U.S. AND KAZAKHSTAN SIGN NEW AIR TRANSIT AGREEMENT

By Georgiy Voloshin (11/24/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

At a time when U.S. armed forces are struggling to curb violence in Afghanistan, one of the five Central Asian Republics, Kazakhstan, which is now chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has reached out a helping hand by sticking to the promises given by President Nazarbayev at the April 2010 Washington Nuclear Summit.

On November 12, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Andrew J. Shapiro, and Kazakhstan's Ambassador to the U.S., Erlan Idrissov, signed a new transit agreement enabling U.S. armed forces to overfly Kazakh territory on their way to Afghanistan. According to officials of the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon's military experts, such bilateral cooperation with Kazakhstan will permit considerable reduction of the flying time from the U.S. to battlefields in Afghanistan. Previously, the U.S. air force had to fly first to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany and then go south along the Arabian Gulf from where it could reach Afghanistan via Pakistan.

The opportunity provided by Kazakhstan is aimed at diminishing the United States’ dependence on Pakistan, which is characterized by internal instability and even accused by some of complicity with the Taliban insurgency. The new route will enable the U.S. to transport lethal goods to Afghanistan in slightly over 12 hours by passing close to the North Pole and then overflying both Russia and Kazakhstan. The landing site will now be located at the Bagram Air Base.

“Conflict and instability in Afghanistan are threats to the region and the world. Bilateral cooperation, as exemplified concretely by this Air Transit Agreement, helps to counter these negative trends by enabling progress on our common efforts regarding the security, stabilization, and reconstruction of Afghanistan”, said the Joint Statement on the U.S.-Kazakhstan Air Transit Agreement.

Earlier this year, Kazakhstan and the U.S. concluded another agreement on the overland transportation of non-lethal cargo to Afghanistan for the purpose of supporting NATO-led combat operations there. This agreement supplemented a set of similar arrangements agreed to by Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, all of which had previously consented to establishing a direct and less vulnerable transport route across the Eurasian landmass up to the Uzbek-Afghan border.

It should be noted that Kazakhstan, acting as the current OSCE chairman, made the stabilization of Afghanistan one of the major objectives of its multilateral diplomacy. In July 2010, Nazarbayev addressed the OSCE Informal Ministerial Meeting in Almaty where he outlined his country's commitment to help the Afghan government rebuild its failed economy and normalize the domestic situation.

Earlier, in November 2009, less than a month before the Kazakh Minister for foreign affairs Kanat Saudabayev took over the OSCE chairmanship from his Greek counterpart, Kazakhstan pledged to allocate US$ 50 million to Afghanistan to train 1,000 Afghan students in such sectors as agriculture, medicine, school teaching and engineering. It also donated more than US$ 4 million for the reconstruction of schools, hospitals, car roads and bridges.

Nazarbayev’s recent decision to support the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan with a dozen Kazakh soldiers dispatched to work in the ISAF Headquarters demonstrates the willingness of the Kazakh leadership to become more actively engaged in regional affairs. It is expected that Afghanistan will be one of the top items on the agenda of the upcoming OSCE Summit of the heads of state and government in Astana scheduled for December 1-2 2010. Despite President Obama’s unavailability for this high-level meeting intended to open a new chapter in the OSCE's evolution as a tool of multilateral diplomacy and conflict prevention, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has promised to travel to Astana to present the U.S. position.

Kazakhstan has been a staunch supporter of Operation Enduring Freedom from the very start of combat activities in Afghanistan in 2001. Thanks to Kazakhstan's internal stability and robust economic growth and due to the balanced implementation of a multi-vector diplomacy with regard to major regional powers, it has managed to stay clear of great power quarrels and learned to accommodate Russia, China and the U.S. at the same time. The departure of U.S. troops from the Uzbek Karshi-Khanabad military base in 2005 and the continuing instability in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which hosts the International Transit Center at Manas, make Kazakhstan an indispensable partner in the stabilization of Afghanistan.