Wall Street Journal: U.S. could deploy military to Central Asia after Afghan withdrawal
The May 8 edition of the Wall Street Journal ran a feature titled Afghan Pullout Leaves U.S. Looking for Other Places to Station Its Troops which explores options the Pentagon is entertaining to station troops and equipment for an ongoing military role in Afghanistan.
The article mentions three options: basing military personnel and hardware in Central Asian nations; concentrating them in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf (identified by the newspaper more than once as the Arab Gulf), including the U.S.’s largest base in the region at Doha, Qatar, and over a dozen other bases “in countries stretching from Kuwait to Oman”); and using aircraft carriers and their strike groups for power projection in the South Asian nation.
The Central Asian nations mentioned in the piece as prospective locations were Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. U.S. special representative for Afghanistan (the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation), Zalmay Khalilzad, visited both countries last week. (Khalilzad was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2004-2005, ambassador to Iraq from 2005-2007 and ambassador to the United Nations from 2007-2009.)
Positioning, or as will be seen later, repositioning the U.S. military in Central Asia would directly antagonize both Russia and China. Of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan border China and Kazakhstan borders both China and Russia.
The Wall Street Journal revealed that the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House are all involved in deciding on the Central Asia option. Personnel to be deployed there or to the Persian Gulf would consist of 25,000-30,000 U.S. and NATO troops and contractors.
Central Asia’s main advantage is proximity to Afghanistan for whenever the U.S. and NATO choose to deploy troops, employ drones and transport military equipment for use there.
The Biden administration has pledged to launch military strikes inside the nation after withdrawal of armed forces in September as it has occasion to. In the interim the Pentagon will continue to employ military bases in the Persian Gulf for both transit and bombing raids.
The last option is to use aircraft carriers. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, whose area of responsibility includes the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea and further east in the Indian Ocean, could provide a lot of firepower. A U.S. nuclear-powered supercarrier has as many as 90 fixed-wing and rotor aircraft and can be accompanied by four guided-missile destroyers and a guided-missile cruiser, each of which has 56 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Regarding the Central Asia contingency, the newspaper provided a brief overview of U.S. and NATO military deployments there starting twenty years ago, mentioning that the Pentagon had maintained a base apiece in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, until 2014 in the first instance and 2005 in the second.
The following is a more comprehensive account.
The U.S. moved into the Transit Center at Manas, later the Manas Air Base, in Kyrgyzstan immediately after invading Afghanistan in October of 2001. In later years 1,000 American, French and Spanish troops were permanently assigned to the base.
When then-U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke visited Kyrgyzstan in 2010 (and the three former Soviet Central Asian republics which border it, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), he said 35,000 US troops were transiting each month on their way in and out of Afghanistan. At the rate he mentioned, that would have been 420,000 troops annually.
The U.S.-engineered Tulip Revolution of 2005 in no way impeded the flow of U.S. and NATO troops and hardware through the base. In fact “not a single U.S. or NATO flight into the Manas Air Base was cancelled or even delayed.” In 2009 the regime that supplanted that of deposed President Askar Akayev announced that it was evicting U.S. and NATO forces from its country, but relented when Washington offered it $60 million to reverse its decision.
The French Air Force deployed warplanes to the Manas base from 2002-2004, then relocated them to Dushanbe, Tajikistan until 2007, and after that directly to Afghanistan.
The U.S. military also moved into the Karshi-Khanabad base in Uzbekistan in 2001. Over 10,000 Western troops had passed through it from 2001-2005, when U.S. military forces were evicted by President Islam Karimov, who accused the American ambassador in Bishkek of organizing a “color revolution” in his nation in May, two months after that in Kyrgyzstan.
Military forces from Germany and other NATO nations were stationed at the air base in Termez in Uzbekistan from 2001-2015. They were not told to leave in 2005. Berlin used the base to support its 4,000 troops in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province.
In 2010 President Barack Obama met with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev and the meeting resulted in Washington obtaining the right to fly troops and military equipment over (and later directly into) the territory of Kazakhstan for the war in Afghanistan.
Michael McFaul, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the United States National Security Council at the time, “told reporters in a conference call that the agreement will allow troops to fly directly from the United States over the North Pole to the region.” McFaul later became Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ambassador to Russia – and would-be coup master – who was declared persona non grata by Moscow.
The above arrangement would have substituted for a previous one under which U.S. military cargo planes flew combat troops and materiel to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, from there to air bases in Kuwait and other destinations in the Persian Gulf, circumventing Iran which forbids American military overflights, and then either directly into the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or to Pakistan.
The Air Force Times detailed that “Flying over Russia and Kazakhstan means Air Force cargo jets could fly from Alaska to Afghanistan without refueling, U.S. Transportation Command officials have said. Chartered passenger jets could leave from Chicago and fly over the North Pole to deliver troops.”
The four above Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace military program. The first three are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Should the Pentagon and its NATO allies re-entrench themselves in Central Asia, China and Russia would have a Trojan Horse in their backyard. A warhorse.