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The Battle of the Bases in Central Asia, CU Issue 45, August 31, 2009

After the excitement over the Manas base in February – when analysts queued up to speculate on the reasons for, and the significance of, Kyrgyzstan’s decision to evict US forces from their airbase in the country – interest in the region’s geopolitical and military contest has receded. But recent events are potentially more significant than Manas (which, in any case, is still operating after an increase in rent payments by the US (Eurasianet, August 12)).

There are two, related aspects to the latest story, and Uzbekistan is central to both of them. The first is the sharp increase in the number of attacks by Islamist insurgents in southern Central Asia. In May, a suicide bomber detonated in Uzbekistan’s eastern city of Andijon, shortly after an attack on a police checkpoint in the nearby Khanabad district (BBC News, May 26). In July, a series of gun battles in the south east of Tajikistan killed a former Emergency Minister and several militants, whilst the capital Dushanbe was hit by a number of small bombs.

The battles against militants have been complicated by the mutual suspicion between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In particular, Tashkent regularly blames weak Kyrgyz border security measures for allowing insurgents to cross into Uzbek territory. Mutual accusations, often that insurgents are citizens of another state or have entered from another’s territory, are rife. An increase in militant attacks inevitably increases the level of cross-border tension, especially around the heavily populated Ferghana Valley, where the borders of all three countries intersect.

Militant attacks also lead regional states to justify harsh border measures. Uzbekistan has a history of this: it mined and fortified its border with Kyrgyzstan in 2000 after a similar spate of terrorist attacks. In June 2009, it dug a series of ditches, up to 3 metres deep, and built a long wall, which reached 5 metres in height – all constructed unilaterally and without Kyrgyzstan’s consent (Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, July 1). A checkpoint in a disputed sector of the Tajik-Uzbek border was also set up in early June, restricting the movement of Tajik farmers. As of August 28, Tashkent has also sealed its border with Kyrgyzstan for two weeks (RFE/RL, August 28).

The economic impact of such border closures is devastating for the rich agricultural region of the Ferghana Valley. Farmers and traders – Kyrgyz and Uzbek – are restricted in travelling to their farms, homes and businesses, and are forced to bribe their way through the barriers (Eurasianet, August 13). Although the closures are temporary, they have the effect of creating a Central Asian version of the Israel-occupied West Bank: choked with checkpoints and barriers. Hostility between the three states of the Ferghana Valley is bound to rise in such circumstances, especially given the Valley’s diverse ethnic mix.

The answer to militant incursions would logically be to increase intelligence-sharing mechanisms and improve the coordination of security forces. But Central Asia – and Uzbekistan in particular - has always found regional cooperation rather difficult. A recent spat between Moscow and Tashkent poses serious questions about the future of regional cooperation, and is the second aspect of the latest story.

Uzbekistan is increasingly concerned about the newly announced rapid-reaction forces (RRF) of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the post-Soviet security bloc of which Uzbekistan has been an occasional member and a frequent critic. The Russian-dominated RRF, which was formally agreed in February, has concerned Uzbekistan and Belarus. Both states fear that the force could be used to intervene against them – the new unit is designed for settling internal conflicts on CSTO member-state soil.

Russia’s recent agreement with Kyrgyzstan to open a new CSTO base in Osh, near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, has seriously alarmed Uzbekistan, which claimed that Russian forces in the region "may lead to the strengthening of militarization and provoke various kinds of nationalist struggles" (AFP, August 3). Fearing a heavy Russian military presence just across the border, which would also constrain its regional ambitions, it has reacted with a base of its own, in Khanabad (RFE/RL, August 26).

Antagonism at the strategic level could inflame the tensions at the local level. Border clashes between villages and security forces are common, as are direct confrontations between border guards and – as noted – unilateral, aggressive security measures. A significant clash, in which armed forces on either the Uzbek or Kyrgyz side are killed, could easily occur. The current level of tension would almost certainly lead to increased militarisation on both sides, and though the idea of a Russian-led CSTO campaign to oust Uzbek President Islam Karimov is currently a paranoid fantasy, a crisis in relations between Moscow and Tashkent is very plausible. 

This would not only limit the effectiveness of the CSTO, from which Uzbekistan would probably withdraw. In such case Uzbekistan would seek a close cooperation with the US and NATO which was spoiled after the Andijon massacre in 2005. The relations between Tashkent and Bishkek, which Uzbekistan already views as a Trojan horse for Russia’s military ambitions, could also be poisoned. By diverting attention away from the genuine and growing threat of Islamist insurgents operating in the south of Central Asia from Afghanistan, this ‘battle of the bases’ would expose the CSTO’s original mission – to fight terrorism and separatist groups – as an empty cloak for military grandstanding.

Moscow’s aggressive deployment of the RRF, without consensus and without consulting Uzbekistan, has worsened tensions. So has Tashkent’s militarisation and counter-productive sealing of its Kyrgyz border. A deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan needs a strong, united and cooperative region, not suspicion and unilateral measures. The last thing the government in Kabul, the US, and Central Asia itself need is a military stand-off to Afghanistan’s north.

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