The Russian newspaper Kommersant created a splash yesterday when it reported, citing “sources close to the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” that the U.S. is planning to set up a Rapid Response Center in Tashkent. The Center would “coordinate actions in the event of deterioration of the situation after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014″ and would “essentially perform the functions of an American military base after 2014.”
It went on: “‘By and large, we are talking the largest American military object anywhere in the Central Asian region,’ said a source.”
Perhaps because Kommersant is a generally well respected newspaper, perhaps because of the apparent specificity of its report, the report was widely disseminated around the Russian-language internet. (UzNews.net went so far as to suggest that the U.S. was forcing Uzbekistan to allow a base by blackmailing Tashkent, threatening to “create problems” with the Western bank accounts of presidential daughter Gulnara Karimova.)
The U.S. State Department issues nearly constant denials that Washington is seeking a permanent military base in Central Asia, which of course leaves a lot of wiggle room for other sorts of military cooperation. But in a statement to The Bug Pit, a State Department spokesperson categorically denied the notion of even a Rapid Response Center: “The U.S. has never considered, discussed or proposed a Rapid Response Center concept with Uzbekistan or any other Central Asian nation.”
Another source, when asked about this report, suggested that it may be a Russian disinformation campaign, which seems plausible. Consider this paragraph from the Kommersant story:
“Our Uzbek partners had better analyze all consequences of expansion of the American military presence in the region,” said a source from Russian diplomatic circles. “They had better remember that should something bad happen after 2014, it is their CIS CSTO partners and not the United States that will be in the best position to come to their help.”
Still, as the Wikileaks document dump taught us, the U.S. has been fairly steadily talking with several Central Asian countries about possible military bases for several years. The U.S. is, understandably, worried about the reliability of its Central Asian partners and wants to keep its options open in case, for example, the Kyrgyzstan government decides to kick the U.S. out of the Manas air base. And it would not at all be surprising if those conversations were even more frequent now, as the U.S. prepares for 2014 and beyond.
For the past year or more I have been hearing rumors, from reliable sources, that the U.S. is in some sort of talks about a new Central Asian basing option. Those rumors tend to be focus on Tajikistan, though, not Uzbekistan. (A U.S. congressman, visiting Central Asia this summer, inadvertently let the cat out of the bag on that.) Will anything come out of that? Who knows. But the speculation will keep Central Asia watchers entertained for a good while.