Dispatches From the Edge:Kyrgyzstan: Tinderboxes & Tangled Webs

By Conn Hallinan
Friday May 21, 2010 - 11:31:00 AM

Trying to sort out the tides and cross currents sweeping across Central Asia in the aftermath of the March revolution in Kyrgyzstan is to revisit the politics of 6th Century Constantinople that led to the adjective “Byzantine.” 

The uprising in the country’s capital Bishkek began over a 200 percent hike in utility rates, but by the time Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the country, a tale of cynicism, corruption and subterfuge—in which the U.S. plays a central role—began to emerge. 

For most Americans, Kyrgyzstan is the most unpronounceable of the six “stans” that constituted the former Soviet Union’s southern flank. It has little in the way of wealth or natural resources, and its population of five million hardly makes it a force in Central Asia. But Kyrgyzstan has what every real estate agent looks for: location, location, location. Bordered by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and China, the mountainous nation is the U.S.’s wedge into Central Asia, and its umbilical cord to the war in Afghanistan. 

Much of the oil and fuel that keep the U.S. war machine running comes through Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Air Base, a sprawling complex close to the country’s capital. In March of this year, 50,000 U.S. and NATO troops moved through the base. Indeed, without Manas, it is hard to conceive how the U.S. could support the current surge of troops into Southern Afghanistan.  

When it comes to supply lines, Afghanistan is almost a bridge too far. Because the country is landlocked, the logistics of supplying fuel, food and weapons to U.S. troops is daunting. While it costs about $400,000 a year to support a soldier in Iraq, the price tag in Afghanistan is $1 million.  

According to U.S. Marine Gen, James T. Conway, gasoline costs $400 a gallon in Afghanistan. Since the Marines use 800,000 gallons a day—a figure that is sure to rise once the U.S. deploys its new mine-resistant but gas guzzling all-terrain vehicles—that is a significant piece of cash.  

Gasoline also comes in by truck from Pakistan, but ambushes knock out more than 40 a year, and the truckers must pay enormous bribes to the Taliban and crooked Afghan officials.  

But that is hardly a barrier. The U.S. has been bribing Kyrgyz politicians since the country became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. First, the Americans paid off the first post-Soviet president, Askir Akayev, and when he was overthrown by the so-called “Tulip Revolution” in 2005, Washington shifted the swag to his predecessor, Bakiyev. 

This was not much of a stretch, because the families of both Akayev and Bakiyev were connected to two shadowy companies, Mina Corp. Ltd and Red Star Enterprises, both registered in Britain and British-controlled Gibraltar. The latter is little more than a big rock and a tax dodge. 

According to Newsweek, the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency awarded $1.4 billion in no-bid contracts to the two companies. When Akayev was president, his son-in-law was the connection, and when Akayev got tossed out in 2005, Bakiyev’s son, Maksim, assumed the bagman position. According to the New York Times, some current Kyrgyz leaders say the Maksim skimmed as much as $8 million a month.  

So far, the Obama administration is stonewalling the bribery charges. “I have read a lot of stories about black holes and corruption and things that happened,” Michael McFaul, a senior presidential advisor on the former Soviet Union told the New York Times, “they are not…true.”  

But the House National Security Oversight Subcommittee is sniffing around the issue. The allegations that the U.S. has been bribing Kyrgyz officials “raises serious questions about the Department of Defense’s management and oversight of contractors along the Afghan supply line,” says Subcommittee Chair, John Tierney (D-Mass), and might have “allowed strategic and logistical expediency in Kyrgyzstan to become a lasting embrace of two corrupt and authoritarian regimes.” 

The growing cost of the war in Afghanistan is certainly on the White House’s mind. A recent Pentagon report shows that the monthly cost of the war in Afghanistan has officially passed that of the Iraq war. 

But the U.S. has more at stake in Central Asia than fuel costs. 

Kyrgyzstan borders China’s volatile Xingjian Autonomous Region, where local Uyghur anger at the growing influx of Han into the area has touched off several riots over the past few years. There is also a nascent Islamic resistance movement in parts of the region.  

If the U.S. wanted to stir up trouble for China in its restive west—and maybe peek into its military deployment in the area—Kyrgyzstan is the place to be. The U.S. has pressed Kyrgyzstan to allow it to set up a “counter terrorism” base near the country’s strategic Ferghana Valley close to China’s border. 

So far, Beijing has been quiet on the recent revolution, merely commenting, “China hopes that relevant issues will be settled in a lawful way.” China is Kyrgyzstan’s number one trading partner, and it is clearly concerned about the quarter of a million Uyghurs residing in Kyrgyzstan. 

There is certainly suspicion by the Russians that the U.S. would like to rope countries along its southern border into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), distrust, for which one can hardly fault them for. In spite of assurances given to the Russians that NATO would not expand into former Soviet states, or recruit ex-members of the Warsaw pact, NATO now counts Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, the Czech Republic, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia among its members and was on the verge of recruiting Georgia before its 2008 war with Russia. 

Former Indian diplomat and Asia Times commentator M. K. Bhadrakumar argues that Kyrgyzstan is assuming “the nature of a pivotal state in any U.S. strategy toward the expansion” of NATO into Central Asia. 

Following a February tour of Central Asia, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S.’s special representative to Afghanistan, proposed expanding NATO’s reach into the region as a foil to organizations like al-Qaeda. A recent NATO report calls for the Alliance to “help shape a more stable and peaceful international security environment,” the rationale for its current deployment in Afghanistan.  

The Russians are worried not only about encroachment by NATO, but also by the instability generated by two revolutions in the last five years. “Kyrgyzstan remains our strategic partner and…we are not indifferent to the fate of this country’s people and the situation there,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in the aftermath of the recent coup.  

Uzbekistan’s President Islom Karimov concurred: “There is a serious danger that what’s happening in Kyrgyzstan will take on a permanent character. The illusion is created that it is easy to overthrow any lawfully elected government.”  

Karimov went on to say that Moscow and Tashkent were on the same page. “Our viewpoints coincide completely. What is going on in Kyrgyzstan today is in nobody’s interests—and above all it is not in the interests of the countries boarding Kyrgyzstan.” 

The U.S.’s sponsorship of the Islamic radicalism to destabilize Afghanistan in the 1980s is certainly in the back of the Russian’s mind, which is already concerned about Islamic extremism in places like Chechnya. As Bhadrakumar points out, “for any U.S. strategy to use political Islam to bring about regime change in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in some form or other, Kyrgyzstan would be extremely valuable.” 

There is no evidence that the U.S. had anything to do with the recent revolution, and there is nothing to suggest that the interim President of Kyrgyzstan, Roza Otunbayeva is leaning toward Washington.  

But things are hardly settled in the country, as a temporary takeover of some government buildings by supporters of ousted President Bakiyev in southern Kyrgyzstan demonstrates. The interim government declared a state of emergency May 19 following fighting between Bakiyev supporters and Uzbeks in Jalalabad. Two other cities also reported clashes. 

There is some ethnic tension between Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs in the south, which is poorer, more agricultural, and more religious than the more developed north. There are similar tensions between Kyrgyzs and the 700,000 ethnic Russians, who live mostly in the north. Otunbayeva is from the south, but she has spent most of her time either out of the country or in the nation’s northern capital, Bishkek. According to Michael Laubsch, a Central Asia expert from Germany, there is “great risk” of a civil war. 

That is probably an overstatement, but instability is something that Islamic groups could use to their advantage. There are a number of them in the wings, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, Akromiya, Hizb un-Nasrat, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the United Opposition of Tajikistan. And if the Afghan War really does wind down, there will be plenty of battle-hardened recruits coming home to fill the ranks those groups. 

Kyrgyzstan is also a way station for drugs traveling from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe, and there are reports that poppy production in the country is expanding. 

Most the nations in the region are tied together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose meeting this June in Tashkent will likely focus on the situation in Kyrgyzstan. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a military alliance that also includes a number of countries in the area, has been working to stabilize the situation. Kazakhstan currently chairs the OSCE and had already sent a representative to Bishkek. 

If the current situation remains regional, then there are organizations in place that can play an important role in defusing the instability. But if Kyrgyzstan becomes a pawn on a larger board, then the “Great Game” will shift from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the rest of Central Asia, with all the pain and misery that follows in the wake of imperial maneuvering.