7 July 2005
China and Russia up the ante in Central Asia
SCO asks the U.S. to set deadline for withdrawal of its forces
ASTANA: The strategic stakes in the Eurasian heartland have risen substantially with Tuesday's call by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation for the United States to set a deadline by which it will pull out its military forces from the region.
"We support and will support the international coalition, which is carrying out an anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan, and we have taken note of the progress made in the effort to stabilise the situation," the six-nation SCO said in a declaration issued at the end of its summit here.
Right after these words of praise came the kick: "As the active military phase in the anti-terror operation in Afghanistan is nearing completion, the SCO would like the coalition's members to decide on the deadline for the use of the temporary infrastructure and for their military contingents' presence in those countries."
In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. established a military presence in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, besides using air bases in Pakistan as a jumping point for its operations against the Taliban. Despite having the run of Afghanistan now, the U.S. still maintains a huge air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan with as many as 1,200 military personnel, mostly from rapid deployment units. When Manas is fully completed, it will be able to accommodate upwards of 3,000 troops. In addition, the U.S. has been using the Karshi-Khanabad airfield in south-eastern Uzbekistan since late 2001, though it has not managed to convince the Islam Karimov Government to convert its temporary permission to operate from there into a permanent arrangement of the kind it has in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan, in any case, is also growing weary of the U.S. presence: a day after Tuesday's summit in Astana, Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva once again reiterated the SCO's call for Washington to specify when it will leave the region.
Indian officials, who were present at the SCO summit as observers, told The Hindu that Tuesday's plenary session got delayed as the language for the demand to ask the U.S. forces to leave the region was debated by the six member-countries for more than an hour.
The reference to coalition forces was made largely at the instance of Russia, which considers the U.S. military presence in Central Asia a threat to its own interests in the region. China, which is equally wary of the permanent stationing of U.S troops and airplanes in its neighbourhood, backed the Russian proposal enthusiastically, as did Uzbekistan.
Mr. Karimov, who was a close ally of the U.S. in the initial stages of the `war on terror', has drawn closer to Moscow of late fearing Washington's attempts to destabilise his Government. He signed a pact for strategic cooperation with Russia last year and followed it up this April by pulling out of a U.S.-backed grouping of the former Soviet republics linking Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Moldova (GUAAM). Last month's events in Andijan — where a popular uprising against his Government was suppressed with excessive use of force — unnerved Mr. Karimov. Though evidence suggests the protests were home-grown, the Uzbek strongman is convinced that Washington is out to overthrow him. Getting the SCO to ask for the U.S. forces to leave the region is a safe way of telling the Bush administration that it is no longer welcome to use Uzbek territory.
For the U.S., the SCO's call to set a timetable for the withdrawal of its forces from the region is a clear indication of the emerging political realities in Asia. Even though the war in Afghanistan has drawn down considerably, and the U.S. has no problem basing as many troops and planes in that country as it likes, it needs to maintain its presence in Central Asia at all costs.
Under the `Rumsfeld doctrine', the emphasis of the U.S. military strategy is less on large bases with tens of thousands of troops than on the forward deployment of small but highly mobile expeditionary or rapid reaction forces. In the Pentagon's Global Posture Review announced last year, the emphasis was on "capabilities" rather sheer numbers. The Manas air base and others like it are meant to serve as "lily pads" from which troops may be "leap-frogged" to nearby trouble-spots at a moment's notice.
In the event of a larger intended military engagement in the extended neighbourhood, these bases could also serve as way stations for additional forces and equipment lifted directly from the continental United States.
Russia and China know that the U.S. wants bases in Central Asia for reasons quite unconnected to the ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
Their joint statement last week on the new world order, their emphasis on a new security concept for Asia and now, their getting the SCO to call for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region, all suggest a sharpening of contradictions between the world's major power centres.
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