Bridging the Panj River

 

U.S. 'R' US: Bridging the Panj River

 

Joshua Foust over at Registan has weighed in on the Manas air base saga, but I feel he may have wandered into some factual and analytical inexactitudes that I wanted to raise here for the conscientious Central Asia observer.

The most interesting point has to do with the apparent revelation in an Associated Press report that the Pentagon intends to resume “military cooperation” with Uzbekistan. Foust scoffs at the suggestion that this is a novel revelation, but I think that is a mistake.

The suggestion that the U.S. is trying improve military ties with Uzbekistan is indeed news, if it is actually true. Any negotiations we are so far aware of have focused on using the country as a transit point for non-military goods, such as food, building material and medical supplies. Military cooperation would entail engagement of quite a different order and could indeed raise ethical questions, if you are the kind of person that asks them.

My issue with the report is that rings decidedly false, and I would not be surprised if this is the United States military’s attempt to play its own card in the now-desperate information war it is waging with Kyrgyzstan; an attempt to scare Bishkek into desisting from overplaying its poker hand in the bid for extra money, which is clearly how Washington views this whole affaire.

Again, the story just doesn’t seem very likely, for a number of reasons. While there has been some rapprochement between the U.S. and Uzbekistan, it has been slow and pretty low-key. Resurrecting the K2 base is probably never likely to be on the agenda in Karimov’s lifetime for any number of reasons. Also, Uzbekistan looks as though it is prepared to commit to its membership in the CSTO _ the fact that Karimov deigned to go the body’s summit in Moscow is a rare concession that should not be underestimated.

Foust is also wrong in saying that March 2008 marked a turning point in that the Uzbeks allowed NATO countries to resupply from Termez. The Germans have been using that as a supply facility since coalition operations began in Afghanistan. What Robert Simmons said in Moscow last year was that U.S. personnel were travelling through a facility in Uzbekistan _ though he never actually mentioned Termez by name, contrary to what was claimed by some Russian news reports. All in all, it was a fundamentally pretty trivial development, regardless of what the media reports may have suggested.

It might also be nitpicking to question whether the United States thought (or thinks) Uzbekistan is the only choice for transit, but here goes. What is becoming clear is that the policy is now to pursue multiple routes, for the simple reason that it undermines attempts by any single rogue state from making a nuisance of itself.

Foust says Uzbekistan has the only high-capacity border crossing into Afghanistan, meaning the misnamed Bridge of Friendship. That is an assertion easily made if you have never tried crossing the bastard thing, but I know what he means.

However, the United States is clearly intent on making further use of Tajikistan in the future, which explains why they are in talks with authorities there to fund the building of yet another bridge to match the spiffy one across the Panj River that they already paid for a few years back. While there could be no talk getting there from Europe overland, which would either take you through Uzbekistan anyway or go via some hellishly winding and bumpy roads, there is always the option of sourcing goods locally. This is something U.S. diplomats have already spoken about doing in Kazakhstan, and there is no reason the approach could not be used elsewhere _ it would after all be a useful economic boost for particularly poverty-stricken areas like southern Tajikistan.

It is also glib to dismiss efforts to engage Turkmenistan’s role to play. At least the U.S. military thinks so; or General David Petraeus, CENTCOM commander, would not have bothered going there last month with the express intent of discussing how Ashgabat could assist operations on Afghanistan. On paper, Turkmenistan has said it is interested in helping stability in Afghanistan, and given its insistence on the neutrality formula, that could really only possibly mean assisting in transportation arrangement for non-military supplies.

Again, a lot of people seem to labouring under some kind of misapprehension about what these transit routes are all about exactly. It is not even clear that any military personnel will even be engaged in moving these goods from point A to point B, until they get to the Afghan border. It is, after all, almost certainly cheaper to contract these logistical services to private companies, which helpfully obviates cause for concern among any of the affected states that the operation would in any way be impinging on their diplomatic and strategic status.

On one point I am still just about in agreement with Foust, though I may in time have to eat many of the words I spent on my previous post. It is clear to any fool with eyes that Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is angling for money. That fact alone lets in the slightest chink of light into the gloom, if you are someone that believes Manas air base should stay put. The United States, though, have clearly not been very forthcoming on this matter, a fact that must frustrate Kyrgyzstan more than somewhat.

Even so, they have allowed some slight room for a demarche. In spite of government officials harping on endlessly about how it is the end of the road for Manas, the parliamentary vote on a government-sponsored draft bill to revoke the basing agreement has been delayed till at least Thursday, while deputies really chew it over, at the urging of the government itself no less.

This is patently a lot of hogwash. The bill is a work of febrile stupidity even by Kyrgyz parliamentary standards. Although it is true that Manas has been in situ far longer than most Kyrgyz people could have expected, it is quite absurd of the government to argue the base is no longer needed because operations to bring stability to Afghanistan have been successfully completed. It is quite peculiar that a government that squeals with terror over Hizb Ut-Tahrir should express such airy confidence about a country besieged by the Taliban.

In one of the more breath-taking passages in the statement accompanying bill, the government actually quotes Human Rights Watch as saying that too many civilian casualties have been killed in U.S. and NATO bombing sorties. Presumably, this is not the same Human Rights Watch that just this week criticized Kyrgyzstan for allowing Uzbek special services to snatch refugees and asylum seekers off its streets.

No, the process is being dragged out for longer than it needs to be, specifically because there must still be some hope that the U.S. will come up with an offer that Bishkek can’t refuse.

It is interesting to speculate what such an offer might be. Last time that Bakiyev was making rent demands it was $200 million per year. The U.S. currently pays $150 million between rent and other assorted goods and services.

Pig Wearing Lipstick

Aid Package: Pig Wearing Lipstick

For the sake of perspective, we should consider looking at what the Russians brought to the table. A lot of figures are being bandied about, but this is the full breakdown of the four-point deal:

1) Russia will issue a line of credit of $300 million to be paid on April 30 this year. The interest charged on the loan will be 0.75 per annum, and the sum is repayable over a 40-year period in biannual installments. The first payment is due on March 15, 2016, and the final payment has to be made by Sept. 15, 2049.

2) Russia will cancel all Kyrgyzstan’s remaining g debts, which total a little over $193 million. In exchange for that, however, Russia gets a 48 percent stake in Dastan, a company that produces marine torpedoes, oddly enough. It will also receive ownership of some building in Bishkek, although I’m not quite certain which one they are talking about.

3) The Russian Finance Ministry will give $150 million in financial assistance to be transferred on April 30, 2009.

This part is the only real gift as such, and it would be an interesting parlour game to speculate where all this cash will end up. Already, lobbyists are said to lining up to ask for money to build dairy and tobacco factories.

4) Most interesting, is the last agreement on the construction of the Kambaratinsk hydroelectricity generation plant. The Russian and Kyrgyz governments will take joint 50/50 ownership of a company that will oversee the construction of the facility via their state-owned power companies _ OAO Inter RAO UES and OAO Electrical Stations respectively.

Russia will “enable the raising of $1.7 billion for the construction building of Kambaratinsk in credit (with a grace period of eight years and loan maturity of 20 years) for the company” building the plant over a four-year period, starting from 2009.

Since this is the part of the deal that is the most eye-catching in numerical terms, it might be worth considering its exact significance. Again, it seems that the money is in fact little more than a loan, which will not in all likelihood even be issued by the Russian government. Not that it makes any difference if the government is stumping up the cash or not, but what investor in their right mind would sink their money into a project fraught with as many disastrous possibilities as a Central Asian hydroelectric dam. In any event, the actual building work will most likely be done by a Russian company. At best, this is a grand job creation scheme that could employ a few hundred people for a few years some time over the coming decade. The actual electricity won’t come online for probably six-seven years at a generous estimate.

It is also odd that Russia should backing this giant hydroelectric plant only a couple of weeks after President Dimitry Medvedev angered the Tajiks by suggesting they should ask permission from all their downstream neighbors if they wanted to build Roghun Dam.

Bakiyev plays hardball

Bakiyev plays hardball

The upshot of this all being that Kyrgyzstan hasn’t really got that great a deal. Really, money in the pocket _ pocket being the operative word _ totals no more than $450 million. The cancelled debt is a bad joke; as if Kyrgyzstan could pay it back even if it wanted to. If the United States had been prepared to look at $200-250 per annum in Manas fees and aid over the next two to three years, it would have easily presented a tempting offer of no-strings-attached cash on the table. Indeed, since operations at the air base were set to step up a few notches, it is quite likely that figure would have been reached without breaking too much sweat anyway.

As things stand now, the Kyrgyz parliament may possibly have passed the point of no return on Friday, however, by ratifying the four-point agreement detailed above. Strangely, this decidedly suspicious bit of legislation passed quickly and without the slightest murmur of discussion about what might lie behind it, or how and when the monies in question will be spent.

Having given the aid the green light, it remains to see how Kyrgyzstan could even begin to weasel out of its obligations to Russia on Manas. Provided it did commit itself at all.

After all, is it beyond the realms of possibility that this whole plot has been cooked up in concert by Bishkek and Moscow?

Consider the following premises and possibilities:

          While Russia wants Manas closed, it should really be fairly low on its list of actual practical priorities, and it does see some benefit in somebody addressing the problems of regional instability.

          Medvedev has talked in recent days about wanting to see movement on halting NATO expansion and plans to develop the missile defense shield in Europe.

          Linking these issues allows for reaching a compromise that sees Russia getting its way on either NATO or the defense shield, the United States holding onto Manas, and Kyrgyzstan getting much-needed cash from Moscow and Washington.

Ultimately, if it is a gambit, it is likely doomed to failure because of the perceived strategic costs to the U.S., but not because of the monetary concerns. Its failure would also mean Bakiyev has been played like a chump: No Manas rent, no diplomatic leverage, and a pretty meager pot of real cash to show for it.

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