Uzbekistan, key to Afghan war drawdown, to ban foreign military bases

Uzbekistan, which is seeking closer ties to the US, may have made the move in a bid to ease concerns of China and Russia, which are both dominant actors in Central Asia. 

Today, Uzbekistan’s upper house of parliament approved a new bill banning any foreign military bases on its territory in what appears to be an effort to appease regional power Moscow.

The bill still has to be signed by Uzbekistan’s president. But it appears to quash growing rumors that Tashkent may allow the US to open a military base in Uzbekistan to replace the major air base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which is due to close in 2014. It also raises questions about Uzbekistan’s support of the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan

The proposed bill will have an impact on US-Uzbekistan military cooperation, says Joshua Foust, an expert on Central Asia. "Uzbekistan has never been friends with the US per se. And this decision can be explained by Uzbekistan's desire not to be portrayed as an American puppet," he says.

Uzbekistan left the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-dominated post-Soviet security alliance, in June. Because CSTO members cannot host a foreign base without consent from the rest of the members many interpreted Uzbekistan’s decision as a step forward to open a US base there. The growing number of visits to Tashkent by US diplomats and high profile state officials seemed to support this view. 

Moscow has been expressing concern over Uzbekistan’s rapprochement with the US, and Russian media have been publishing reports about the “New Great Game,” a struggle for the influence in Central Asia.

“Uzbekistan should analyze all repercussions of widening military cooperation with the US,” reported Russia’s popular daily newspaper Kommersant. Regional media reported that the reason for US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake’s visit to Tashkent earlier this month was aimed at securing an agreement on a US base there.

Though Secretary Blake told journalists that the US had no intention of opening a military base in Uzbekistan, his statement didn’t stop speculation.

Uzbekistan hosted an American air base in Karshi Khanabad after 9/11.  But when the Bush administration criticized the government after the Andijan massacre in 2005, where Uzbek National Security Service troops fired into a group of protesters killing at least 187 people, the Uzbek government demanded the US vacate the base. 

Warming relations with the US

What has happened since then has puzzled and angered human rights activists: Relations between the West and Uzbekistan have steadily improved, and all sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan after 2005 have been lifted one by one, despite its poor human rights record.  

One possible reason is that the West has been increasingly dependent on Uzbekistan’s support of the war in Afghanistan. When Pakistan closed the main NATO supply route in November, the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a route that relies on Uzbekistan, took up the slack – about 75 percent of all non-lethal cargo was shipped through the NDN supply route mostly via Uzbekistan.  And though the NATO supply route was reopened this summer, a significant portion of materiel is expected to exit Afghanistan via Uzbekistan.  

However, it appears as though this new foreign policy decision is aimed at appeasing Moscow, says Sanat Kushkumbaev from the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies. 

“Uzbekistan didn’t make public the entire document, only some bits including the part on foreign bases. This only shows that Uzbekistan is trying to send a message to Russia and its neighbors that Tashkent is not going to make a U-turn and host US bases on its territory.”

Russia is an important trade partner, and its political influence in Central Asia is very strong, so the latest move could simply be Uzbekistan attempting to balance its relationship with Russia.

Still, it does raise some questions on the future of Tashkent’s military cooperation with the US and NATO. 

May not be what it seems

Experts say it will take some time to see what the ban will mean in practice. Some say the ban on foreign bases might not affect any current contracts with the US. Some observers even suggest that Uzbekistan may still consider hosting a base, but use another name for it and point to the case of the Manas base, which was renamed as a Transit Center after the Kyrgyz government threatened to close it.

Some observers say the new bill may actually signal that Tashkent wants to negotiate the price of its services as Kyrgzstan did in 2009. It may also be looking to raise the fee for the transit of goods going to and from Afghanistan via NDN.  This supply route is already proving to be costly and according to the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, in comparison to the Pakistani route, each truck shipped via NDN costs about $10,000 more. 

Tashkent-based political analyst Farkhod Tolipov says Uzbekistan's ban is in an effort to prevent militarization in the region. "Any new base will only lead to a geopolitical competition."

But ultimately, he says, "Uzbekistan wants to portray itself as an independent actor in international relations and respond to all sorts of rumors around its foreign policy [including] the US base."

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