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Renewing Central Asian Partnerships

Richard Weitz

Since late 2001, NATO has emerged as a major institutional player in Central Asian security affairs. This development resulted from the increased Alliance interest and involvement in Central Asia following the September 11 terrorist attacks and NATO’s takeover of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in August 2003. However, the Uzbek government’s May 2005 crackdown in Andijan revealed the fragility of the Alliance’s relations with the countries of the region. Consequently, NATO needs a new initiative to enhance its position in Central Asia.

Even before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Alliance had engaged regional governments on defence matters. Since the mid-1990s, all Central Asian countries have participated in NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and its related Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme (the only exception was Tajikistan, which joined PfP in 2002).

The EAPC and the PfP provide mechanisms through which NATO and its Partners, including former Soviet bloc countries, can pursue practical defence and security cooperation on a range of issues. Promoting defence reform and increasing participants’ military interoperability with NATO forces are primary objectives of the Partnership programme. PfP activities also encompass other areas, such as disaster preparedness, arms control and border security. Scientific and environmental cooperation is also an important aspect of the Alliance’s engagement in the region. For example, NATO has promoted Internet connectivity between the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus within the framework of its “Virtual Silk Highway” initiative.

Post-9/11 engagement

Since 9/11, two events have substantially expanded NATO’s interests and activities in Central Asia. First, after most Central and Eastern European countries became NATO members, the PfP shifted focus towards promoting military reform and cooperation in Central Asia, as well as the South Caucasus and the Western Balkans.

Second, the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF in Afghanistan resulted in a major increase in NATO’s military presence in Central Asia. When he visited the region in 2003, then Secretary General Lord Robertson said that the events of 9/11 had led the Alliance to appreciate that “our security is linked closely to security in remote areas. Central Asia is now going to be very much part of NATO’s agenda.”

By taking charge of ISAF in Afghanistan in August 2003, NATO has become engaged in a long-term project to promote stability and security in Central Asia. In line with its enhanced role, Alliance representatives have sought political as well as practical support, mainly in the area of logistics, from Central Asian governments.

Central Asia represents the one area of the world where the militaries of Russia, China and NATO all operate regularly in close proximity.

At their June 2004 Istanbul Summit, NATO leaders affirmed Central Asia?s increased importance by designating it, together with the Caucasus, an area of “special focus” in their communiqué. They also decided to station a liaison officer at a regional headquarters in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The primary mission of the liaison officer has been to support implementation of NATO’s cooperation and assistance programmes in the region.

Furthermore, the summit created the position of Secretary General’s Special Representative for Central Asia and the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia). The first appointee, Robert Simmons, has made regular visits to Central Asia to explain NATO programmes and how regional governments can best use them. Simmons also has sought to inform Central Asian publics about the Alliance’s positive contributions to regional security, such as in Afghanistan.

Andijan effect

NATO officials have encouraged Partner governments to pursue political as well as military reforms. The PfP framework document reaffirms participants’ commitment “to the preservation of democratic societies, their freedom from coercion and intimidation, and the maintenance of the principles of international law”. When NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited Tashkent in October 2004, he said: “We do everything that we can to protect specifically democratic values, and we hope that these considerations will also be taken into account in our relations with Uzbekistan.”

After the Uzbek government’s crackdown in Andijan in May 2005, NATO’s North Atlantic Council issued a statement condemning “the reported use of excessive and disproportionate force by the Uzbek security forces” and calling for an independent international inquiry. The Uzbek government responded by requiring US forces to vacate Uzbek military facilities and introducing restrictions on the use of its territory and airspace by other Allies. The cooperation programme between NATO and Uzbekistan is currently limited to a dozen minor activities.

Despite the collapse of NATO-Uzbek security ties and anxieties about the West’s democratic agenda for their region, other Central Asian governments remain interested in cooperating with the Alliance. The best example is Kazakhstan, which has developed an Individual Partnership Action Plan and cooperates actively with the Alliance on political and defence issues.

On balance, however, the Alliance’s continued preoccupation with other priorities, combined with the widespread recognition that NATO will not soon offer Central Asian governments Alliance membership, has weakened its leverage in the region. Efforts to restructure regional militaries along NATO lines have made only modest progress. Central Asian militaries suffer from obsolete equipment, doctrines and tactics. Most Central Asian officials still see ties with NATO as a way to obtain Western equipment rather than as an alternative to the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization.

The case of Andijan also underscores that NATO-sponsored efforts to instil professionalism in Central Asia’s armed forces could help Central Asian regimes to use force against domestic opponents.

Building a NATO-SCO dialogue

Establishing a formal dialogue with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) might help strengthen NATO’s role in Central Asia. The SCO—comprising China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—is emerging as Central Asia’s most influential regional grouping.

Central Asia represents the one area of the world where the militaries of Russia, China and NATO all operate regularly in close proximity. Yet NATO lacks formal institutional ties with the SCO or China. Following a cooling-off period after NATO warplanes mistakenly attacked the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, the Chinese Ambassador to Belgium met with then Secretary General Robertson in October 2002 to discuss establishing a closer relationship. Chinese officials appeared especially interested in a bilateral dialogue on strategic developments and security threats in Central Asia. In July 2004, Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer said the Alliance wanted to cooperate with China on several areas of common concern: anti-terrorism, countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and “maintaining regional stability”, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These expressions of mutual interest have yet to result in any concrete progress. Unlike Japan, China does not even have a “dialogue partnership” with NATO. In return for establishing formal ties with China, NATO members could insist on securing greater access to SCO activities. In exchange, the Alliance could designate the SCO as a “global partner” to underscore the value of joint security cooperation.

The proposed relationship would entail NATO-SCO collaboration in certain agreed functional areas. Topics that could entice SCO interest in working with NATO governments might include regional socio-economic development, energy exploitation, counter-terrorism and curbing trafficking in narcotics, people and weapons of mass destruction. Cooperating on managing natural and man-made disasters might also allow for enhanced ties in this important field. In their July 2005 Astana Summit declaration, the SCO governments endorsed greater joint efforts to deal with such emergencies in the paragraph immediately following the one in which they called on the coalition members in Afghanistan to set a timetable for ending their use of Central Asia’s military bases.

A formal NATO-SCO dialogue would also allow for an exchange of views on democratisation, religious extremism and other topics of shared concern. Collaboration on concrete projects in the areas of energy security, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, counter-terrorism, and narcotics and human trafficking would help avert a debilitating great power competition in Central Asia and reinforce both institutions’ capacity to manage Eurasia’s complex transnational challenges.

In the coming years, the strategic importance of Central Asia to NATO will likely increase. Though the region poses challenges for the Alliance, it also presents opportunities for wider collaboration that could assist NATO’s ongoing transformation to address the security threats of the 21st century.

This article originally appeared in the autumn 2006 issue of the NATO Review.

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