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

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.

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.

A Yacht Named 'Awakening'

In December 2006, the medication-addicted despot, whose secret police even raided children's Halloween parties and threatened to throw the organizers in prison, died. Before he had even been buried, the US Embassy in Ashgabad penned a report recommending that a new ambassador could help quickly forge a "fresh start" with the Turkmen.

Niyazov was succeeded as president by his former dentist, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The new president renewed a "generous overflight agreement" with the Americans for their military operations in neighboring Afghanistan, as the US embassy duly noted in a dossier.

Washington is particularly keen to gain access to Turkmenistan's immense gas reserves. But diplomats complained that the Turkmen were preventing US companies from exploiting the gas. "US integrated energy companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Marathon continue to express interest in working with the Turkmen to develop energy projects," one dispatch reads. "But the Turkmen have shown little reciprocal interest."

The Russians, it would seem, have simply been cleverer when it comes to establishing business relations. The Russian natural gas company ITERA -- which is involved in three offshore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea, is interested in exploiting fossil fuel fields in the Karakorum, and is otherwise heavily involved in Turkmenistan -- appears to have discovered one of Berdymukhamedov's weaknesses. The company presented the president with a yacht, as the US ambassador cabled to Washington on Oct. 23, 2008.

Sailor's Cap and Binoculars

The Italian-built boat is called Galkinysh (awakening) and sails the Caspian; the president even held a cabinet meeting on board on Sept. 30, 2008. Berdymukhamedov appeared wearing a blue-and-white-striped shirt, a blue sailor's cap and binoculars hanging around his neck.

A Swedish shipping company was asked to send seven of its best to crew the ship -- there aren't enough professional sailors in Turkmenistan. The Russians, though, proved unable to completely grant all of the president's wishes. An informant told the US ambassador that the president had actually wanted a yacht that was just as large as that owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. The request, however, ultimately could not be fulfilled -- such a yacht would have been much too big for the Caspian.

Originals: The Key Central Asian Cables

The story is more than just gossip. It shows that Turkmenistan is no better off following the death of the dictator Niyazov. Berdymukhamedov is a typical Central Asian despot, a man who, as a dentist, used to drive an old Russian car, but who now prefers luxury. He installs friends and fellow clan members in powerful government positions and neglects relations with neighboring countries.

Today, his garage is allegedly filled with a Bentley, a Maybach ("gift of a German company," reads a US dispatch), a Range Rover and a Cadillac Escalade, according to an American source. Berdymukhamedov's wife lives in London, the dispatch continues, and the president himself has a Russian mistress, a nurse in the dentist's office where he used to work. One of his daughters likewise lives in London, another in Paris.

Similar Stories of Nepotism

More importantly from a political perspective, however, is the fact that the president is considered vain, suspicious, very conservative and just as good a liar as he is an actor, the US ambassador writes. His father, a former prison guard with the rank of colonel, is said to be much more intelligent than his son. And: Berdymukhamedov likes neither the US nor his neighbor Iran, but has a weakness for China. The leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have little respect for him.

US diplomats have similar stories of nepotism and corruption from neighboring Kazakhstan. More importantly, however, the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is "the most important partner for the United States in the region," according to a cable from August 2006.

Nazarbayev's country too has large oil and gas reserves. And the leader himself, formerly the head of Kazakhstan's Communist Party, is the most adroit of Central Asian leaders.

Since 2002, Nazarbayev has granted US planes flyover rights for missions to Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, therefore, US Undersecretary of State Daniel Fried was effusive in his praise of "the strong progress Kazakhstan has made under President Nazarbayev's leadership in establishing its sovereignty and in building a free market system" during a visit to the ultramodern new capital, Astana.

But when Fried urged the Kazakh president to hold "good elections" and quoted then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as having said "our interest in security and in democracy is indivisible," Nazarbayev tersely remarked: "Trying to implement democratic reform in poor countries will end up badly. Kazakhstan ... had chosen a different path: first the economy, then politics."

Overly Ambitious

The autocratic president, who is suspected of corruption himself, insisted he was "a friend of the US." That should be enough. Two months later, the man who had ruled his country since 1990 was confirmed as its president for another seven-year term by a suspiciously high 91.1 percent of the votes.

The US Embassy noted that the official results "probably did not" reflect true voting patterns. On the other hand, however, the Nazarbayev regime has proven to be rather truculent in its relations with Moscow. Despite pressure from the Kremlin, for example, he refuses to recognize the two Caucasian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia with the Kremlin's backing.

US diplomats are busy trying to ensure that Kazakhstan becomes an even less-reliable ally for Moscow in the future. In a confidential memo from the American embassy in Astana dated Feb. 22, 2010, diplomats reported they were looking after a "pro-western faction within the Ministry of Defense," led by a pro-American senior politician.

"We have the long-term goal of transforming the Kazakhstan Armed Forces into a deployable force which not only can adequately protect national sovereignty, but also becomes an agent of democratic reform and rule of law within Kazakhstan," one cable reads. That, though, may turn out to be overly ambitious.

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