'Bridges to Nowhere': America's Unsavory Friends in Central Asia

By Uwe Klußmann and Christian Neef

The US is anxious to broaden its influence in Central Asia -- and limit that of Russia. The result, however, are questionable alliances with some of the strangest despots in the world.

In Central Asia, contrasts are often stark. Zoom
REUTERS

In Central Asia, contrasts are often stark.

The secret country assessment from the US Embassy in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe, prepared for General David Petraeus on Aug. 7, 2009 ahead of his visit later that month, described a country on the brink of ruin. Tajikistan, a country of 7.3 million people on the northern border of Afghanistan, is a dictatorship ruled by Emomali Rakhmon, a former collective farm boss and notorious drunkard. "Parliament acts as a rubber stamp, barely discussing important legislation such as the national budget," the dispatch noted.

Some of the state's revenues were from criminal sources: "Tajikistan is a major transit corridor for Southwest Asian heroin to Russia and Europe." The country had "chronic problems with Uzbekistan," its neighbor, and the impoverished former Soviet republic faced the prospect of civil war fomented by Islamists in the east of the country.

Nevertheless, Petraeus, at the time head of US Army Central Command, was urged to court Rakhmon. The US needed his help in Afghanistan. The US had other ambitious goals in the region as well. The US, in recent years, has serenaded several former Soviet republics in Central Asia -- oil interests, counter-terrorism assistance and American influence in the region inform the approach. As a result, US diplomats have had to cozy up to a collection of decidedly shady characters.

In the case of Tajikistan, Petraeus' task was clear: "Secure Rakhmon's agreement to accept transit of lethal materials to Afghanistan through Tajikistan" -- arms and ammunition for US troops. In return, the US could offer assistance in quelling the Islamists: "Assure Tajikistan of our support as it works to contain militants in the east of the country."

'Bridges to Nowhere'

Rakhmon's Tajiks, however, soon indicated that they wanted more, according to a cable from the US Embassy in Dushanbe on Feb. 16, 2010. "The Tajiks have some unrealistic ideas about what we can offer them -- mainly large infrastructure projects including questionable power plants, tunnels to Pakistan and bridges to nowhere."

The demands, however, were not altogether a bad sign. It meant, the US strategists hoped, that Rakhmon's cash-strapped regime was gradually distancing itself from Russia. "Russian-Tajik relations have deteriorated," the dispatch noted.

The question as to Russia's future role in Central Asia is an important one for the US, one which is frequently discussed. In June 2009, Richard Hoagland, the US ambassador in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, met with his Chinese counterpart Cheng Guoping for dinner on the 23rd floor of a Chinese-built hotel.

The Chinese government has learned, Cheng said, that Russia would like more support in its desire for a privileged sphere of influence in Central Asia. In exchange, Cheng said, Russia would offer more support on Afghanistan. Moscow is "convinced that they must dominate Central Asia and the Caucasus. They believe they have vital strategic, historical interest in the region," Guoping said. When asked his own opinion, the Chinese ambassador said, "I personally do not agree that Russia should be granted a special sphere of influence in the region, but that is their view."

Russian Influence

The US, perhaps predictably, also doesn't see it that way. In Tajikistan and in all other Central Asian nations, Washington is doing its best to reduce Russian influence.

Kyrgyzstan is seen as a particularly important country in the region -- in part because it hosts an American airbase in Manas from which the US supplies its forces in Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz "are very open and positive in their relationship with the US military," reads one dispatch. Indeed, US officers train Kyrgyz special forces. But the US was alarmed in early 2009 when the government in Bishkek threatened to close the base in Manas in exchange for Russian money.

One dossier reveals just how crucial the airbase in Manas is, given its role as the "only US-operated transit facility in Central Asia," for the conflict in Afghanistan: "In 2009, the Transit Center served on average some 24,000 transiting Coalition forces and some 450 short tons of cargo per month." Still, the cable advises not to take the problem too seriously as they are "reviewing the benefits they derive from their cooperation with the US" -- particularly much needed dollars. The dispatch also noted that there was "no doubt that they will reopen negotiations" -- which is exactly what ultimately happened.

The US was also keen to keep Kyrgyzstan's far bigger neighbor Uzbekistan, led by dictator Islam Karimov, at a distance from Russia. The Uzbek foreign minister delighted a senior diplomat from Washington one day by making disparaging remarks about Russia, a fellow member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. He "also expressed resentment about Russia's historical influence and predatory gas policies," according to a July 2008 report from the US Embassy in Tashkent.

'Exactly the Same Corruption'

A few weeks later, US General Martin Dempsey was sent to work on the country's defense minister. The US Embassy informed the high-ranking officer that his visit was an "excellent opportunity" to encourage the minister "to establish a vigorous intelligence exchange program focusing on Afghanistan," where the Uzbek secret service already had a tightly-knit network of ethnic Uzbek agents.

US diplomats were amused by the Uzbek foreign minister's description of neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as hotbeds of corruption. The embassy noted in a dispatch from the end of July 2008 that "it is ironic to hear such criticism coming from the government of Uzbekistan, which has long been accused of exactly the same corruption."

Another neighbor of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan that US diplomats have been trying to woo is also grappling with image problems. Turkmenistan, a gas-rich desert republic roughly the size of Spain, was ruled by one of the most bizarre of Central Asia's egomaniacal autocrats, Saparmurat Niyazov, until his sudden death in December 2006. Still, the man is an important partner, wrote US Ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson: "As obscure and isolated as Turkmenistan is, it continues to occupy a strategic location in the Global War on Terrorism," she wrote.

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