the Disillusioned kid: The New Great Game Kicks Off, Part 2.
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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The New Great Game Kicks Off, Part 2.

I posted last month on developments in Central Asia which appeared to threaten the US presence in the region and argued that this should be seen in the context of rivalry between the US (the world's pre-eminent global power) and Russia (the regional hegemon) as well as China (a future superpower). The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which brings together Uzbekistan, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, had called for a timetable for US withdrawal from various bases in the region, most of which were established in the aftermath of September 11th.

Since then Donald Rumsfeld has been able to secure a reprieve for military operations in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Clearly Rumsfeld's charms did not go down so well in Tashkent, as the Uzbek government formally evicticted the US from Karshi-Khanabad air base (known as K2) on Friday, although the US has 180 days to move equipment, personnel and aircraft. The eviction was delivered by courier to the US Embassy in Tashkent from the Uzbek Foreign Ministry, but gave no reason for the for the eviction.

Although Rumsfeld insisted on Saturday that the US would "be fine" without the base, it is clear that if Uzbek authorities follow through - which Washington reportedly believes is likely - it will cause US forces operational in Afghanistan some real logistical headaches. The base is used for scores of flights every month and has a runway which can be used by large planes allowing them to be refuelled without the need for expensive mid-air refuelling. Indeed, in May, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman described access to the airfield as "undeniably critical in supporting our combat operations" and humanitarian deliveries. He also noted that the US had paidUzbek authorities $15 million for use of the airfield since 2001.

Much of the reporting of the US-Uzbek split has emphasised the dispute over human rights stemming from the Andijan massacre, when ordinary civillians were massacred by government forces in May. This may not be the whole story, however. Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, removed from his position for criticising the Karimov regime's human rights record, opined,
"This is about the Karimov regime's decision to turn to Gazprom and the Russians, not the US, to develop Uzbekistan's oil and gas," he said. "This deal was brokered between the President's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, and Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born Russian who bought 27 per cent of Corus [British Steel])."

"They were concerned that Western companies could build centres of wealth not under their direct control. They have decided to turn to Russian and Chinese state companies for investment."
This is certainly consistent with the obsessive drive of the Karimov regime to control every aspect of Uzbek life and with Russian and Chinese efforts to expand their influence in the region, although I'm not in a position to evaluate the accuracy of the specific claims Murray makes.

Where this will go remains to be seen. My guess is that the US will take the kid gloves off regarding Uzbekistan's human rights record as the country's value as an ally decreases. I've suggested before that Karimov may be the next Saddam, that is a close ally who we arm to the teeth and allow to butcher thousands until he turns against us and becomes "the next Hitler". If I'm right, perhaps this is his Kuwait. I hope not. The situation for the population of Uzbekistan is not good now, it's hardly likely to improve if their leader pisses off the US.

Update, 3/2/05: More from Murray here.

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