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Keep this map in mind for the followingÂ post. Countries bordering Afghanistan include Tajikistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Just as Barack Obama plans to send an additional 17000 troops into Afghanistan, with an additional 13000 expected to follow, the last thing he needs is for the situation to get any worse or more complicated. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening. On Thursday, Kyrgyzstanâ€™s parliament voted to evict the United States from its air base at Manas, near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. This takes away an option for staging troops and equipment en route to Afghanistan. The development is a sign of how difficult it will be to improve the situation in Afghanistan.
The Manas air base is the last American airbase in Central Asia. Currently, 15000 soldiers and 500 tons of cargo pass through it each month. Given the Talibanâ€™s demonstrated capability to disrupt supply routes from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass, transportation through this base has been vital to efforts in Afghanistan. Losing it will hurt.
The United States and NATO are talking about the possibility of establishing bases in other Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but this will not be easy. The United States was kicked out of Uzbekistan in 2005 after criticizing the Andijan Massacre. American relations with Turkmenistan were strained when the United States criticized Turkmenistanâ€™s crackdown following a motorcade attack in 2002. In 2007, the two sides agreed to â€œturn a new page,â€ but relations will be difficult as long as Turkmenistan is an authoritarian state with poor human rights practices. The poor human rights record of both countries actually will be hard for many people to swallow. Then, the United States is surely going to have to fork over buckets of money to earn any concessions from these countries, which is not exactly a recipe for creating reliable allies.
The people of Kyrgyzstan have been itching for US forces to be kicked out since 2006, when a US serviceman shot a local truck driver. Its government though, has not moved on this desire. The commonly held view among the international community is that Russia is behind it. President Kurkmanbek Bakiyev announced that he would evict US forces after reaching a deal with Russia for a $2.15 billion loan and for Russia to write off Kyrgyzstan’s debts. Russia’s involvement, for some, could be seen as the real story in this situation.
The United States, in its search for more troops from other countries to be deployed to Afghanistan, has included Russia in its calls for help. Russia has indicated that it is supportive and wants to help the United States, but with this development, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “On one hand you’re making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan and on the other hand you’re working against us in terms of that airfield, which is clearly important to us.”
There are two perspectivesÂ through which one can look at Russia’s involvement. The first is as a modern version of the Great Game (By the way, I am almost finished with a book called The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. It’s an excellent read that you should definitely check out.).Â Russia views Kyrgyzstan as falling within its sphere of influence, and so it has gotten tired of having the United States keep military personnel there. It wants to control the region, but the American presence has disrupted those aims. The second perspective is linked to the progress that the United States has made on setting up a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. This could be a way for Russia to show the United States that it doesÂ have the means to retaliate. Or, the truthÂ could be a combination of these perspectives.
Â It is important to reflect on why Russia is acting the way it is because that will determine how the United States should respond. If it is a matter of retaliating against the United States for its work on the missile defense system, then maybe the United States should back off if it wants to continue using the Manas air base. If it is a modern manifestation of the Great Game, then the solutions get much more difficult and require many negotiations.
We all knew that Barack Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan would not be easy. This just makes things more difficult. While Secretary Gates believes other options are available, I question whether or not those options will pan out. With more diplomacy, hopefully my skepticism will be proven wrong. With more bases to use for our troops, we stand a better chance to succeed in Afghanistan. If we lose more bases, then the situation will only look bleaker.
PS- If there are any of you who don’t know where I am or why I’m not on the blog as much as I used to be, go on my roommate’s blog, or check out my pictures on facebook.