For rent: One airbase, excellent facilities, lovely view over Central Asia

by Andy on 8/2/2005 · 11 comments

Just a simple thought that occurred to me this morning – once the US have left, the Karshi-Khanabad airbase is going to be one valuable piece of real estate.

The United States has spent a substantial amount of money (millions of dollars) investing in the infrastructure at their airbase in Uzbekistan, and turned it into a top class base, with long runways, hangars, etc. Soon to be evicted, the US can take much of it with them but, still, much of the infrastructure will remain, just waiting for a new occupant.

The Uzbek military can’t really make good use of it themselves, but the Uzbek government certainly isn’t going to want to let it go to waste. Which means that they are going to be actively seeking (if they haven’t found one already) a new tennant.

So who is in the market?

Russia: The most obvious candidate. Russia is looking to rebuild their military presence in the Former Soviet Union, particularly in Central Asia, for a number of reasons – to influence the governments of smaller states, to fight the terrorist/Islamic threat, to fight drug smuggling and, of course, to profit from drug smuggling.

National pride will also be uppermost in the minds of the Russian government, especially now they’ve realised that the United States now has a military presence in more former Soviet states than does Russia, and that the Russian military has begun to withdraw from Georgia. Russia already has a large military presence in Tajikistan and a (relatively small) airbase in Kyrgyzstan – a substantial base in Uzbekistan would be a strong addition to those contingents, allowing Russia to far more effectively project its power into Central Asia. It might also allow for Russia to make good on its promise to attack terrorists, even those outside of Russia itself.

China: Possible, but unlikely. They have the military strength to make good use of an airbase in Uzbekistan, and a military would certainly increase the perception of China as a major ‘player’ in Central Asian politics.

China has a few naval bases abroad, but currently no airbases. To acquire one would certainly raise China’s profile in the world, but I think it would also be a cause for concern to many (both in the West, and Central Asia). China’s rapid economic development is best served by not rocking the boat at his point and this, plus a historical Chinese unwillingness to create military bases abroad, means that Karshi-Khanabad maybe a base too far for China.

NATO: Possible, but unlikely. There is a large NATO mission in Afghanistan currently and, as (if?) the US winds down its presence in the country, the NATO contingent is probably going to grow in size. Someone has to supply these troops and, unless the current German and French bases are able to rapidly grow, a third airbase will be needed. The militaries of NATO countries are designed to be largely inter-compatible, and so would likely make best techincal advantage of the US re-designed airbase.

NATO would, though, be very much a second choice for Karimov, and it’s likely they’d only get access to the base if they could provide some kind of guarantee that they aren’t merely America in disguise – which could be extremely difficult to provide to a paranoid regime like Karimov’s.

India: Extremely unlikely. Again, they have the military – particularly the air force – to take advantage of the base to some extent, but I doubt they can really afford the investment. The base would offer little strategic return, as India has no real military stake in Central Asia. About the only conceivable use I can think of is to attack Pakistan from the North in the event of a conflict, but I’d imagine that the risk of increasing tensions with Pakistan would also act to put India off a move to Karshi-Khanabad.

The United States: No chance – at least, not while Karimov is in power. To cut a deal with the Karimov regime after being effectively kicked out of the country would be politically humiliating for the Bush administration, and for any subsequent administration.

If Karimov were to vanish from the scene however – possibly as the result of a revolution – the US would once again enter the frame. After all, the US built the base, are best sited to take advantage of it, and can afford the rent. A new Uzbek government might want nothing more than to poke a sharp stick in Uncle Sam’s eye, but equally, depending on its character, it might be extremely thankful for a practical demonstration of US support.

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Nathan August 2, 2005 at 1:18 pm

The base would offer little strategic return, as India has no real military stake in Central Asia.

They have enough of one to have an airbase in Tajikistan. I don’t think it’s very likely they would move into the base, but they do have an excellent and growing relationship with Uzbekistan.

Andy August 2, 2005 at 2:09 pm

Interesting. I’d clean forgotten about that – thanks for pointing it out.

Nathan August 2, 2005 at 2:12 pm

Most people do. They’re the silent player in the region.

Jamie August 2, 2005 at 3:09 pm

My father-in-law related what happened when the French kicked U.S. and Canadian troops out of their bases on French soil in 1966.

The Americans kindly left everything to their hosts in good repair.

The Canadians decided to get some good practice. They ran their tanks through the buildings, used helicopters to lift sections of concrete and drop them on buildings, and just had a generally good old time. France got what was left.

I propose the Canadian solution for Khanabad. Unless NATO takes it over, no good can come of leaving an excellent airstrip around for another military power.

Mitch H. August 2, 2005 at 3:14 pm

Hah! No, just leave a half-dozen massive, heavily booby-trapped EMP devices in place under the runways. A gift in case the next leasees decide to get frisky against US interests in the region.

squid123 August 2, 2005 at 3:23 pm

I actually wouldn’t be surprised if the US demolished everything it didn’t take with it, considering the rancorous nature of the parting of ways. It may even be the policy to destroy what the Uzbeks don’t want to buy. Much of what it build was semi-permanent anyway, like housing converted from shipping containers and reinforced tents.

Also, powers can exercise plenty of influence in Uzbekistan without having troops on the ground. Interesting to speculat, but I doubt anyone will take the US’s place. Don’t forget that nationalism still plays a role in maintaining legitimacy for the regime. Maybe they’ll open up a new bazaar.

Andy August 2, 2005 at 3:37 pm

I would have thought it would have been relatively standard for the contract, agreement, call it what you will between the US and Uzbekistan would have had clauses detailing what was to happen to the base following any US departure.

You’d think (although this is by no means a given) that the Uzbek negotiators would have had the nouse to insist that any infrastructure developments (ie. runway, building, hangars) would have to remain, while the US can take away anything they can fly home.

Nathan August 2, 2005 at 3:47 pm

It would be so satisfying though if we decided to emulate the Uzbek government’s inability to stick to written agreements in this instance though…

Andy August 2, 2005 at 4:28 pm

Did they actually break an agreement? I’ve been assuming that the reason they gave such a long (180 days) notice period was that it was written in the agreement. Otherwise they’d have booted the US out far quicker…

Nathan August 2, 2005 at 5:03 pm

I’m talking more about breaking promises in the Memorandum of Understanding actually.

Andy August 2, 2005 at 5:21 pm

Yeah, they didn’t do so good on that, did they.

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