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ASIA: U.S. Military Bases in Central Asia

Author: Lionel Beehner
July 26, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What is the status of the U.S. military bases in Central Asia?

The United States maintains two bases in Central Asia, one each in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, for its postwar operations in Afghanistan. A regional group led by Russia and China has pressured the United States to remove its forces from Central Asia. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in response to recent political tension over the issue with leaders in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, traveled to Central Asia July 25 to discuss the U.S. military’s arrangements in the region. The United States says the bases are necessary for its efforts in Afghanistan and claims it does not intend to have a permanent presence in the region.

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Where are the bases?

Karshi-Khanabad Air Base is located in southern Uzbekistan not far from Tajikistan; Manas Air Base is situated just north of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The United States began leasing both Soviet-era bases during the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. They are used primarily to station soldiers, refueling jets, and cargo planes. Each airfield houses roughly 1,000 U.S. troops and civilian contractors.

Who is pushing for the United States to leave?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security body whose members include China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. On July 5, the SCO issued a declaration calling for the United States to set a timeline for its withdrawal of military forces from the region.

What is the SCO?

Originally called the Shanghai Five, the SCO formed in the mid-1990s largely to resolve border and disarmament disputes between China and Russia. In 2001, the organization added Uzbekistan and renamed itself the SCO. The group has since gained in prominence, tackling issues of trade, counterterrorism, and drug trafficking. Some experts cite a convergence of interests among members in recent years, including the perceived threat posed by U.S. forces in the region. Increasingly, the SCO is being used by Russia and China as a vehicle to assert their influence in the region, says General William E. Odom, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

What was the United Statesí reaction to the SCOís declaration?

Washington rejected its demands, countering that the bases are part of bilateral agreements with the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, not with the SCO. Although a Pentagon spokesman hinted July 15 that the bases were not "critical" to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, the United States has generally said it will pull its forces from the region only after Afghanistan is "stabilized," and has not set a specific timeline.

Why does the SCO want the U.S. forces to leave?

The organization says the U.S. bases were not meant to be permanent and were only installed to assist the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, which SCO members say has ended. China and Russia have long wanted U.S. troops out of Central Asia, an energy-rich region both consider within their sphere of influence, experts say. Russia views the U.S. presence in the post-Soviet region, including the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with increasing suspicion after uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan unseated leaders loyal to the Kremlin. Many in Moscow argue these so-called "color revolutions" were the work of U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations. Experts also say Beijing sees the U.S. military presence along its western border as part of Washington’s strategy to contain China. Energy is another major Chinese concern, especially securing access to oil and natural gas from the Caspian basin located roughly 1,500 miles to the west.

What are the United Statesí goals in the region?

Primarily to uproot the Taliban and other terrorists, administration officials say. But there are other issues of concern, including stemming the flow of drugs, illicit nuclear material, and small arms illicitly crossing borders. The region is also rich in energy resources, and the United States has supported a new oil pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, Turkey. This has led some to charge that the United States is really after the region's oil. "[Washington is] killing two birds with one stone," fighting terrorists while securing energy sources, says Lutz Kleveman, author of The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia. Others say the U.S. presence in Central Asia is aimed more at curbing the influence of Moscow in the region. "A fundamental objective of the U.S. government is to prevent any neo-imperial revival in Eurasia," says Stephen J. Blank, an expert on Central Asia at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. 

Central Asian leaders themselves increasingly accuse Washington of seeking a permanent presence in the region for reasons unrelated to its war on terrorism. At the SCO's July 5 summit, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose government is widely accused of corruption and human-rights abuses, said Washington has "far-reaching geopolitical plans, the final aim of which is to change the balance of power and dominate the Central Asian region." U.S. officials dispute this claim. "We have no territorial designs," General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters July 14.

How does Uzbekistan view the presence of U.S. troops on its soil?

With mixed opinions, experts say. On one hand, Uzbekistan is a longstanding ally that receives military aid, training, and equipment from the United States. Some Uzbeks say the U.S. military also plays a stabilizing force in a region rife with Islamic extremism. On the other hand, relations between Washington and Tashkent have soured since a May 13 uprising in Andijon, a city along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, left hundreds of civilians dead at the hands of Uzbek security forces. The U.S. State Department condemned the Uzbek's government’s handling of the massacre and called on Karimov to launch an international investigation.

How did the Uzbek government respond?

Karimov, whose actions were reportedly supported by Beijing and Moscow, called the incident a clampdown against Islamic militants and suggested in speeches that the uprising may have been masterminded by U.S. agents. The United States responded by withholding $11 million in aid until Uzbekistan agrees to an independent investigation of the incident. Shortly afterward, the Uzbek government put restraints on the U.S. military’s use of its base, including a ban on night flights and limits on C-17 cargo plane landings. (Tashkent denies these restrictions are tied to the Andijon uprising.) Uzbekistan also recently boycotted a counterterrorism exercise organized by U.S. Central Command in Virginia. Relations have deteriorated to the point where Rumsfeld left Uzbekistan off his itinerary on his recent trip to the region, instead visiting Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

What does Uzbekistan receive in exchange for hosting the U.S. military?

The United States leases the bases at no charge, but must cover the cost of base security, jet fuel, and other expenses (Uzbekistan maintains it is owed landing fees and other charges by the United States for the cost of rebuilding infrastructure damaged by the heavy use of transport planes). The Uzbek government also receives around $150 million in annual aid packages, as well as counterterrorism, intelligence, and law-enforcement training from U.S. government agencies. Further, under the terms of its 2002 Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework with the United States, Uzbekistan receives security assurances against "external threats."

What is Kyrgyzstanís position on hosting U.S. forces?

Kyrgyzstan's president-elect, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was voted into power in July after the so-called Tulip Revolution in March deposed longtime President Askar Akayev. Bakiyev called immediately on the United States to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of its forces from Manas. Experts say Kyrgyzstan--a tiny, landlocked country of five million inhabitants with few natural resources--has little leverage in the region. "Kyrgyzstan is a very tiny country surrounded by big powerful countries and totally dependent on the goodwill of these countries," says Charles William Maynes, president of the Eurasia Foundation. Experts say Bakiyev is bending to the will of China and Russia. Kyrgyzstan's main motivation for leasing the military base is economic. "The U.S. base is the greatest source of foreign currency for the Kyrgyz," Maynes says, referring to the steep user fees the U.S. government pays for the base at Manas. "For them to lose this would be a big thing." The base contributes some $50 million to Kyrgyzstan's economy each year, according to the Associated Press. In addition, Bishkek receives roughly $10 million in annual military aid from the United States.

Is the United States expected to pull its forces out of the region soon?

It’s unlikely. Most experts say that, for the foreseeable future, the U.S. military needs its bases to finish the war in Afghanistan. No formal timeline has been declared for troop withdrawal from either base, though the United States is reportedly renegotiating the terms of its base in Uzbekistan. For either Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan to back out of its agreement with the United States, 180 days' notice is required.

What should the United Statesí long-term strategy be in Central Asia?

Experts disagree. Some, including John Schoeberlein, an expert on Central Asia at Harvard University, favor a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region once the campaign in Afghanistan is completed. "The United States should not even allow the Uzbeks to threaten to close the base. They should close it themselves," he told Agence France-Presse.  Others, like S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, favor deeper engagement in the region. Starr advocates ratcheting up U.S. nonmilitary assistance to the region--currently around $2.67 billion annually--and calls for a more coherent and comprehensive strategy by the United States. "It may make sense to leave some kind of footprint in the region, but this requires a regional conception which the [U.S.] State Department has so far been incapable of generating," he says.

What happens if U.S. forces are asked to leave the region?

It's unclear. One option, says Robert Legvold of Columbia University's Harriman Institute, is for Washington to begin looking for alternative bases in other Central Asian states, like Georgia or Azerbaijan, although Rumsfeld said earlier in July "we're not at that point." Another option, hinted at by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz in a 2002 New York Times interview, is to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops but maintain facilities in the region to "send a message to everybody, including important countries like Uzbekistan, that [U.S. forces] have a capacity to come back in and will come back in." General Odom says U.S. bases in the region are no longer needed for the Afghan campaign. "I wouldn't risk a lot staying in the region. We don't have to put a lot of air power over Afghanistan," which would require the services of Central Asian bases, he says.

Why did Rumsfeld visit Tajikistan on his recent trip to the region?

Although Tajikistan does not host any U.S. troops, the country shares an 800-mile border with Afghanistan and offers the United States air-space rights and refueling privileges at Tajik airfields. The United States has offered the Tajik government financial assistance to build a bridge over the Pyandzh River linking Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as to provide more training for its border guards to better curb the flow of narcotics and arms out of Afghanistan.  

Is the United States the only country with military bases in the region?

No. Russia has several, including permanent bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, established after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Russia is reportedly in negotiations to double its 300-500 troops stationed in Kyrgyzstan, a move some experts claim is aimed at the United States). Germany has a small contingent of troops in Termez, a city in southern Uzbekistan. And some 200 French troops are stationed in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. China has no military bases in the region.  

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