Features | Security | Central Asia

US Sucked Into Central Asia Strife?

Russia and the US are set to help build counter-terrorism centres in Kyrgyzstan. Will they get sucked into regional disputes?

Joshua Kucera
US Sucked Into Central Asia Strife?
Credit: US Air Force

When Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva announced last month that the country would be building two ‘counter-terror training centres’ in the south of the country – one with US help, and the other with Russian assistance – there were few details available. One thing that was clear, though, was that the delicate position that the country occupies, both geographically and geopolitically, has forced the United States into a careful balancing act between its two closest military allies in Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The purported need for such centres is the threat of Islamist terrorists entering the region from Afghanistan, via Tajikistan. But so far, there’s scant evidence that even Tajikistan – which borders Afghanistan – has seen such an influx, let alone Kyrgyzstan.

Yet some in the government genuinely fear that southern Kyrgyzstan is a potential breeding ground for Islamist radicalism, in particular among the ethnic Uzbek population in the south. More than 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population is ethnic Uzbek, and they are concentrated in the southern part of the country. There have been two episodes of massive interethnic violence between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, in 1990 and 2010. The death toll from last year’s pogroms is still unknown, but is estimated at more than 2,000.

The recent spate of violence has prompted speculation that disaffected Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan could be ripe targets for recruitment by Islamist organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The Ferghana Valley, which includes southern Kyrgyzstan and parts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is conservative and religious, and has been the site of most of Central Asia’s radical Islamist activity. That activity, while relatively small in scale, has frequently been seized upon by the region’s governments to justify extreme security measures.

And, while the spectre of instability spilling over from Afghanistan may well be part of the motivation for setting up the centres, the fear of neighbouring Uzbekistan also weighs heavily in Bishkek’s considerations. In fact, some observers believe it’s foremost in the minds of Kyrgyzstan’s leaders.

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Relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have, after all, been difficult since the two republics gained independence from the Soviet Union two decades ago. Kyrgyzstan’s leaders have long suspected Uzbekistan of having designs on their territory, and in one notorious episode in 2000, Uzbekistan’s military carried out military exercises aimed at taking over a reservoir across the border in Kyrgyzstan.

Such fears have grown over the last year as a result of the interethnic violence. Kyrgyzstan was concerned that Uzbekistan might use the violence as a pretext to invade. And while Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, got rare international acclaim for his measured handling of the crisis, the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan has nevertheless roused Uzbek nationalism. Karimov has tried hard to prevent that anger from boiling over, including by closing the border between the two countries. But that in turn has angered residents of southern Kyrgyzstan, who rely heavily on trade with Uzbekistan, further heightening tensions.

The two proposed training centres would be close to the Uzbekistan border – the US-built centre would be in the village of Kyzyl-Kiya, in the far south-western Batken region, while the Russian one would be located in Osh, the main city of southern Kyrgyzstan. And their location near Uzbekistan isn’t an accident, says Alisher Khamidov, an expert on southern Kyrgyzstan.

‘Unresolved border disputes make the risk of interstate conflict real,’ Khamidov says. ‘Otunbayeva is hoping that the centre will deter potential military action by Uzbek security services or border troops against Kyrgyz forces deployed in Batken.’

Bishkek, however, has taken pains to dispute such contentions. Its defence ministry, for example, released a statement saying that ‘the bilateral Kyrgyz-American project against international terrorism and religious extremism, transnational organized crime, prevention of drug smuggling, is not oriented against third countries.’

Kyrgyzstan is also treading carefully around the geopolitical implications of the training centres. The country is already the only one in the world to host both US and Russian air bases, and the fact that Otunbayeva has rhetorically linked the two new training centres suggests that she’s trying to maintain that balance. Those familiar with her thinking believe that she’s particularly interested in using the United States as a bulwark against Uzbekistan incursions, but can’t run the risk of antagonizing Moscow by appearing to favour Washington too heavily.

‘I don’t think Otunbayeva considers potential Russian and US training centres equally important,’ Khamidov says. ‘The US training centre is more important for practical reasons, whereas the Russian one is for symbolic/geopolitical ends, to soothe Russian officials’ suspicions about the Kyrgyz government.’

US officials haven’t discussed many of the details of their plans for their training base, but the United States has an obvious interest in shoring up its defence relationship with Kyrgyzstan: its Manas air base, near Bishkek, is a key transit and refuelling hub for operations in Afghanistan, and has been the subject of controversy in Kyrgyzstan, and there have been many calls to evict the base. By building a counter-terror training centre in the south, the Pentagon likely hopes to solidify its ties with Kyrgyzstan, decreasing the chances US forces will be kicked out of Manas.

But the United States is perhaps even more invested in the military relationship with Uzbekistan, which is the key node of the Northern Distribution Network, the supply line that carries military cargo to Afghanistan through the former Soviet Union.

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Russia has been involving itself in local conflicts in the post-Soviet space since 1991, and Moscow has an interest in checking the influence of Uzbekistan, whose leaders are considerably more wary of Moscow than those in Kyrgyzstan. The chances of an interstate conflict would likely not be large even without a United States or Russian military presence in the area. Still, Russia would probably take the side of Kyrgyzstan if one did occur.

But in disputes between the two countries, the United States will certainly be forced into a difficult juggling act to maintain its relations with both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. All this begs the question of whether a US presence in southern Kyrgyzstan will help prevent such conflicts, or draw the United States more clearly into them.