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Mainstream, VOL LII No 29, July 12, 2014

Central Asia Changes

Monday 14 July 2014, by Harish Chandola

Major changes are going to take place in India’s northwest. Most American and NATO troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by the year-end, leaving behind 8000 to 12,000, to “train, assist and advice” the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to fight the Taliban insurgents, under a security pact. The pact will be signed by the new Afghan President whose election has been postponed since June. It will take some months to negotiate the pact to retain Western forces in Afghanistan. The Americans, it is understood, will continue to provide logistics, air support, intelligence and “medevac” to the Afghan regime, besides giving it four billion dollars in military and development aid, with other international donors providing it a similar amount for its civilian programmes.

A new Afghan President had to be chosen last month. The two contestants in the field were the front-runner Abdullah Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former Finance Minister. In the April election the two had failed to obtain a clear majority. A new contest was held last month, which was the fighting season in the country. The present President, Hamid Karzai, who had in November last called a “loya jirga”, a grand assembly of 2500 community and tribal elders, had spoken in favour of Americans staying on in the country under a security pact after 2014, when they cease combat operations in Afghanistan. Karzai had often complained that the conflict between America and the Taliban had many times resulted in Afghan civilians becoming the victims. He had opposed raids on Afghan homes by foreign forces. He had said that a NATO bombing strike on January 15 on the village of Wazghar in Parwan province, north of Kabul, had killed a number of civilians. The Americans, on their part, had complained that of the 88 detainees in Bagram prison, handed over to Afghanistan, 17 were accused of making bombs which had killed Afghan soldiers, but had been freed by the Kabul Government. President Karzai had described the Bagram prison a place where innocent people were insulted and tortured, as a result of which they had become dangerous criminals. He told the “loya jirga” that his Western allies “did not trust me and I don’t trust them”. He, however, believed that the Americans would not go away because it was not in the West’s interest to allow Afghanistan to become once again a base for jihadist extremists. The Al-Qaeda, it was well-known, had its bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas next door, from where its men could come into Afghanistan easily if the American and Western forces withdraw completely. They would have to draw up plans on the manner of staying with whoever wins the presidential election.

What is likely to impact on the presence of Western forces in Afghanistan is the changes taking place in its northern Central Asian republic. Kyrgyzstan, through whose large air base of Manas come every American soldier and military equipment for Afghanistan, has asked the United States to stop the use of the base by the end of this year. Russia has asked Kyrgyzstan to shut down the American base, for which it has promised its neighbour $ 1.1 billion in military aid and writing off its debt of nearly $ 500 million when the Americans go. As a result Kyrgyzstan has asked the Americans to leave the base by July. This will mark the end of more than a decade of direct American involvement in Central Asia, which was described as “the new Silk Road”, a network of economic and transit connections, linking South and Central Asia through Afghanistan and the possible export of Central Asian electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will also be the end of Western influence in the region. This void could be filled by Russia and China.

The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, during his tour of Central Asia last autumn, had promised his own “silk road” or a kind of “economic belt”. He had promised the area billions of dollars in road, rail and pipeline projects linked to China. In Kazakhstan, he had said in September that the new “silk road” would promote economic, cultural and social progress, including infrastructural connectivity, trade and invest-ment facilitation, industrial cooperation and cultural exchanges. The region is likely to welcome the Chinese help as NATO’s operations wind down in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the poorest Central Asian countries. Gas-rich Uzbekistan, the hub of NATO’s northern distribution network, will also be affected. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan will lose lucrative fuel contracts.

In Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, authorities do not know how they will make up the annual $ 60 million they receive in rent for the Manas base, and an additional $ 80 million spent by the base each year.

The Americans, however, insist that their military aid, said to be meant for “counter narcotics” operations, will continue to flow to the Central Asian governments. Tajikistan, which received over $ 3 million in 2012, had killed tens of civilians that year in a mysterious operation about which its government said nothing. In 2005, the Americans criticised Uzbekistan for massacring a large number of civilians in Andijan, in the east of the country, resulting in the Uzbek Government telling Americans to vacate its base at Karshi-Khanabad, which provided logistical support operations in Afghanistan.

In four of the five Central Asian countries, except Kyrgyzstan, American aid is shrinking, affecting its language training and other educational activities.

Kazakhstan, where the largest oilfield outside the Middle East is expected to go into operation soon, remains the most attractive of the Central Asian countries. Investments in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are considered risky because of their corruption and unpredictability. The Americans do not want to abandon Central Asia after leaving Afghanistan. They do not consider these countries democratic and are finding it difficult to maintain relations with them.

The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West and Central Asian developments.