Kyrgyzstan’s Ethnic Clashes and the Afghanistan Surge

Seen from Washington’s perspective, the current ethnic clashes in the southern Kyrgyzstan city of Osh are yet another example of the risks of doing business in a very dangerous neighborhood. True, the U.S.-run Manas airbase, a vital supply hub for NATO forces in Afghanistan, is a long way from the current conflict. (Manas is in the north, near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.) But with President Barack Obama’s build-up of 30,000 additional troops for Afghanistan currently pouring into Manas en route to deployment, any threat to the base would create a logistical nightmare.

The ethnic clashes between Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks in Osh indicate that the power struggle
between supporters of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev — forced out in a violent coup in April — and the interim government of President Roza Otunbayeva, a key figure in that uprising, is far from over. Otunbayeva’s government has continued to honor the Manas base agreement. But with the U.S. and Russia acting out their own version of the Great Game in Central Asia, Washington has already come close to losing Manas airbase once before, due to what many considered Russian pressure on the Kyrgyz government to terminate the arrangement. If the new turmoil spreads, Russia could play a central role in stabilizing the country, raising the question of whether Manas could once again be jeopardized.

If it is, the U.S. fallback position is a freight airport at Navoi, in Uzbekistan, which NATO is already using as a cargo transportation hub. But rarely are things what they seem in Central Asia. Technically, Navoi is operated by the government of South Korea: Korea Airlines freight planes are used to transport NATO supplies, and South Korea has also committed to help finance the modernization of the Navoi airport.

In 2005, Uzbek President Islam Karimov — also pressured, it is believed, by Moscow – expelled the U.S. from its airbase in Karshi-Khanabad. The move came in retaliation against American protests over the massacre in the Uzbek town of Andijan, where Uzbek security forces had fired on protesting crowds, causing many deaths. By making a deal with Seoul and not Washington, Karimov saved face and retained deniability — thin as it is — with Moscow that he had allowed the U.S. to return.

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