US can’t afford to walk away from Central Asia
There has been recent speculation that the US is in talks with some countries in Central Asia about the possibility of locating American forces in the region.
The US has a history of basing troops there. Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the subsequent military intervention in Afghanistan that began in October 2001, Washington established two air bases in Central Asia. One was at Karshi Khanabad in Uzbekistan, on an old Soviet air base, the other at Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan, near the capital Bishkek. These two bases helped the US and its NATO partners conduct military operations in Afghanistan.
Maintaining access to these bases was not easy, however. In 2005, American forces were evicted from Karshi Khanabad after the Bush administration condemned the Uzbek government for its crackdown on the 2005 protests in Andijan, which left dozens — perhaps hundreds — of protesters dead.
The US presence in Manas proved to be more resilient. However, mounting Russian pressure on Bishkek meant that the lease for the base was not renewed in 2014.
Other external powers also established military presences in the region in the aftermath of 9/11. Germany maintained an airbase in Termez, in southern Uzbekistan, from 2002 until 2014. It was used to resupply and support German forces operating just across the border in northern Afghanistan. France maintained a small aviation detachment in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to support its operations in Afghanistan. That base closed in 2013.
The Indian Air Force currently maintains a presence at Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan, near the border with Afghanistan. China reportedly operates a small military base inside Tajikistan, close to where the Tajik-Afghan-Chinese borders converge.
The external power with the biggest military presence in Central Asia, however, is Russia. Considering the region’s history, this is unsurprising. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are all members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led security pact. Currently, Russia operates a missile-defense testing site in Kazakhstan and an air base in Kyrgyzstan. In Tajikistan it maintains a sizable military base with 7,000 troops, and also a space surveillance station.
Even though the US has not had a military presence in Central Asia since 2014, it makes sense that it might want to increase its engagement with a region that is of increasing importance to Washington. Many of the problems the US faces around the world can also be found in Central Asia, such as a resurgent Russia, an emboldened China, the threat of transnational terrorism and even, to some extent, the malign influence of Iran.
If Washington is serious about establishing a new military presence in Central Asia, it must first get its relationship with Turkey — and by extension, Azerbaijan — back on track.
Re-establishing a US military presence in Central Asia will be easier said than done. While it is true that the Trump administration ramped up engagement with the region, in recent years Russia and China have really upped their games there, too. Also, it is not certain that Central Asian countries would even welcome a US military presence in the region, as they would always be concerned about how Moscow or Beijing might react.
There is also a practical issue that US policymakers must consider: The geography of the region means getting in and out of Central Asia is not straightforward. As the NATO-led military intervention in Afghanistan showed, Pakistan is not often a solid partner when it comes to accessing the region. Iran, China and Russia obviously are not options for the US either when it comes to accessing Central Asia.
This leaves a very small, narrow corridor from Turkey through Georgia and Azerbaijan. Therein lies the problem: US-Turkish relations have been on the rocks recently and President Joe Biden’s recent recognition of the Armenian genocide only made things worse.
There are only three ways to transit overland, or in the air, between Europe and Asia: Through (or in air space over) Iran, Russia or Azerbaijan. With relations between the West and both Moscow and Tehran in tatters, that leaves only one viable route: Through Azerbaijan. This small transit corridor, only 100 km wide, is known as the “Ganja Gap” — named after Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city and an old Silk Road trading post.
US military planners will know the Ganja Gap very well. It was used by American forces to provide non-lethal supplies to troops in Afghanistan. In fact, at the peak of the war there, more than a third of non-lethal US military supplies, such as fuel, food, and clothing, passed through the Ganja Gap either overland or in the air.
So if Washington is serious about establishing a new military presence in Central Asia, it must first get its relationship with Turkey — and by extension, Azerbaijan — back on track.
Considering Biden’s decision to end his country’s military involvement in Afghanistan, it would be a good idea to explore ways for the US to remain engaged in Central Asia. However, such engagement needs to go beyond a military presence and include greater diplomatic and economic ties, too.
With uncertainties surrounding the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, and the growing influence of Russia and China in Central Asia, it would make sense to see the US flag continue to fly in this increasingly important part of the world.
• Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey