Virtual Security of Central Asia
No. 3 2012 July/September
Murat Laumulin

Chief researcher at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies in Almaty. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

The CSTO in the Face of NATO’s Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The forthcoming withdrawal of the Western coalition troops from Afghanistan and possible deployment of weapons and, probably, U.S. operating bases on the territory of some Central Asian countries is creating a new situation in the region. It is in this context that one should probably view Tashkent’s decision to “suspend” its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, announced in late June this year. The CSTO Charter prohibits the deployment of third countries’ military bases on the territories of the allied countries. Uzbekistan’s withdrawal removes legal barriers for it to host any military hardware of NATO, including weapons that NATO forces would like to leave on their way from Afghanistan.

However, Tashkent’s complaint against the CSTO (and formerly against its predecessor, the Collective Security Treaty) is that it is still a token or even virtual organization. When it comes to the need to counter real threats to security and stability, as it was during the invasion of Islamic militants in 1999 and 2000 and during the Osh massacre in 2010, the CSTO plays no role at all. Are these complaints justified?


Problems related to security and stability in Central Asia can be divided into two groups. One group includes problems stemming from the region’s international position and geopolitical risks posed by diplomatic and strategic activities of external actors – the great powers (the United States, China and Russia) and regional powers (Turkey, Iran and Pakistan). The other group includes intraregional threats, risks and challenges. However, it is very difficult to draw a dividing line between the two kinds of problems.

First, the growth of political extremism in Kyrgyzstan, caused by the unpredictability of the country’s socio-economic and political development, is a worrying trend. However, neither neighboring countries, nor Russia, or interested external actors (China, the U.S. or the EU), or even international organizations hurry to take responsibility for the developments there.

Second, the dynamics of the situation in Tajikistan, which is beginning to resemble the one that has taken shape in Kyrgyzstan.

Third, the division of societies along ethnic and clan lines. Formerly latent ethnic conflicts are turning into open hostility.

Fourth, the forthcoming change of political elites and the uncertainty about the political development vector and mechanisms of power handover from the incumbent presidents to their successors.

Fifth, the growing influence of political Islam in Central Asia: organizations propagating political Islam, despite the official ban, continue operating on the territories of all states in the region. Moreover, they are stepping up their activities, both in rural areas and cities.

Finally, the factor of Afghanistan, which has both external and internal aspects. Afghanistan has become a source of constant instability, largely due to ill-considered actions of global actors. The capability of the Hamid Karzai government is questionable. After the U.S. and NATO withdrawal, countries in the region and Russia will once again, as in the early and mid-1990s, have to search for answers to the entire range of related problems. The main one is the prospect of a new wave of Islamic radicalism and resumed Islamist activity.

Quite a few extremist religious/political movements from Central Asian countries, although not large in number, have found shelter in Afghanistan. These are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Akromiya, Tablighi Jamaat, the East Turkestan Islamic Party, the Jamaat of Central Asia Mujahideen, and Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami. Stepped-up activities of these movements in case combat actions move to the north of Afghanistan and the situation in individual countries deteriorates can pose a real threat to secular political regimes.

Another serious danger is Afghanistan’s turning into a world center of drug production and the involvement in the drug trade of “agents” from Central Asia – organized crime groups, some members of security forces and even officials responsible for combating drug trafficking. But the biggest threat stems from the rapid growth of the number of drug addicts in Central Asian countries and Russia, as well as the underestimation of this tragedy by some politicians, especially in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The activities of Western forces in Afghanistan, including efforts to combat drug production, and various geopolitical projects (for example, “Greater Central Asia”) in which this part of Eurasia is viewed as “vital to U.S. interests,” raise many questions. The interests of local countries, as well as Russia, are ignored in such projects. Most experts view the situation as a stalemate – the Coalition cannot stay in Afghanistan, and it cannot finally leave it without damage to its image and other losses.

Some experts believe that the key role in ensuring security in Central Asia in the context of a “post-NATO” Afghanistan should be assigned not to the CSTO but another organization that unites all countries in the region (except Turkmenistan) – that is, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO already now can help create a favorable foreign-policy environment for Afghanistan, block drug trafficking from that country and import of precursors to it, dramatically cut external financial aid to the Afghan opposition, and provide economic aid to Kabul, and finally, create conditions that would limit the spread of radical Islam. These efforts do not need to be coordinated with the Afghan government and, most importantly, with the command of the Western coalition – they would only require the political will of the SCO member states.



Under the new conditions the CSTO has a special responsibility, so the effectiveness of this military-political alliance is becoming a vital issue. According to experts from Russia and other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), enhancing the CSTO’s international role requires a clear ideology, which could be based, in particular, on the idea of maintaining stability in the region. The Moscow-based Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), whose board of trustees was headed by ex-president Dmitry Medvedev, in 2011 put forward proposals aimed at transforming the CSTO.

First of all, it proposed reforming the decision-making system in the CSTO, which now makes decisions by consensus, in favor of decision-making by a simple majority. On the other hand, Tashkent’s withdrawal has made this problem less important, as it was Uzbekistan that took dissenting positions on almost every issue. INSOR also proposed radically changing the model of the CSTO’s relationship with NATO, harmonizing the Organization’s new strategic documents with NATO’s Strategic Concept, approved in 2010, and achieving at least partial interoperability with NATO forces.

Finally, the CSTO was proposed to become the main peacekeeping force in Central Asia and neighboring regions. By agreement with the UN, the bloc could participate in peacekeeping operations even outside the area of its direct responsibility. Another proposal provided for the introduction of an institution of special representatives of the CSTO (similar to NATO special representatives on various issues).

It is not to say that Russia’s efforts proved fruitless. By late 2011, the allies agreed on a list of foreign-policy issues on which they will now speak in one voice, as NATO or the EU do. At their summit in late December 2011, the presidents signed an agreement on military bases, which was a follow-up to their decision made at the summit in Astana in August. The agreement provides that foreign military presence in the CSTO states is possible if supported by all the member states. This was the Organization’s first decision in recent years to conduct a coordinated policy. (It seems that it was a decisive argument for Tashkent in favor of its withdrawal.)

However, the document has loopholes that let the partners circumvent its provisions. The term “military base” definitely requires a special definition. For example, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed with Kazakh officials a possibility of sharing a logistics center (sea port) in Aktau. In Uzbekistan, Navoi Airport is also an international logistics hub which accounts for 90 percent of supplies shipped to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In Kyrgyzstan, in addition to the Transit Center at Manas (renamed from Manas Air Base in 2009), there is an anti-terrorist training center in Tokmok, where a large group of U.S. officers is permanently based. A similar situation is in Tajikistan. All these facilities are, or can soon become, foreign bases.

At the end of 2011, Kazakhstan took over the rotating CSTO presidency. Astana attaches special significance to the protection of the CSTO information space, which has become especially important after the Arab Spring. Priority number two, according to Nursultan Nazarbayev, is further development of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force. The third priority is preventive defense of the Central Asian airspace. Kazakhstan also intends to step up the Organization’s efforts to combat drug trafficking and map out an anti-drug strategy.

In an effort to overcome the pernicious trend towards geopolitical rivalry in Central Eurasia, Kazakhstan at the OSCE Astana Summit in December 2010 proposed strengthening the collective security system through active interaction among all security institutions active in Central Asia, namely NATO, the CSTO, the OSCE, the SCO and, possibly, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), an Asian analogue of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. As the OSCE Chairman in 2010, Kazakhstan made tremendous efforts towards the CSTO’s international recognition. To some extent this was achieved in the Astana Declaration which said that the Eurasian area is now included in the OSCE zone of responsibility.

However, the legitimation problem has not been solved yet. At Washington’s prompting, NATO regards the CSTO as a virtual organization devoid of practical sense and a political linchpin. This follows from a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks. The cable, sent to Washington by U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder, on September 10, 2009, says that “it would be counterproductive for NATO to engage with the CSTO, an organization initiated by Moscow to counter potential NATO and U.S. influence in the former Soviet space. To date, the CSTO has proven ineffective in most areas of activity and has been politically divided. NATO engagement with the CSTO could enhance the legitimacy of what may be a waning organization.”

The West does not believe that the CSTO can be reformed and prefers to resolve all issues with CSTO members on a bilateral level. (It must be admitted that Russia, too, gives priority to bilateral military-political relations with countries of the region.) Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin may change Russia’s policy in the Organization and its attitude to international cooperation. Improvement of relations with the West by any means, including relations between the CSTO and NATO, is not an end in itself for Putin, in contrast to his predecessor who assigned the key role to the “reset” of Russian-U.S. relations. In any event, the CSTO’s role must objectively increase after 2014. If the new/old Russian leadership pursues integration in the military-political sphere with the same zeal as it did in the establishment of the Customs Union, the Common Economic Space and the Eurasian Union, hopefully there will be progress in the CSTO’s transformation, as well.


Uzbekistan’s withdrawal has caused a new wave of discussions about the CSTO’s prospects. Tashkent’s foreign policy can be compared to pendulum motion: every two to three years, Uzbekistan turned away from Russia and other CIS partners and moved closer to the West, and vice versa. But in 2005, after the events in Andijan, Tashkent’s relations with the West deteriorated so much that Uzbekistan was almost declared an international pariah state. Moscow and Beijing supported Tashkent then, and Kazakhstan followed suit.

Over the years of its semi-isolation, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy changed: geopolitically and geo-economically, Tashkent oriented itself largely towards Asia. Changes also took place in its views on security issues, relations with Russia, the policy towards the CIS, regional integration in Central Asia, etc. However, the year 2009 brought changes to Uzbekistan’s international status. The pendulum began to swing back. In late January 2010, Uzbek President Islam Karimov signed a cooperation plan with the U.S. The plan was based on the results of the first round of Uzbek-U.S. consultations. Washington’s interaction with Uzbekistan covers political, social, economic and security issues. The dialogue between the two governments was initiated by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, who visited Tashkent in October 2011.

As regards security cooperation, the plan provides for the training and retraining of Uzbek officers at major U.S. service academies, including in the framework of the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.

In early February 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a waiver allowing the United States to resume non-lethal military supplies to Uzbekistan.

Tashkent’s strategy towards Russia is based on balancing between Moscow, Washington (in the strategic sphere) and Beijing (in economy) and is aimed at forcing the Kremlin into cooperation on terms acceptable to Uzbekistan. Russia’s policy is more passive and inertial, as it is based on the belief that, sooner or later, Uzbekistan will return to Russia-led integration organizations for domestic and foreign political reasons.

Karimov has repeatedly said in public that Moscow seeks to impose its security strategy on other post-Soviet countries through the CSTO and that it actually has neo-imperial ambitions. Tashkent is categorically opposed to the expansion of the CSTO’s military-operational and strategic competence on the basis of the Rapid Reaction Force. Uzbekistan holds that all integration initiatives of Russia imply “the gathering of lands” and the creation of a new, mini-USSR.

After establishing contacts with the new administration in the White House, President Karimov began to think of withdrawing from alliances with Russia – the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the CSTO. He did that in 2010-2012. Tashkent believes that Russia and Central Asia should address their national security problems independently and that the Russian Federation should promote the strengthening of independent states located along its perimeter not by attaching them to its territory, as it does in the EurAsEC or the CSTO, but by promoting their independent regionalization.

The foreign policy of Uzbekistan is multi-vectored, like that of Kazakhstan, but it is facing difficulties. In a way, it is forced and sometimes even unnatural. Uzbek analysts admit that Uzbekistan, which is a member of many international organizations, has failed to separate its national interests from international and supranational ones. Tashkent’s foreign policy has passed through three phases. At first, it was oriented largely towards Russia, which can be explained by post-Soviet inertia. Then Uzbekistan turned towards the West, in particular towards the U.S., which can be described as “independence evaluation.” The current phase is actually a modification of the first two lines, which can be called global adaptation.

Washington views Uzbekistan as the main and most important player in Central Asia: this country has regional leadership ambitions and is capable more than the others of challenging Moscow. There are large Uzbek diasporas in all neighboring countries, which allows Tashkent to intervene in the policies of each of them. Also, it has an advantage over other post-Soviet states in the region, except for Kazakhstan, as it is self-sufficient in food and energy. Importantly, Uzbekistan borders not Russia but Afghanistan. To sum up, one has to say the main vector of the Uzbek “multi-vector” policy is anti-Russian (in contrast to Kazakhstan), which is the source of most of Tashkent’s problems.

Special mention should be made of Kazakh-Uzbek relations. The Uzbek policy towards Astana has never been based on clearly-defined concepts or long-term strategies. On the contrary, it has often been prone to short-term influences and emotions of the leadership, and is dominated by negative clichés and stereotyped views. This has resulted, in particular, in efforts to compensate for the country’s objective lagging behind Kazakhstan by reacting negatively to the latter’s regional integration initiatives.

There is a dominant view among the Uzbek political elite that stability in the whole of Central Asia depends on Uzbekistan and on its relations with the neighbors, and that Islam Karimov has some sort of “golden share” on all major regional issues. The reality, however, does not confirm this belief.


As NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is drawing nearer, prospects for long-term American military presence in Central Asia seem increasingly likely. Washington has announced plans to build special facilities there. In particular, the U.S. Central Command’s counter-narcotics fund intends to allocate money for building training compounds in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh and Tajikistan’s Karatog, as well as a canine training center and a helicopter hangar near Almaty in Kazakhstan.

Washington has published figures detailing the amount of aid that it plans to provide to post-Soviet countries in 2013. Military aid to Uzbekistan will amount to U.S. $1.5 million. The same amount will be given to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan will receive slightly more ($1.8 million), and Turkmenistan will be given $685,000 in aid. After the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014, U.S. military hardware may remain in Central Asian countries. The Pentagon is negotiating this possibility behind closed doors with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Part of the hardware is planned to be handed over to them for free, and another part, for safe storage. The hardware includes armored vehicles, tank transporters, prime movers, tank trucks, special-purpose graders, bulldozers and water trucks. In addition, the Pentagon plans to provide Afghanistan’s neighbors with medical equipment, communications systems, fire-extinguishing equipment and even mobile gyms. Tajikistan would like to receive military equipment for border control and equipment for conducting military operations in the mountains. Kyrgyzstan wants drones.

Apparently, the Pentagon has found it inexpedient to take most of the equipment home or leave it behind in Afghanistan. The transfer of military hardware to Central Asian countries would strengthen Washington’s positions in the region. For Moscow, it would mean the emergence of a noticeable American segment in the Central Asian arms market, which has been oriented towards Soviet and Russian-made equipment. The emergence of U.S. and NATO equipment in service with Central Asian countries would entail the need for training, supply of spare parts and upgrading, and may eventually result in Moscow’s CSTO partners becoming accustomed to cooperation with the West.

The United States prefers to discuss such issues in the framework of bilateral relations, without involving regional organizations, such as the CSTO. If implemented, these plans would let the U.S. broaden its military cooperation with CSTO members behind Moscow’s back. However, Russia is not sidelined in these processes: if Russia opens a NATO transit hub in Ulyanovsk, after Central Asia Western equipment and personnel will go via Russian territory.

In June 2012, it was announced that NATO signed agreements with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan for the land transit of cargo and military equipment from Afghanistan. Previous agreements provided for only air transportation. The new arrangements will provide NATO with a flexible transport network for the withdrawal of troops, vehicles and equipment from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The signing of the new agreements is further proof that the parties have finally agreed on a price for the return transit from Afghanistan via the Northern Route, as well as on economic, political and military preferences for the countries of the region during and after the withdrawal. Using military bases in Central Asia would be an ideal option for the Pentagon.