US Secretary of State H. Clinton's late-October tour of Central Asia left a strong impression that the US intends to tailor the geopolitical space of the region.If the plan goes through, Central Asia's geopolitical configuration will in the foreseeable future have little in common with what it used to be in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia will be confronted with a completely new geopolitical reality along its southern frontier.
The route taken by H. Clinton – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – is indicative of the objectives behind the visit. The last three of the above host the Northern Distribution Network serving to feed supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan plays a special role in the supply chain, the republic's throughput estimatedly accounting for 90% of the shipments delivered to the Western coalition in Afghanistan. It appears at the moment that the period of discord between Washington and Tashkent sparked by the May, 2005 Andijan drama is over, which is important for the US considering that the alternative route traversing Pakistan currently appears unreliable.
The warming of Uzbekistan's relations with the West has been continuous at least over the past couple of years. The process peaked in the fall of 2011 parallel to a slide in Tashkent's transactions with Moscow. Guests from the White House, the US Congress, and the US Department of State frequented Tashkent in the spring and summer of 2011 along with British diplomats, the result being that Uzbekistan's relations with the West, which sank to a low point six years ago, were promptly rebuilt to the pre-Andijan level.
On September 22, the US Congress lifted the 2004 restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan. Washington said the decision was premised in the assumption that the step should help maintain the security of the Northern Distribution Network. The EU backed out of arms sanctions against Uzbekistan even earlier, in October, 2009.
US and Uzbek presidents talked over the phone on September, 28 later saying that the dialog between Washington and Tashkent was fully reopened, with both sides interested in a partnership based on mutual respect. B. Obama thanked I. Karimov for the assistance in handling the problem of Afghanistan and in reconstructing the country. Importantly, he also stressed Uzbekistan's centrality to the security across the region. Obama and Karimov also reached agreements on the US-Uzbek economic cooperation and civil societies dialog.
No formal documents were signed during H. Clinton's two-day stay in Tashkent. Upon meeting with Karimov, she visited a female healthcare center, inaugurated the General Motors Powertrain Uzbekistan plant, and briefly chatted with the local human rights community. As a US delegation member admitted, the last event was fairly useless, but that hardly came as a serious disappointment considering that the human rights agenda have long receded from the spotlight in the US-Uzbek relations.
What H. Clinton focused on during the talks in Tashkent was the military and economic cooperation related to Afghanistan. With the partial pullout from Afghanistan due in 2014, the US is busily setting up hubs along the withdrawal route. Since Washington likely plans to give the main role in the process to the Northern Distribution Network, it should be taken into account that the transit mesh spans nine post-Soviet republics, namely Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Latvia. Analysts are convinced that the US is not going to completely withdraw from Central Asia in 2014 or later. Germany's Central Asia watcher Gunter Knabe, for example, says the US is bracing for the period to open when the military activity comes to a halt in the Hindu Kush. There are also strong doubts that the US has no plans to create military bases in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. Knabe holds that the US is keenly interested in deploying a military base in Uzbekistan or at least in having its military aircrafts allowed to take off and land in the republic. His guess is that H. Clinton had to invoke the theme during the talks with I. Karimov. Central Asia expert A. Knyazev expressed a similar view in an interview to Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta: the US strategic objective is to a establish a strategic military network in the region to containing Russia, China, and Iran.
The US design is to draw Uzbekistan and Tajikistan out of the orbit of the rest of the post-Soviet Central Asia and to bracket the two republics with Afghanistan and Pakistan within a new geopolitical formation hosting something akin to another Silky Way.Some of the key infrastructures of the route, particularly, the Mazar-e-Sharif – Termez railroad, are already in place… Termez is, in fact, the key transit hub at the Uzbek-Afghan border via which a lion's share of the armaments channeled via the Northern Distribution Network reach Afghanistan. Moreover, a German military base is sited in Termez.
The materialization of the new Silky Way would become a prologue to fundamental geopolitical shifts in the southern part of the CIS and to a foreign-policy reorientation of the region's republics. Strictly speaking, the process is already evolving. If the Nabukko pipeline comes into being and China's gas pipeline network expands, Turkmenistan would switch from Russia to China and the EU as the main energy business partners. Other countries may get involved in similar dynamics, with most of the competition unfolding between the West and China, and with Russia sidelined. Under the scenario, US military bases would, on top of enabling NATO to maintain military presence in Central Asia, be backing the advancement of Western corporate grands into the region.