months after the decision to have the counter-terrorism coalition shut down its airbase voted by the parliament of Kyrgyzstan and endorsed by its president.
What is Manas airbase about - war on terrorism or geopolitical influence? How come Karzai made his request now and not in March or April? Were there covert talks between Washington and Bishkek in the interim? Is there a chance that the decision to see the last of the airbase will be reevaluated?
For comments, Ferghana.Ru approached prominent political scientists, experts, and specialists in Central Asia.
Alexander Ignatenko, President of the Institute of Religion and Politics, attributed the request from Karzai to the fact that the Americans were now shifting the center of their military operations in the Larger Middle East from Iraq to the Afghani-Pakistani zone and probably even Iran. "Operations in Iraq are supplied from the military bases on the Arabian Peninsula. Infrastructure of supplies of the actions in the Afghani-Pakistani zone in the meantime is thoroughly under-developed. Besides, the Americans are loath to fight in the Persian Gulf whatever the turn of events in the Larger Middle East. They know that the Persian Gulf will be closed in this case, and oil traffic from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other monarchies will become history in no time at all. Manas will recompense for the shortage of the logistics infrastructure on the one hand and draw the attention and potential retaliation of whoever the United States and its NATO allies fight or will fight yet. The Americans reckon that they will rather lose Manas to this retaliation than risk the Persian Gulf."
"That Karzai's request was engineered by the Americans and NATO, and some Arab countries as well, goes without saying. And by they way, as far as the Larger Middle East is concerned, the Americans are not the only ones whose actions should be taken into account. It is also necessary to take into account the actions of the Arab countries themselves because they are inevitably involved in whatever is happening in the region. A contingent from the United Arab Emirates participated in NATO's exercise in Georgia in May. How large it was remains to be seen yet," Ignatenko said.
"Is it possible that the Kyrgyzes will reconsider?" Ignatenko added. "If I were in their shoes, I'd have thought twice before reevaluating my decision."
Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center suggested that Karzai's letter signified existence of some sort of a covert game between the United States, Russia, Afghanistan, and Central Asian countries. "Who else could suggest the idea to retain the airbase in the first place?" Malashenko said. "Obama? No way. Putin? Forget it. Bakiyev? That would have been odd... A request from Karzai on the other hand is a perfect solution - particularly at the moment when we all feel for the long-suffering Afghanistan. It is a way for the counter-terrorism coalition to retain Manas and for Russia to save face. I suspect that we will be told next week that "Moscow sympathizes with Karzai's initiative", that it should be given thought to... This is the covert game that was inevitable to make sure that both parties will be pleased."
Malashenko said, "I believe that withdrawal of the airbase from Manas will be postponed now to give decision-makers time "to consider" whether to leave it alone or not. And while this process of "considering" is under way, the airbase will remain where it is. Should the American imperialists attack... let's say Armenia, then Russia will reevaluate its decision again. For the time being, however, it will probably choose to meet Karzai halfway."
Ajdar Kurtov, an expert with the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, suggested several hypotheses explaining Karzai's initiative. "First, we should remember the forthcoming presidential election in Afghanistan. Karzai needs political mileage - and lots of it. The Afghani population gets increasingly more dissatisfied with the presence of occupiers... not even the presence as such but the incidents that happen practically every day when the Americans bomb and strike at peaceful settlement and kill noncombatants rather than the Talibs. Karzai is compelled to emulate activeness and pretend to be a promoter of Afghani interests rather than a puppet of the US Administration. As a matter of fact, it was not Karzai's first initiative in his personal PR campaign. He had already asked the Americans once to decide how long they intended to stay. I suspect that the letter (to Bakiyev - Ferghana.Ru) is a link of the same chain. Karzai is trying to present himself as an active politician in dealing with Afghani problems and, also importantly, as a politician well-connected abroad. Appeal to the Kyrgyz leader fits this pattern perfectly, because it is a combination of promotion of Afghani interests and presentation of Karzai as a politician of international caliber."
"The second hypothesis stipulates a connection with the US policy," Kurtov continued. "Obama's Administration is looking for new ways, new tactics, and new strategies both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Consider his latest statement in public when he said that the Americans intended to revise their relations with the Islamic world, that he recognized the Palestinians' right to a state of their own and Iran's right to peaceful atom. This statement is proof that Obama is trying to strengthen the United States' positions in the Arab world differently from how George W. Bush used to do it. It is proof that Obama does not want to rely on sheer strength of arms anymore and aspires to find understanding in this part of the world. It will be wrong therefore to rule out the possibility of a connection between Karzai's initiative and this new policy of the US Administration. At the very least, it will benefit the United States to have leaders of the Moslem states to reach mutual understanding and develop a system (develop it on their own, that is) the Americans will find to their liking. As a matter of fact, it may even be a system run by the Americans themselves - indirectly, through some mechanism or other."
"Whether or not the Kyrgyz decide to go for it is impossible to say at this point," Kurtov said. "I already said it in an interview with Ferghana.Ru a couple of months ago: it might be a smart and wily combination, something camouflaged by high-flown diplospeak needed to enable the Kyrgyz leadership to execute a U-turn and reevaluate its own decision. It will do so with references to humanitarian values (as opposed to the latest developments) which is what Karzai's letter is about, by the way."
"I believe that the Americans need this airbase in any case - both for the operations in Afghanistan and, in a broader geopolitical sense, as their bulwark in the post-Soviet Central Asia. All these disputes in the media have gone too far. Very many will take the Americans' withdrawal as another defeat."
RIA-Novosti expert Sanobar Shermatova pointed out that exposure of Karzai's letter to general public revealed the agenda of the future confidential talks. She said it was indicative of at least two things. "First, continued US military presence in Kyrgyzstan is a settled matter. Had the Kyrgyzes been of the mind to turn down the request, they would never have published the content of Karzai's letter. They would have advised Kabul by diplomatic channels of their determination be through with the American airbase and given their reasons, so that the correspondence between the two presidents would have been knowledge restricted to only a few."
"Since it never happened, the inescapable conclusion is that Bishkek prepares general public for a turn of the official position on the matter," Shermatova said.
"Kyrgyzstan admitted its willingness to participate in the stabilization efforts in Afghanistan more than once. It couldn't help persuading experts that seeing the Americans gone from Manas was really the last thing the Kyrgyz leadership wanted. US officials kept saying that negotiations over Manas continued. The Kyrgyzes denied it on every occasion, but all of that left the impression of an intricate game under way. The only question was how the players planned to finish it without smearing their repute."
"The Americans stopped saying that they could do without Manas long ago. Their motives are clear: retaining the already existing base is better than moving it elsewhere when there is a major military operation to be prepared for. But how will the Kyrgyz leadership explain the permit to the Americans to remain in this country after completion of all official procedures, decision of the parliament, and Bakiyev's official statement? It takes some valid reason indeed to enable them to back out of it without loss of face," Shermatova continued.
According to Shermatova, exactly how it would be pulled off was clear now. "The Kyrgyz leadership will explain to the people and the international community that official Bishkek is turning a sympathetic ear to the Afghani people and not to the Americans at all. Bakiyev once referred to stabilization in Afghanistan as a reason behind the decision to show the Americans the door. As it turned out, however, stabilization was not to be accomplished overnight, and help from the sisterly Kyrgyz nation was needed. And Kyrgyz nation was happy to offer it, of course."
The expert did not expect the terms of the permission to the Americans to remain in Kyrgyzstan to be revealed in full. She assumed that some of them would remain clandestine.
Shermatova said, "These days, diplomatic efforts of Obama's Administration are focused on organization of transit to the military contingents in Afghanistan. Whatever other geopolitical objectives Washington has in Central Asia (apart from Afghanistan, that is), it keeps them close to the chest for the time being. It is clear meanwhile that whenever gas export routes are concerned, Washington's position is polar to Russia's. Moscow is determined to remain the only buyer of gas from Central Asian countries while Washington is interested in organization of new export routes bypassing the Russian territory. As for any larger geopolitical objectives in Central Asia, the United States either has none or plays mum's the word."
International observer Arkady Dubnov (Vremya Novostei) suggested in his turn that "... it was not Karzai asking Bakiyev; it was the Americans asking Karzai to ask Bakiyev. Moreover, Bakiyev himself asked the Americans to do it in this manner. The letter from Karzai inflates Bakiyev's ego as a sovereign leader who, as is well known, made the decision to tell the Americans to pull out in the first place "entirely" on his own."
Dubnov suggested that Karzai's letter was forwarded to Bakiyev on the eve of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit deliberately. "Karzai will probably be invited to attend it as a guest again, so that the summit will enable all involved parties to exchange flowery Oriental rhetorics. That the Kyrgyzes will let the Americans stay is a foregone conclusion. The Americans need this base. Whenever someone invests a great deal of funds, efforts, and nerves in a business, abandoning it afterwards is always difficult. Selling it is impossible, establishing an analog difficult... The choice therefore is between rearrangement of shares or another emission. Businessmen as they are, the Americans chose the former option. The Kyrgyzes will be getting more for the base now. I made a trip to Afghanistan not long ago and I saw with my own eyes the scope of nonmilitary deliveries to this country. It is clear that the Americans need Manas airbase to supply their own and other Western contingents in Afghanistan."
Andranik Derenikjan, chief of the expert group of the Association of Frontier Cooperation, agreed that the Americans were likely to retain the military base in Kyrgyzstan. He said NATO representatives had consulted with the Kyrgyz government and Karzai's letter as promoting American interests indeed. "It was predictable," Derenikjan said. "Bakiyev's decision in February gave the Americans six months. They did everything to retain the base which they need for their military contingent in Afghanistan. And that the initiative comes from Karzai merely indicates that all of that was orchestrated by Washington."