Defying all of its critics, the Bush administration may still be hanging tough in Iraq, but on another critical front of the 'War on Terror' – Central Asia – Washington appears to be in full strategic retreat.
The latest trouble spot is Kyrgyzstan, where the US military presence at the Manas air base has become a bone of contention between regime opponents and the government of embattled president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. In recent weeks, activists have repeatedly protested before the US embassy in Bishkek, calling for a withdrawal of US troops from the former Soviet republic and a disengagement of Kyrgyzstan from coalition operations in favour of a modus vivendi on defence and security issues with the country's traditional patron, Russia. And Kyrgyz officials are taking notice, with a number of key committees in the country's parliament calling for a "review" of Bishkek's ties with Washington.
The political turmoil has caught the attention of officials in the US Department of Defense. Defence Secretary Robert Gates paid a high-profile visit to the former Soviet republic in early June 2007. There, he sought to defuse tensions over Manas and expand strategic co-operation between Bishkek and Washington. But, as Gates is beginning to discover, the current chill plaguing US-Kyrgyz ties is only the latest symptom of a larger malaise: over the past two-and-a-half years, the US has witnessed a steady erosion of its strategic footprint in the region.
It was not always this way. In the third quarter of 2001, in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks, the US embarked upon a major expansion of its military and diplomatic presence in the 'post-Soviet space'. The results were dramatic; by the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan less than two years later, the US could boast major military footholds in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as serious strategic dialogue with both Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
Yet, just four years later, America's regional presence is dwindling rapidly. Already, disputes with local governments have led to the ouster of US forces from one strategic facility, the Karshi-Khanabad base in Uzbekistan, and called into question the future of its deployment in Manas. Diplomatically, meanwhile, Washington faces growing regional hostility, punctuated by public calls from the six-member Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for an exit of US and allied forces from the region.
What accounts for this turnaround? The principal driver has undoubtedly been Russia. In the days after 11 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin broke with many in Moscow when he acquiesced to a US presence in his country's geopolitical back yard. More recently, however, the Putin government has reversed course. Fearful of the possibility of a permanent US military outpost in its immediate neighbourhood and of the potential for US-assisted democratic change there, the Kremlin has adopted a multifaceted strategy of economic and political outreach designed to diminish US influence there.
Russia's overtures have met with a receptive audience. After all, the US' entry into the 'post-Soviet space' was followed by a series of local 'colour revolutions' – in Georgia in 2003, in Ukraine in 2004/05 and in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 – that fundamentally challenged the established regional political order. Moscow, by contrast, has pursued a 'value free' approach to regional ties, emphasising co-operation on military, strategic and energy matters over structural and political reforms. Indeed, for Putin and company, the preservation of current authoritarian practices is much better for business, providing the Kremlin with more sympathetic – and malleable – clients.
The choice has not been a hard one for Central Asia's autocrats to make. Already, the countries of the region are beginning to show alarming signs of reversion to Soviet type. The most immediate case in point is Kazakhstan, where president Nursultan Nazerbayev recently implemented a series of constitutional amendments making it possible for him to remain in power indefinitely. Evidence of anti-democratic drift is also visible elsewhere in the region. In Turkmenistan, despite initial hopes of liberalisation and reform in critical sectors such as education and trade, the new President, Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, appears to be following in the footsteps of his authoritarian predecessor, strongman-forlife Saparmurat Niyazov. And in Uzbekistan, religious repression and political persecution steadily continue to worsen, empowered by the governmentʼs progressive disengagement from the West in the wake of its brutal response to the May 2005 uprising in the eastern city of Andijon. Left unchecked, these developments are likely to make the 'post-Soviet space' increasingly inhospitable to the US in the years to come.
Is this drift reversible? So far, the Bush administration has not bothered to find out. Instead, preoccupied with Afghanistan and Iraq, it has spent little time contemplating the economic, political and military components of a serious Central Asia strategy. And, without one, it has acquiesced to a steady constriction of its freedom of action and political influence in the energy-rich, strategically vital region that sits at the crossroads of the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
Given the stakes, such a decision seems short sighted indeed.