Before China sent a man into space, it vaulted another goal by gathering more than 1,000 soldiers from neighboring former Soviet states for joint military exercises. US officials, preoccupied with the bloody post-invasion conditions in Iraq, have not indicated changes in Central Asia policy after the five-nation Coalition 2003 exercises ended in August. In fact, US President George W. Bush, who has kept notably quiet on the matter, should more actively encourage this kind of multilateral cooperation. It presents a compelling alternative to his current focus on costly and ultimately dangerous American military bases on Central Asian soil.
The issues surrounding Central Asia are too complex for a simple solution like military basing. In August, elite special forces from China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan took part in Coalition 2003, practicing responses to mock airliner hijackings and terrorist incursions. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives.] Since then, Bush has tried to engage China in diplomatic outreach to North Korean premier Kim Jong Il; guerrilla fighting has intensified in Afghanistan; and elections in Azerbaijan have produced startling images of repression and violence. As a source of oil, influence and allies, Central Asia looks increasingly critical to American interests. But Central Asian countries figure prominently in Russian and Chinese strategies along similar lines. Washington-based strategists should coordinate in key areas with Moscow and Beijing, but the American attitude about bases may block progress.
Central Asia has become focal to Bushs team for obvious reasons. Not only does it offer potential oil sources in Kazakhstan and Russia and homes for soldiers assigned to Afghanistan, it could form a sphere of influence against Islamic extremism. Each Central Asian state has explicitly declared religious terrorism a top concern, as have China and Russia. Moreover, Presidents Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan have invoked the threat of terrorism to justify harsh measures against dissent, obliging the United States to step forward as an honest broker in the region. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives.] Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao demonstrate similar impulses. They are confronting demonstrable violent pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic movements, and are invoking this threat to justify bellicose policies toward Chechnya in Putins case and toward ethnic Uighurs in Hus. International collaboration could promote peace and at least encourage dialogue on human rights. However, the possibility of these nations acting cooperatively depends in large measure on the United States posture in the region.
According to reports, the Pentagon is considering transforming temporary military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan into what the Defense Department calls "lily pads" permanent bases from which American commanders could rapidly deploy mobile, expeditionary forces. A policy premised primarily on such permanent bases could actually destabilize the region further. It could promote competitive impulses in Moscow, which has moved to establish a Kyrgyzstan base, and give terrorists in this volatile segment of what the Pentagon calls an "arc of instability" a powerful organizing tool.
The notion of an "American Occupation" could inflame recruits to terrorist organizations. Moreover, the presence of bases can meaningfully darken local perceptions of the United States by severely constraining Americas ability to publicly promote democratic and economic reforms in host countries. Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has already noted a softening of American criticisms of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, where we currently base roughly 1,500 troops and where 6,500 political prisoners are often kept in what a United Nations Rapporteur has called "cruel, inhuman and degrading" conditions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives.]
The persistent desire in Beijing and Moscow for hegemonic strength cannot indulge permanent American military bases in neighboring states. Some argue that the American military presence has already made regional cooperation more difficult. Notably, some observers attribute Uzbekistans reluctance to participate in Coalition 2003 drills to a belief that such participation would stall or compromise American aid. If the United States makes its stay permanent, notions of Washington as a benefactor of favored regimes could harden. This could bring recriminations from China and Russia in arenas that deeply affect global stability, such as the United Nations Security Council.
All these consequences could arise from a military posture that may prove tactically unnecessary. With other bases possibly moving from Germany to Romania, Poland and Bulgaria, the United States will soon have a convenient basing point for sizable military operations throughout Central Asia without the need for a permanent military presence on the ground in these fragile countries.
While it is hard to fault the Pentagon for wanting to expand extensive military and intelligence cooperation with willing partners in the region, the United States must be mindful that entrenching troops on Central Asian soil can cause more problems than it solves. Instead of relying on the shadow its soldiers can cast, the Bush administration should do the more difficult work of nourishing multilateral cooperation. The Coalition 2003 exercises indicate a real chance for broad, flexible burden-sharing on a range of critical issues. By playing mutually supportive roles in the region, Central Asia, China, Russia and the United States can promote a lasting peace while setting the invaluable precedent of constructive regional cooperation.
Benjamin T. Brake is a research associate in Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.