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Old Saturday, January 12, 2008
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Default Nato’s Presence In Central Asian Region



The Central Asian region, which stood neglected in the US echelons of power, suddenly became very important for the West and US after 9/11 attacks. Central Asian geographical contiguity with the politically volatile Afghanistan made it a base for NATO forces to operate from in the war against terror in Afghanistan.

NATO became operational in Afghanistan under the aegis of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In October 2001, NATO commenced its first ever mission outside Europe. This operation was conducted mainly from coalition bases from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The presence of US and coalition forces in Central Asia has varied implications for the states of this region. The newly independent states of Central Asia exhibited relative political stability although economic progress is slow. While their greatest security threats are political repression, inequitable distribution of income, ethnic and tribal unrest, their leaders are more focussed on external threats such as hostile neighbours and the spill over of Islamic extremism especially from Afghanistan. In the presence of these potential threats, the Central Asian states welcomed US inclination for seeking their support in its military operations in Afghanistan for tactical manoeuvring of coalition forces. In return for rights given to NATO and US to establish bases, the Central Asian states were given bases revenue and even overflight charges.

However, the presence of NATO in the region is also being seen in the political light, as a tool for exerting influence, political as well as military, over the Central Asian states. Uzbekistan considered pressure from US over the ‘Andijan’ issue as an intrusion in its internal affairs. For example, Uzek President stated that,

“They want us to be obedient to them, making US feel like we are the accused.”

This paper seeks to discuss how the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a security oriented pact has more or less countered the NATO influence in Central Asian states and provided the states with an indigenous forum that is more trusted by them with regional giants Iran, China, Turkey and Russian as major stakeholders in it. Politically speaking, SCO has grown strong quite swiftly, much to the annoyance of the West and US. In a way, SCO can be seen as a means for containing the US and West expansionism in Central Asia.

Secondly, this paper also aims to signify how the Central Asian states feel threatened by the presence of coalition troops within their territories vis-à-vis their internal security. Moreover, the presence of NATO troops is often seen as an instrument of the West and the US for exerting political pressure on Central Asian leaders. SCO, on the other hand, is seen to be a more trusted regional forum.

NATO’s designs for long-term stay in Central Asia can be attributed to the Coalition forces’ quest for gaining control of Central Asian energy resources. Russia has also showed concern over this aspect of coalition forces’ presence in the region.

Western interest in Central Asia has grown substantially, spurred largely by the desire to exploit Caspian oil and gas resources and is reflected in the rapidly expanding presence and financial stake of Western oil companies in the Caspian Basin amid the growing perception that instability and conflict in the south Caucasus and Central Asia could have geopolitical reverberations on a much larger scale. The United States is now a major trade partner of several countries in the region and has played a more active role in trying to mediate ethnic disputes there. The leaders of Caspian states travel on regular basis to Washington and other Western capitals, where they are given royal treatment, and the leaders of all the countries in the former Soviet south attended NATO’s 50th anniversary Washington Summit. Indeed, the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that some observers now describe the Caspian Basin as an area of vital American and Western interest and put its energy potential in the same category as the Persian Gulf’s.

NATO’s Mission in Central Asia

NATO’s shift of emphasis to Central Asia and the Caucasus is also related to the Alliance responding to ever-greater security interests in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the wider Middle East. NATO member states are now deeply committed militarily in both Afghanistan and Iraq, generating greater interest in the wider Middle Eastern area. They have also operated military bases in Central Asia crucial to the campaign in Afghanistan. NATO is undergoing a profound transformation into an organisation whose main missions are collective security and crisis management and whose main centre of activity is increasingly located in the Muslim world. As such, plans exist to extend the Partnership for Peace to several countries in North Africa, possibly even Qatar.

Firstly, it is important to note that this is unlikely to entail NATO membership. Some states may eventually qualify for membership, but all have a long road of political and military reform ahead of them before that goal can be accomplished. Only Azerbaijan and Georgia have voiced aspirations of joining the alliance, and both have submitted Individual Partnership Action Plans, as has Uzbekistan. For the South Caucasus, deeper reform and positive moves toward democratic development and civilian control over armed forces could bring the regional states, that so desire. to the stage of Membership Action Plans in the next few years, a status that Albania and Macedonia already have. Many primarily European NATO members are not interested in expansion into the South Caucasus, however. If the South Caucasus, to many, seems too distant, the prospect of Central Asian states gaining membership in NATO is surely more remote.

To the countries of the region, NATO programmes of a wide variety have served to transform, over time, the overall regional security picture to welcoming the US sustained presence. This in itself increases security in these regions. Moreover, it accelerates military reform, while simultaneously having a positive effect in general on political development and accountability. Most importantly, through training programmes and participation in peacekeeping missions and exercises, PfP is helping to foster a new generation of military officers whose thinking differs markedly from the Soviet military mentality of their predecessors. NATO is evolving, as its composition, its activities, and the interests of its member states are all in flux. From being a defence pact, NATO has gradually turned into a security provider in Europe and its neighbourhood. NATO’s move into Central Asia and the South Caucasus is likely to further the security and stability of these regions perhaps most obviously so in the South Caucasus, where a considerable security deficit has persisted. However, now with the strengthening of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in the region Central Asian states seem to be politically and strategically more inclined towards indigenous strategic frameworks between them and China, Iran and Russia.4

NATO’s Infusion of Destabilisation in the Region

NATO has often been quoted by the West as a factor contributing to the stability of politically volatile Central Asian region. The reality, however, is somewhat contradictory.

Uzbek-NATO Relations

The Uzbek-NATO relations deteriorated from May 2005 after the Andijan blood shed. Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, in various statements termed US and Western criticism on Uzbek government as “intrusion into Uzbek internal affairs” and this led to eviction of US troops in December 2005 from Karshi-Kanabad base in Uzbekistan. US imposed economic sanctions over Uzbekistan and Uzbek citizens were denied Western and US visas. The situation remains the same between the two states.5

After the Uzbek government’s crackdown in Andijan in May 2005, NATO’s North Atlantic Council issued a statement condemning the reported use of excessive and disproportionate force by the Uzbek security forces, calling for an independent international inquiry. The Uzbek government responded by requiring US forces to vacate Uzbek military facilities and introduced restrictions on use of its territory and airspace by other Allies. The cooperation programme between NATO and Uzbekistan is currently limited to minor activities.

Kazakh-NATO partnership

Kazakhstan joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme in 1995. The principal stimuli to enhanced cooperation with the West in general terms, and the Alliance in specific areas, stemmed from the radically altered security environment in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11, September 2001. The subsequent deployment of US and coalition military forces into Central Asia, notably in Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz States, fostered a suitable political atmosphere in which Kazakhstan was able to promote the deepening of its relations with NATO without inviting the displeasure of Russia and China. Another key factor was Kazakhstan’s interest in supporting peace operations within Iraq in 2003. In this sense, Kazakhstan was emerging as a strong supporter of the international coalition against terrorism. In July 2003, NATO Secretary-General, Lord Robertson, visited Kazakhstan. Robertson particularly thanked President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan’s parliament for deciding to offer troops in support of post-war reconstruction in Iraq. This development signalled Astana’s commitment to its future cooperation with NATO, contributing to the stabilisation forces within Iraq, despite the international controversy that surrounded the US decision to attack Iraq. However, this is only a small part of the growing evidence that Astana has pursued a more pro-Western approach in its foreign policy and military affairs.6 Kazakhstan today is the best example of US-NATO- Central Asian cooperation which has developed an Individual Partnership Action Plan. Astana is cooperating actively with the Alliance on political and defence issues while also being host to Western coalition bases. Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev's prolonged authoritarian rule is also assumed to be supported by West and US among the common Kazakhs and regional states. The internal political instability is often ignored by the West due to Kazakh government’s pro-US and Western attitude.7

Tajik-NATO Ties

Cooperation between NATO and Tajikistan intensified in February 2002 when Tajikistan joined the Alliance’s Partnership for Peace programme. On 20 October 2004, NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, signed together with Tajik Foreign Minister, Talbak Nazarov, in Dushanbe a host nation support and transit agreement with Tajikistan in support of NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Tajikistan is the first Central Asian country to sign such an agreement with NATO. In Tajikistan, Islamic fundamentalists oppose pro-US governmental moves.8

Although Western states have camouflaged their presence in Central Asia under the garb of economic reforms, infusing true democracy and strategic development, the reality is quite opposite to this. NATO’s presence in the Central Asian states and its strong support for US and European multiple pipeline projects for the transit of oil and gas pipelines would lead to greater US involvement in the region. US encouragement of the EU and international institutions such as the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to become more actively engaged in developing the region’s oil and gas supplies, especially its infrastructure, legal framework, and technical expertise, is actually a plan for exerting US influence in the region widely.9

China’s Response to Sustained US Presence in the Region

China’s response to US expansionism is multi-dimensional in nature. China is increasingly becoming a dominant actor in trade and investments all across Central Asia. This is the case not only in steel and energy, but also in areas dominated by small and medium size enterprises. The rapid increase in Chinese investments and trade relations has opened up the borders between China and Central Asia and re-established the importance of the ancient Silk Route area for China. The implications of this are several, and of major concern for both China and the Central Asian states. The most obvious is the increased reliance the Central Asian states will have on Chinese investments and trade: a cut in Chinese investments or trade would be disastrous for the Central Asian states. As trade and investments from Russia decrease in importance and those from China increase, the political and economic focal point for Central Asia gradually shifts. On the strategic front, the latest SCO summit and coinciding military exercises have reasserted China’s increased military presence in the region as well. Military exercises under the aegis of SCO were conducted by some 6,500 troops from the organisation’s member states that consist of Russia and China, as well as the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The drill named ‘Peace Mission 2007’started in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on 9 August, 2007 and then moved on to Russia’s Chelyabinsk Oblast, where it concluded on 17 August, 2007. 10

Iran’s Relentless Efforts in Central Asia

Iran’s policy toward Central Asia evolved from a conservative and cautious attitude towards the newly independent states to a more assertive policy based on the role it would like to play in providing landlocked countries with gas and oil. Iran has from the beginning played down the ideological dimension of this issue. The main aim of Iranian foreign policy has been to prevent the United States and the Turks and Saudis to fill the vacuum left by the fall of the Soviet Union. Iran never thought that it could fill the vacuum itself. It played the Russian card through a North-South strategic axis, Moscow-Erevan-Tehran, as opposed the East-West axis of Washington-Ankara-Baku-Tashkent. The competition between the different pipelines mirrors the tussle between the two axis: East-West for the Americans Trans-Caspian, Baku, Georgia, Turkey, North-East for Moscow and Tehran-Baku-Novorossisk and CPC for Russia, connection with the Iranian networks to the Oman-Gulf for Iran.

Iran has close trade links with the geographically contiguous Central Asian states and it has established a strong hold in the Central Asian markets as well. It is seen as a countering power to US and Western expansionism be it economic or strategic. Iran and China are also cooperating closely despite ideological differences to shun the Western influence from this energy-rich region. Iran has been expanding its ties mainly with Turkmenistan but also with Tajikistan. Trade has increased between the countries and Tehran has heavily invested in Tajikistan’s transport and communication infrastructure. Iranian officials have on many occasions expressed their will to further strengthen relations with Central Asian states. Iran’s increased links with these states are viewed as a threat by US forces stationed in politically volatile Afghanistan as the Central Asian region is the one in which China, Russia, Iran and US operate in close proximity. Moreover, Iran has established a strong cultural and economic hold in the western Afghanistan province of Heart.11

Russia Rebuilding Partnerships

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s interests in Central Asia were mainly related to security concerns. These were two-fold: first, to integrate the Central Asian states in the CIS sphere and make them into close allies and second, to deny external powers strategic access to Central Asia. Beyond those concerns, the two organisations created by Russia (CIS and Shanghai Forum) were also focusing on the following security issues: drug trafficking, regional conflicts and the region’s role as a buffer to Islamic extremism. At the same time, they were intended to counterbalance the increasing ties being made by Central Asian states with western powers such as the U.S. and with NATO. Russia felt these ties undermined its pre-eminent position in the region. However, mistrusting Russian intentions and desiring to assert an independent identity, Central Asian states have not embraced these initiatives as wholeheartedly as Russia would have liked and continued to cement their ties with western powers, in the form of schemes such as the NATO Partnership for Peace Programme. By the late 1990s, Russia’s previously influential role as the regional security provider was being eroded, as economic decline and demands by Central Asian states forced it to reduce its security presence in the region. While Russian border troops still defend CIS borders in Tajikistan, they were largely phased out in Kyrgyzstan in 1999 (some 100 Russian advisors remain, deployed along the Kyrgyz-Chinese border). In late 1999, the last group of military advisors left Turkmenistan. In 1999, Uzbekistan withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty. At the same time NATO was expanding its operations in the region.

In view of this altered strategic configuration in the region, the foreign policy concept of the Russian Federation of June 2000 signaled a change in strategy in Central Asia. In re-emphasising the growing western influence in the region (in the form of ties with Western states and western-based military cooperation), it calls for a focus on bilateral tactical agreements alongside the traditional multilateral approach. This, it believes, will stem from the growing tide of western influence intent on undermining Russian national interest. In general, the concept introduced a more active interest in the region than had been the case in previous years. President Putin underlined this by making Central Asian states the destination of his first foreign visits. Russia now seems to be rebuilding its partnerships with the Central Asian states. Central Asian governments are more welcoming to Russia, a regional giant that still stands connected culturally, politically and economically to the five Central Asian Statess.


Politically volatile, economically weak and rich in energy resources, Central Asian states provide the best opportunity for the world and regional powers to play from. Western bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are often viewed as permanent US posts in the region. The citizens of these states have anti-US and anti-Western sentiments and see their countries as becoming hostage to US hegemony. However, their governments remain ally to US except in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s relations with US are still strained. Economic and political sanctions are still intact on Uzbekistan and Uzbek exports have suffered the most from the economic embargo.13 The US has lost its basing rights in Tajikistan; has been booted out of Karshi-Khanabad; and the Kyrgyz Parliament is considering shuttering Manas. Russia, meanwhile, has only enhanced its strength in the region, reinforcing Kant and holding discussions with Turkmenistan about possibly returning to facilities there. Russia currently has 25 bases beyond its borders, mostly radar tracking stations. Eleven are in Central Asian States — four in Kazakhstan, five in Kyrgyzstan and two in Tajikistan. The Pentagon, by contrast, maintains over 800 foreign military bases, but it now seems that it will lose its sole remaining Central Asian base in Kyrgyzstan. NATO is viewed as a prestigious organisation if its strategic and political ventures are conducted independently and de-linked with US expansionism.


* Strategic Studies Journal
* The writer, Ms. Mehwish Hassan Sara is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.
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