NATO and the Republics of Central Asia


The NATO mission in Afghanistan shows how important it is to coordinate operations within a regional context. As more and more coalition troops return home, maintaining a good relationship with neighboring countries becomes essential to ensure the future stability of the region. But if one examines NATO’s strategy, it seems by far more focused on Afghanistan’s “big neighbors”: most of all Pakistan and Iran, and of course Russia and China. On the other hand, the dialogue with the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan has hitherto been limited. Moreover, should stabilization efforts fail in Afghanistan, the repercussions would be much more serious for the smaller and politically fragile Central Asian States (colloquially referred to as the “Stans”) than for the big players in the region. An increased power of the Taliban would have a significant destabilizing effect on the security of all the Stans, which already suffer from poverty, corruption, ethnic divisions and religious extremism.

Situated along the ancient “Silk Road” that once connected Asia and Europe, the Stans are in a key geographic position. Besides their increasing importance for European energy supply, from a purely strategic standpoint they can provide support to the international community, for example in the scenarios that could occur from the rise of a nuclear Iran. Should Tehran acquire the capability of nuclear weapons, the possibility of confrontations, both conventional and nuclear would certainly increase. Although for the moment a western military intervention in Iran seems improbable, the Stans could provide logistical support should the need arise. This type of support could also prove necessary should NATO need to re-engage in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal. For these reasons it will be crucial for NATO to keep a continuing dialogue and collaboration with Central Asia.

NATO in fact started cooperating with the Stans already at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, through the Partnership for Peace program (PfP). All of the Central Asian states joined the PfP program shortly after its launch in 1994, except for Tajikistan, which joined in 2002. At that time, preserving their economic and political autonomy was an important goal for NATO and the West. It was deemed useful to curtail the influence of Russia and China.

However, unlike for other former Soviet countries such as Georgia and Ukraine, after the initial phase the collaboration with NATO did not develop significantly, for several reasons. First, since the Stans are in Asia, and an institutional requirement to advance the partnership is lacking: NATO’s founding treaty limits any additional membership in the Alliance to European countries (art. 10). Second, the Stans’ democratic foundations are weak, as proven by the fact that all of them rank amongst the last in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Third, since their independence, the Stans have remained wary of not upsetting their powerful neighbors. They have maintained strong economic and political links with Russia and China as is proven by their membership (except for Turkmenistan) in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), both regional institutions being viewed as rivals of NATO.

The CSTO and SCO have criticized the western military presence in Central Asia and condemned US Theatre Missile Defense plans in Europe. It seems that, when working within the CSTO and SCO frameworks, the Central Asian States remain careful not to oppose Russian and Chinese security policy. The Stans are also cautious about collaborating with the West because they are concerned about foreign interference in their internal political matters,such as regarding human rights abuses.  At the same time, the Central Asian States (as well as Russia and China) are aware that NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan has helped regional stabilization by eliminating a breeding ground for terrorism and reducing the operational capacity of al Qaeda. Many Central Asian and North Caucasian jihadists have fought (and died) against the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), turning their attention away from their own national separatist movements.

For all these reasons the collaboration between NATO members and the Stans has continued throughout the years. Of course the importance of Central Asia for NATO grew significantly after September 11th and the subsequent mission in Afghanistan. NATO officially acknowledged this, notably on the occasion of its Istanbul Summit in 2004 by appointing a Special Representative to the Caucasus and Central Asia.1

As far as they are concerned, the Stans have shown an interest in cooperating with NATO in order to fight Islamic extremism in their own territories. Consequently, in the decade since 9/11 the Stans have taken advantage of the PfP tools in different ways and to various degrees. Most notably, they have provided logistical support by allowing NATO members to rent bases on their territory and create a transit route for forces fighting in Afghanistan (the so-called “Northern Distribution Network”).

But what are the specific programs that the Atlantic Alliance promoted in the various Stans? A quick overview of the situation in each Central Asian Country will answer this question.


Kazakhstan is the largest and the wealthiest of the Stans and enjoys the highest level of cooperation with NATO. In 2002 it joined the Planning and Review Process2, which is NATO’s primary tool promoting interoperability with PfP members. In 2005 it became the first and only Stan to agree to a more enhanced relationship through an Individual Partnership Action Plan.3 This covers several key areas, including military, political, and security-sector reforms. Kazakhstan also subscribes to the Partnership Action Plan on Defense Institution Building, which provides tailored advice and assistance programs regarding defense sector reform.

Through the Partnership Action Plan on Terrorism,4 NATO collaborates with Kazakhstan on border control, intelligence sharing and enhancing national counter-terrorist capabilities. There is also an annual counter-terrorism exercise named “Steppe Eagle”, which has been regularly held since its launch in 2003. Steppe Eagle was designed to strengthen the interoperability of forces, with the hope that Kazakhstan could one day participate alongside ISAF forces. However this possibility never materialized, quite on the contrary, in June 2011 the upper house voted against any future deployment of Kazakh troops to Afghanistan.


Uzbekistan’s relationship with NATO has been less straightforward. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, President Islam Karimov initially sought to distance the country from Russia and move closer to the West. Accordingly, in 1999 Uzbekistan withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States’ Collective Security Treaty (the predecessor to the CSTO). In 2001 it allowed the U.S. to open an air base at Karshi-Khanabad to support the operations in Afghanistan.Shortly thereafter,Uzbekistan also allowed for the opening of a German air base and a land corridor providing humanitarian assistance in Termez. Moreover, in 2002 Uzbekistan undertook a Planning and Review Process through which NATO supported institutional reform in the defense and security sector. NATO also provided military education, including counter terrorism and counter narcotics training. There was also some civil emergency planning, such as an exercise in 2003 that simulated an international response to a major earthquake.

However, the relationship broke down in 2005, when the Uzbek authorities brutally crushed anti-government demonstrators in Andijan, causing hundreds of casualties. Western powers strongly criticized the violation of human rights, with NATO’s Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer calling for an independent commission to investigate the incidents. On that occasion the US and EU supported a UN airlift of more than 400 refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania. In response, Karimov evicted the US from the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, halted Uzbek participation in the Planning and Review Process and made Uzbekistan join the CSTO.

Relations with NATO have improved since the 2005 crisis and Islam Karimov visited Brussels to meet with NATO and EU officials in January of 2011. The country currently serves as an important hub for the Northern Distribution Network and leases an airbase in Navoi to South Korea, so as to allow the transport of non-lethal NATO supplies to Afghanistan.

One should note that terrorism in Uzbekistan is a major issue, most notably having to do with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a regional organization founded in the early 1990’s that works alongside al Qaeda with the purpose of establishing a single Islamic State in all the Stans. Although this group has been weakened after heavy losses incurred from fighting against the ISAF forces, it has established strongholds in Eastern and Northern Afghanistan, as well as in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.


Kyrgyzstan participates in several NATO activities through its PfP program. It joined the PARP in 2002 and provides an important logistical aid to the ISAF mission. A popular uprising in April 2010 overthrew the former president and resulted in the appointment of a provisional government. Subsequently, presidential elections were held in November 2011. NATO is collaborating with Bishkek in defense sector reform and military education, including border-control and search and rescue training.

Regarding the war in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan entered into a bilateral agreement with the United States that allows for an American airbase to operate in Manas. This proved to be a vital refueling and transit point for the operations, although its existence has not been without controversy. Following Russian and Chinese pressures and a civilian incident in early 2009, Kyrgyzstan announced that it would close the base but later reversed its decision.

In exchange for its logistical support, in the decade since 9/11 Kyrgyzstan has received a significant amount of American assistance. In terms of military aid, this has included communications equipment, helicopters and special forces training.5 The US has also announced the construction of an anti-terrorism training center in Southern Kyrgyzstan.


Although Tajikistan’s relation with NATO is relatively limited, it participates in an Individual Partnership Program6 and has expressed interest in the PARP. The country shares a 1300-kilometer (810 mile) long border with Afghanistan and therefore has a particular interest in regional stability and security. It collaborates with the ISAF in border security, drug trafficking, mine-clearing activities and the exchange of information. Furthermore, NATO is supporting a counter-terrorism course for the Tajik Military Institute of the Ministry of Defense.

Tajikistan provides assistance to the ISAF mission by allowing the use of its Dushanbe Airport to French air forces, which play an important part in attack and recognizance missions. As is the case with the US airbase in Kyrgyzstan, China and Russia are unhappy about the Western military presence and are pushing for its closing. Tajikistan also offers NATO forces air-space rights and refueling privileges at other airfields. The United States plans to build a training centre in Karatogthat will focus on counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics education.7

Regarding the defense and security sector, Tajikistan is working with NATO in order to improve the coordination between the government, parliament and military. There is also non-military collaboration involving education and disaster relief, including the development of warning systems for natural disasters.


Out of all the Stans, Turkmenistan has the least developed relationship with NATO. Although it joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1992 and subscribed to a PfP in 1994, there has been little collaboration so far, due to the country’s strict policy of neutrality. Consequently, Turkmenistan has not provided any support to the ISAF mission. It has up until now only officially allowed air transit to airplanes bringing humanitarian assistance and a small “gas and go” refueling operation at its base of Ashqabad.

Nonetheless, Turkmenistan has officially collaborated with NATO in the fight against terrorism, narcotics, border control security, civil emergency planning and defense planning. Most of this collaboration consists of educational activities promoted by NATO such as counter narcotic training, counter terrorism courses and defense planning guidance. Regarding civil emergency planning, NATO has provided Turkmenistan with some technical assistance such as updating planning procedures and organization methods for rescue operations.

Looking Ahead: NATO’s Strategy in Central Asia

Although NATO’s collaboration with the Central Asian States did not develop as one might have originally hoped, in retrospect the implementation of various PfP tools served several important purposes. First, it laid the groundwork for the bilateral base and transit agreements that supported both the Operation Enduring Freedom and subsequent International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan. When in the aftermath of 9/11 western interests in Central Asia grew significantly, NATO had already made the groundwork necessary for the bilateral base and transit arrangements that supported the mission in Afghanistan. Second, the PfP program helped strengthen the crisis management and security capabilities of Stans’ national institutions. As described above, the program has included defense reform, counter terrorism and counter narcotics training, border control, interoperability and civil-emergency planning. This collaboration has helped keep in check extremist groups in the region, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The future pursuit of NATO’s programs in Central Asia is connected to the geopolitical strategies of the members of the alliance. As has been noted,8 the two main NATO constituencies, the US and Europe, have not been convergent in this respect. The US is taking a narrow security focus while the EU pursues a wider economic and human rights agenda. Consequently, US assistance seems geared towards security matters and the fight against terrorism while the EU, through its “Central Asia Strategy for a New Partnership”, goes beyond security issues, focusing on regional economic development, human rights and the rule of law.9 In this respect, the EU’s interest in Central Asia is clearly linked to the energy resources its territory contains. For example, the development of a Trans-Caspian pipeline could one day lessen the European dependence on Russian energy and give Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan direct access to alternative distribution facilities. Therefore, the economic development promoted by the EU includes projects for the transportation of oil and gas, diversification of energy supply and the protection of the environment.

China and Russia remain the biggest economic players in Central Asia, with the former having become the largest investor in recent years. Chinese investment has included several multibillion-dollar energy projects, including construction of an oil pipeline in Kazakhstan that will bring crude oil some 3,000 kilometers to Dushanzi City in the Xinjiang.

Nonetheless, international investment and assistance has clearly not helped to alleviate the deep-rooted problems inherent in the region. These include poor economies, declining public services, and the presence of abusive security forces and corrupt political structures. Critically, most of the region’s population is under 25, so there is a generational shift away from the current leaders who grew up in the Soviet era. Due to severe poverty coupled with brutal repression, the Stans seem to be particularly susceptible to popular uprisings in the coming years.

The lesson one can draw from the Arab Spring is that, in an increasingly interconnected world, local security threats can easily spill across the boundaries. In a worst-case scenario, after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, there could be a fundamentalist backlash in the region that could overthrow one or more of the Central Asian governments. Contrary to what had been hoped for, recent developments have shown that the Taliban still has the potential to return to power. In light of the increasingly deteriorating relations with Pakistan and renewed terrorist activity in Afghanistan, western institutions, including NATO, should be careful to not burn any bridges with the Stans after the 2014 scheduled troop withdrawal.

In this perspective, it makes sense for NATO to try to develop its collaboration with Central Asia in the upcoming years, even if there will be a reduced western military footprint in the region.

From an operational standpoint, NATO has kept so far a limited presence in the Stans, acting through the embassies of some of NATO members. In view of the planned disengagement from Afghanistan, establishing a permanent base is not desired, nor would the Stans themselves allow this from happening. However, Forward Operating Locations (FOL), with a small presence and the support of personnel under contract could be a good idea10. Presence of FOLs in more than one Stan would allow for a balanced intervention and not too much dependence on any single country. This would allow NATO to quickly move to address both security or humanitarian issues in the region should the need arise.


1 The current Special Representative to the Caucasus and Central Asia is James Appathurai, who has stressed the strategic importance of the Stans in relation to NATO’s long-term commitment to the region. See “NATO’s James Appathurai on how Central Asia can help stabilize Afghanistan”, available at


2 The PfP PARP establishes a list of requirements that the partner country must fulfill and a review process that measures progress attained.


3 The IPAP is designed for PfP members that have the interest and ability to deepen their relationship with NATO. It includes an enhanced assistance in the reforming of national institutions, such as in the security and defense sectors.


4 The PAP-T provides a framework in which NATO and partner countries can combat terrorism. This includes protection of civilian populations against WMDs and terrorism related training and exercises.


5 Olga Oliker and David A. Shlapak, “US Interests in Central Asia: Policy Priorities and Military Roles”, RAND Project Air Force 2005, available at


6 This preliminary document provides the foundation for the cooperation between NATO and PfP Partners, reflecting their goals and ambitions.


7 See Shustov, Alexander, “US Switching From Afghanistan to Central Asia”, Strategic Culture Foundation, 27 June 2011, available at>.


8 Cf. NATO and Central Asia, in EUCAM Watch, Issue 11- February 2012, available at




10 FOLs are defined as both: i) forward operating facilities that support rotational use by operational forces with a small permanent presence; and ii) cooperative security locations, with no permanent presence but containing prepositioned equipment and relying on contractor support. See Olga Oliker and David A. Shlapak, “US Interests in Central Asia: Policy Priorities and Military Roles” cited on page XVI.