U.S. Looking At Drone Base In Central Asia

Central Eurasia

The United States is making contingency plans to place an armed drone base in Central Asia in the case that the government of Afghanistan doesn't allow the U.S. military to stay in the country past 2014, the Los Angeles Times (LAT) has reported. The U.S. wants to maintain the ability to carry out attacks against militants in Pakistan, and if it is forced to vacate Afghanistan, the next best option may be Central Asia. If that does come to pass, it wouldn't be the first time that the U.S. operated drone aircraft from Central Asia.

In 2000 – during the Clinton administration and more than a year before the September 11 attacks – the U.S. secretly arranged with the government of Uzbekistan to base MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles there. The Predators were used for surveillance of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and as Steve Coll wrote in his history of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Ghost Wars, the U.S. and Uzbekistan took great pains to make sure that the base remained secret. Coll wrote:

As the [bin Laden surveillance] planning developed in the early summer of 2000, Uzbekistan agreed to allow secret Predator flights from one of its air bases for a limited period of time, but Islam Karimov government's government was adamant about secrecy. The agency's officers feared that even the small cluster of vans and satellite dishes necessary to pilot a Predator would attract unwanted attention among Uzbek soldiers and officers. The cooperation between the CIA and the Uzbeks was so secret that many people in Karimov's own government did not know about it..

The first Predator took off from Uzbekistan in September 2000, and it did manage to get images of bin Laden. But even then, U.S. security officials were concerned that the aircraft were only suitable for surveillance, not attack. “As technologically dazzling as that was, it was frustrating in almost equal measure,” then-CIA director George Tenet later wrote in his memoir. “Yes, we might have been looking at [bin Laden], but we were not in a position to do anything about it.”

A mere month after the drone mission began, it came to a halt, as Coll wrote:

By mid-October fierce winds gathered in northern Afghanistan. On some flights the Predator's meek engine had trouble propelling the drone across the mountains. The Predator kept drifting back toward Uzbekistan. Temperatures plummeted, and wing icing became a more worrisome problem. They knew from Balkans experience that the Predator was a very difficult plane to fly in bad weather. The White House and the Counterterrorist Center halted the operation. The Afghan mission had always been designed as a finite experiment.

Whether or not the Predator flights from Uzbekistan ever resumed is unknown.

This time, it's not clear exactly where in Central Asia the U.S. is looking to base its aircraft. “The CIA cannot fly drones from its Afghan drone bases without U.S. military protection, according to several American officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the program is classified,” the LAT wrote. “If the bases are evacuated, the CIA fleet of armed Predator and Reaper drones could be moved to airfields north of Afghanistan, U.S. officials say, without naming the countries. 'There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north,' said one official briefed on the matter.”

The new, proposed drone deployment would use armed drones (the Avenger, an updated version of the Predator), which would be even more controversial than the 2000 surveillance operation and thus would require even more secrecy. Additionally, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has changed substantially since 2000, in ways that also would significantly effect a U.S. drone deployment in Central Asia. In 2000 Russia consented to a small U.S. military presence in Central Asia. But over the intervening 14 years the Kremlin has become far less trusting of the U.S.'s military intentions in its back yard, and Russia would almost certainly use all its levers of influence to stop U.S. drones from operating in Central Asia.

Of the three Central Asian countries on the Afghanistan border – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan – Russia holds the most leverage over Tajikistan. Nearly half of Tajikistan's GDP is made up of remittances from labor migrants in Russia, and the largest Russian military base for land forces outside Russia is in Tajikistan. But neither Uzbekistan nor Turkmenistan is immune to Russian pressure, either. And both have governments that are among the most repressive in the world, and boosting military cooperation in such a dramatic way with either could prove unpopular with some in the U.S. government.

Because its operations are largely hidden from the public, a CIA mission would blunt the public reaction to a drone operation in Central Asia. However, President Obama has promised to shift the drone program from the CIA to military control, and military operations require more transparency to the public. All in all, Washington has a lot of obstacles to overcome if it were to in fact send drones to Central Asia.