Kyrgyzstan: Tinderboxes and Tangled Webs

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, but it 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.

Supporters of KyrgyzstanMuch 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.

Because Afghanistan 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.

It now appears that since 1991 the U.S. has been bribing Kyrgyz politicians through 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 The New York Times, the ousted president skimmed as much as $8 million a month off the no-bid contracts. So far, the Obama administration is stonewalling the bribery charges, but the House National Security Oversight Subcommittee is sniffing around the issue.

But the U.S. is interested in more than fuel costs in Central Asia.

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.

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), a distrust for which one can hardly fault them. 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.

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 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. The region has a number of Islamic groups in the wings, and if the Afghan War really does wind down, there will be plenty of battle-hardened recruits coming home to fill the ranks of those groups.

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.