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Central Asian ambitions

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

The Bush administration's military and diplomatic blueprint for Central Asia alarms even some of its allies.

BEFORE the United States-led "war on terrorism" started in early October, the Bush administration had obtained permission from the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for base facilities for U.S. troops. Russia and China had no objections to the temporary use of the bases for what was generally thought would be a short war against the Taliban militia in Afghanistan. The U.S. had then assured Russia that it would wind up the bases once the Taliban was wiped out and a friendly government was installed in Kabul. But it is now clear that the Bush administration had long-term military plans for the region - as many people had predicted.

Senior officials and diplomats in Moscow had warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against trusting Washington too much in the aftermath of September 11. Moscow was evidently lulled into complacency by repeated statements from top U.S. officials that Russian strategic interests in the region would not be harmed and that Washington continued to acknowledge that Central Asia was in the Russian sphere of influence.

In order to underline further his credentials as a staunch ally of Bush, Putin announced the unilateral withdrawal of Russia from the important military facility it had in Cuba. Simultaneously, Moscow decided in October to withdraw from the Cam Ranh naval base in Vietnam. This decision was an expected one as the base was of little strategic importance given the diminished role of the Russian Navy, but the electronic listening centre in Lourdes is said to have provided Moscow with 75 per cent of its intelligence on the U.S.

Instead of showing reciprocity, Washington reacted by walking out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, increasing its defence budget dramatically and preparing the ground to set up a ring of military bases in Central Asia. Indications are that the Bush administration is getting ready for another war, in tune with "the doctrine of perpetual war" being propounded by the Pentagon currently. In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush identified the next set of enemies, making it clear that the war on terrorism was not over yet. Top on the current U.S. list are Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

The Saudi Arabian government has asked for the winding up of American bases on its territory. The U.S. presence there has deeply hurt the sensitivities of the Saudi people. The ouster of U.S. troops from Saudi territory was accorded the highest priority by Osama bin Laden in his statements and interviews before he disappeared from the radar screen. The loss of Saudi bases would hamper U.S. efforts to wage new wars in the region. This is one of the reasons why Washington is keen to set up new, permanent military bases in Central Asia.

THE other important reason is that the region has one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in the world, much of it still untapped. There are billions of dollars to be made in the laying of oil and gas pipeline projects. One of the pipelines that could be expedited is the one from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, passing through Afghanistan. The U.S. wants to extend this to India. The former Taliban Ambassador to Islamabad had said that the war in Afghanistan was waged not to catch Osama bin Laden but for the oil and gas resources of the region. Some American commentators are of the opinion that the presence of the U.S. military in Central Asia is directly linked to the interests of American big business.

China has reasons to feel threatened with the growing American military presence in the region as the Central Asian republics share borders with it. The hawks in the Bush administration and several leading think tanks in the U.S. have identified China as a looming threat to U.S.' superpower status. Observers say that the U.S. has started the second "Great Game", one in which it has substituted Britain. The main rivals this time will be Russia, China and Iran. The prize: total control of the Central Asian energy resources.

Even the U.S.' allies are alarmed by the Bush administration's attempt at global overreach. Only New Delhi and Islamabad seem to be unperturbed about the U.S.' military blueprint for Asia. Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf and his senior officials have at least not articulated their opinions openly about the U.S.' military and diplomatic moves. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh told U.S. journalists in late January that New Delhi was not averse to the U.S. presence in Central Asia. "I don't think that America can give up its Central Asian presence now.... You will be criticised. The presence troubles Russia and China," he said. For good measure, he added that the U.S. troops should stay on in Pakistan.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who was in New Delhi in the first week of February, called for closer cooperation among Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi. With the dramatic growth in the U.S. presence in the region, there was a new sense of urgency for triangular cooperation, which was also shared by Beijing, he said. New Delhi tried to put Ivanov's proposal on the back-burner. But Russia's persistence seems to have worked to the extent that before Ivanov's departure, the Foreign Office signalled that India was willing to work "slowly and steadily" towards the goal of triangular cooperation.

Reports appearing in influential sections of the U.S. media have said that the Pentagon has started working on the physical infrastructure of a military presence in Central Asia "that could last for years". American military engineers are constructing an air base in Kyrgyztan and improving base facilities in Uzbekistan and Pakistan. The U.S. decision to deploy 3,000 troops in Kyrgyztan came after the war in Afghanistan was virtually over. Over 1,500 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Uzbekistan. The country has been granted $160 million in aid, evidently for supporting the military action.

UZBEK President Islam Karimov, in the meantime, conducted a referendum in late January, which extended his term of office by another two years. According to the government in Tashkent, 91 per cent of the voters approved the change in the Constitution although local Opposition and human rights groups have a different story to tell. Washington which otherwise keeps a hawk's eye on human rights abuses and undemocratic acts by authoritarian governments in the region, preferred to give Karimov a free hand, for obvious reasons.

U.S. officials say that the new bases will be able to accommodate F-15 multi-role fighters. The Manas air base in Kyrgyztan has the longest runway in the region. Before the war on Afghanistan started, the U.S. had explained that the bases were needed to stage air attacks and plan logistics.

In fact, U.S. diplomatic activity in the region has increased. There has been a flurry of high-level visits to the region. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, while on a visit to Tashkent in January, said that the U.S. would build up its presence in the region in order to further the country's interests. The American presence would be a "long-term" one, he said.

Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the U.S. Central Command (Centcom) chief, tried to allay the fears in the region by stating that the U.S. had "not at all made any long-term arrangements for a presence either in Uzbekistan or in any of the other states in Central Asia". Franks was touring the region in late January. He told mediapersons in Tashkent that while the U.S. did not intend to have permanent military bases in the region, it would have a military presence "in certain places for certain periods of time". Another senior U.S. official, Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, Director of Public Affairs, Central Command, tried to give a spin to the issue. He told the media in Tashkent that the U.S. had "no intention" to establish a chain of permanent military bases throughout Central Asia but added that a time-limit had not been set for U.S. deployment because the war on terrorism was not over.

The Americans have replaced the Russians as the new trainers of the Kyrgyz army and special military units, after the two countries signed an agreement during Gen. Franks' visit. According to Russian military experts, the way the U.S. expanded the Khanabad airport in Uzbekistan indicated that its troops are preparing for a long stay.