This essay is part of a series by American diplomats sharing their impressions of the dramatic early years of Central Asia's independence from the Soviet Union. These memoirs were written at the invitation of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Eurasianet publishes these with special thanks to Nargis Kassenova, director of Davis's Program on Central Asia.
Before instantaneous breaking news on the internet, each office at the State Department, where I was office director for Caucasus and Central Asian Affairs on September 11, 2001, had CNN. We were all watching when the second plane hit.
An announcement to the entire building came over the loudspeaker: “Secure all classified material and prepare to evacuate the building.” Within minutes, a second announcement: “Do not evacuate! Repeat, do not evacuate! Await further instructions.” And then, a few minutes after that, just as we had seen that the Pentagon had been hit, a third loudspeaker announcement: “Evacuate now! Evacuate the building immediately! Evacuate and go home!”
This was not a routine fire-drill evacuation that all were used to, where we would go outside and stand in an assigned position away from the building to await the “all clear” signal and then return to our desks. In the jammed hallways and stairwells, the anxiety and growing chaos was clear: “They got the Pentagon! The State Department is next!” “No, they’re going for the White House!” “No, the Capitol is next!” “Get out of my way!”
When we returned to work the next day, the world had changed. I had a superb staff of young diplomats who started churning out memos – “to pass up the chain” – on what our ambassadors were reporting from the eight countries we covered: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, three of which bordered Afghanistan. By now it was known that al-Qaeda had orchestrated the attack on America, hitting our iconic financial and governmental institutions. But the rest of the State Department was doing the same thing, and the flood of information was gridlocking the entire system.
New military agreements
Here’s an important thing to know about being in the State Department: You have access to almost all diplomatic reporting and many, if not all, intelligence reports relevant to your area of responsibility. But you “stay in your lane.” That means you don’t necessarily know what is happening and being decided at higher levels, and you generally don’t ask. You keep your head down and do your job.
And so I was somewhat surprised when I was told early in October to prepare to fly with a small American team to Tashkent to negotiate US military access to the old Soviet airfield at Karshi-Khanabad in southwest Uzbekistan as part of the preparations to attack al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Our head negotiator was Ambassador Marisa Lino from the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, and our team included several representatives from the Department of Defense and an official English-Russian translator, a Russian emigre who was cleared for such things.
Airspace in the United States and Canada had been closed for several days immediately following the 9/11 attacks. By that time, the end of the first week in October, it had reopened for international flights, but the passenger loads were still noticeably light. We arrived in Tashkent with barely enough time to shower and grab a quick bite before heading directly to the Foreign Ministry.
The kind of bilateral agreement we needed is often called a Status of Forces Agreement. Under normal circumstances, such negotiations can take months and months. But we didn’t have months and months. To their real credit, the Uzbek side recognised the urgency to get it done. In fact, though we didn’t know at that time, Russian President Vladimir Putin had already told Uzbek President Islam Karimov to accommodate the Amerikantsy, because it was in both Tashkent and Moscow’s interests to do so.
The way such a negotiation works is that each side receives a draft copy of the agreement in advance and then “brackets the language” it wants revised. That means literally drawing brackets around words, phrases, or even whole sentences that one side or the other wants changed, and then both sides must agree on a mutually acceptable new version. Sometimes, the changes are very minor, simply revising “happy” to “glad.” But sometimes the changes are more substantive. And that nitty-gritty part of negotiation takes time, because precision is vitally important.
Every few hours, we’d take a break. The Uzbeks had a break room, and the Americans had a separate break room a little further down on the opposite side of the same hallway. The Americans didn’t allow smoking in their break room. And so, at the first break, I wandered into the Uzbek room and asked if I could join them for a cigarette. They were a bit taken aback at first but seemed to like the idea of an American smoking and graciously welcomed me. That was valuable, because a lot of diplomacy gets done during informal chats rather than across a conference table. Not only did a few venture to ask me what we really wanted in a particular instance in the document, but also I could eavesdrop on their chatting among themselves, and that would sometimes give me insight into what they were really looking for.
In the end, we worked straight through for nearly 36 hours, something almost totally unheard of, although the final several hours were taken up by the translators doing their joint word-smithing battles to be certain that both the English and Russian versions of the document meant exactly and legally the same thing.
When we finally reached that point, our seriously sleep-deprived team was driven back to the InterContinental Hotel. I will never forget that as I slogged through the front door of the hotel, I noticed people in the lobby crowded about the televisions. I walked over to see what was happening. One man in the crowd recognized me as part of the delegation from Washington and, grabbing me by the sleeve, said excitedly, “Look! Look! We’re helping you bomb Afghanistan!” The US war against al-Qaeda had started literally one hour after we had jointly initialled the Status of Forces Agreement.
The US-Uzbekistan agreement was the first, but not the only, formal agreement with the countries of Central Asia. We soon had in place a similar Status of Forces Agreement with Kyrgyzstan for our military to use the international airport at Manas, just outside of Bishkek. Reaching that agreement was not nearly so dramatic. It was done in the more traditional way of working through our embassies. The process was relatively smooth, and we gained access to Manas within days.
Immediately after 9/11, the US government had actually considered requesting access to three airfields, including one in Tajikistan, and we had already initiated back-channel feelers to the government in Dushanbe. But when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the final call, he decided that two would suffice, and we withdrew our request to Tajikistan. That did not sit well in Dushanbe, but President Emomali Rahmonov’s government did grant us military aircraft refuelling rights. Turkmenistan also did, although “permanently neutral” Ashgabat insisted that all US military personnel on the ground had to wear civilian attire, not military uniforms, so that their presence would be less visible. Kazakhstan readily granted landing rights to US military aircraft in the event they had to divert from landing just across the border at Manas in Kyrgyzstan. Further, we obtained overflight rights and, eventually, Northern Distribution Network agreements to ship supplies through the Central Asian states.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov is escorted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld into the Pentagon on March 13, 2002. (Image: US Department of Defense).
The Northern Distribution Network, or NDN as it came to be called, was another initial concession by Putin’s Russia. It allowed the overland delivery – from Europe, through Russia and Central Asia – of the day-to-day goods and supplies that the US and Nato troops needed in Afghanistan. Achieving these agreements with the Central Asian states was relatively pro forma, except for the US-Kazakhstan agreement. And the fault this time was largely our own.
Kazakhstan argued, quite logically, that it would be to our advantage to procure a large amount of these goods and supplies in Kazakhstan, cutting the cost of international shipments and, not incidentally, also enriching Kazakhstani farmers and manufacturers. It certainly would have been significantly less expensive for the US government than to buy enormous numbers of things in the United States and Europe and then ship them thousands of miles to Afghanistan. The sticking point was the US military’s extremely detailed – pages long – lists of requirements for the origin and manufacture of each one of these goods. Even canned tomatoes for use in the mess halls had to meet these requirements. Kazakhstan didn’t meet those requirements for anything it was offering to sell to the US military. My job was to negotiate this agreement with Kazakhstan’s embassy in Washington.
Their ambassador at that time, Kanat Saudabayev – a curious character who earlier in life had been a circus manager – didn’t speak English and assigned one of his senior team, Kairat Umarov, to conduct the actual negotiation. I knew and liked Kairat quite well as a pleasant, reasonable, and highly intelligent individual. Further, I was personally impressed that he had started his public life leading protests against Soviet nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk that had left parts of the Kazakh SSR devastated and thousands permanently deformed. Kairat eventually went on to become Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States.
After several days of polite and even pleasant but deadlocked negotiation, the US military slightly capitulated and agreed to procure plywood in Kazakhstan, but only plywood. However, that was enough to break the deadlock. Within hours, the Kazakhstan Embassy received authorisation from home to close the negotiations and sign the agreement. Apparently, the symbolic US gesture had helped Kazakhstan save face.
We didn’t know Central Asia
All of this was a radically new level of US relations with the Central Asian states. At their unexpected independence at the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the United States had had little sense of what these new countries were like. And the countries themselves had little sense of what they would – or should – become and how they should play their roles. In fact, at the emergence of these new nations, American foreign policy exhibited what Henry Kissinger once called “irrational exuberance.” We seemed to believe that they naturally were “yearning to breathe free” and naturally would soon become free-market democracies.
This rather facile ideological expectation did not consider that the five newly independent countries had lived under Soviet domination for 70 years, and before that under Imperial Russia. And even before that, their lands had been a mixture of Turkic and Mongol khanates and small communities of nomadic herdsmen with traditions stretching back into antiquity. Unlike the new Baltic nations, they had no historical memory of Western influence. The difference is stark.
The way that Western nations organise their societies, economies, and governments flows from the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. It emphasizes individual rights, responsibilities, and initiatives. The individual fundamentally comes first. The Soviet and tsarist worlds, by contrast, followed a straight line directly back to Byzantium and the pre-modern world, where the state has ultimate power over the individual. And so there’s a bit of intellectual irony when Western observers, commentators, and diplomats sometimes shake their heads in dismay and remark that the post-Soviet states can be byzantine. Well, yes, indeed!
In that first burst of American diplomatic “irrational exuberance,” to Washington’s real credit it established new embassies in each capital and created generous assistance and development programmes to facilitate these new countries’ arrival on the world stage. But after a few years, Washington’s ideological eagerness began to ebb when it became apparent that human rights, press freedom, and multi-party democracy were not at the top of these countries’ agendas. By September 2001, US relations with Central Asia had reached their first low point. However, our new military agreements with the region meant that we needed new civilian agreements, too.
New civilian agreements
At the beginning of 2002, the assistant secretary of state told me to negotiate new bilateral civilian agreements with the countries of Central Asia. When I told my own overworked staff of this new assignment, to their great credit, they were delighted. Within a short time, after close consultation across government to ensure that we would have comprehensive agreements, my team and I arrived at a basic, five-page template that would cover all aspects of US relations with these countries.
Tashkent had picked up on what was coming, and before we could send our draft document to our ambassador there to pass to the government of Uzbekistan for their initial response, they came in with their own draft agreement nearly three times longer than our own.
I read it carefully and, quite honestly, was impressed. Whereas in our draft, we had touched but not gone into extensive detail on matters such as democracy, human rights, press freedom, and good governance, Tashkent’s draft covered such issues in considerable detail, almost as if our own ideological table-pounders in Washington had produced the document. In hindsight, it’s clear that the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Washington had been reporting to Tashkent the increasingly vocal criticism by human rights groups of the US government for its newly enhanced relationships with the countries of Central Asia.
I argued to my bosses that I wanted to use the Tashkent document as the basis for negotiation, precisely because it was their words and would, therefore, give them more reason to fulfil those expectations. My bosses were sceptical, and rightly so. But, to their credit, they agreed to let me move forward with my plan.
Because the United States had flown to Tashkent to negotiate our military agreement, in the spirit of diplomatic reciprocity Uzbekistan sent a team to Washington to negotiate this civilian agreement – “Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation” – informally known as the Framework Agreement. As evidence of the urgency we all felt, the two sides met for the first time on a Saturday morning at the State Department.
When the Uzbek team was escorted into the conference room, my heart sank a bit. Their lead negotiator was a Tashkent official I had gotten to know to a degree during my previous 1993-95 assignment to our embassy in Tashkent. He immediately confirmed my impression that he was a portly, imperious, almost supercilious, old-guard hard-liner. As we got to work, it turned out that he had “bracketed” and wanted to change a great deal of the draft document that had originated in Tashkent and that I had argued to my side should be the working draft of the needed agreement. We slogged away for three hours without a single accomplishment – not one single bracket closed – and then took a short lunch break.
When we returned to work, for several more hours it was more of the same from their side. It was a beautiful late winter Saturday in Washington. I was increasingly frustrated and knew that we were ultimately very unlikely to reach any kind of agreement that the US government could live with. But I also knew that we needed that agreement. And so I decided that it was time for a little diplomatic drama.
After one of the Tashkent negotiator’s droning, interminable, and inflexible interventions, I abruptly pushed back my chair, stood up, scooped up the pages of my copy of the document, and theatrically threw them over my shoulder. I leaned forward with both hands on the conference table and, looking directly at my counterpart, I said: “When you’re ready to negotiate seriously rather than dictate, we can get some work done. But I’m out of here. I’m going home.” I stalked out of the room and did indeed go home. My team was aghast. I expected my bosses to be appalled. Yes, they were a bit uneasy, but one said to me, “Let’s see what happens.”
By the following Tuesday, Tashkent had sent a new lead negotiator to Washington. When I saw who it was, Deputy Foreign Minister Rustam Azimov, I knew we’d get our work done in a way that would satisfy both capitals – the true goal of diplomacy – because I knew him as thoroughly professional and, above all, reasonable. We did indeed finish the document in a relatively short time and, with a lot of hard work, reached a mutually acceptable agreement that both sides initialled in March 2002. To this very day, the government of Uzbekistan still occasionally refers to that agreement.
Twenty years later
Since those first few months of diplomatic frenzy following 9/11, US relations with the Central Asian nations have ebbed and flowed. No, they generally have not become more like us. Vladimir Putin has declared the former Soviet republics as Moscow’s special sphere of influence. China has risen as a global power and has increasingly staked its claims in Central Asia, especially with its Belt and Road Initiative that appears to exercise soft power as a prelude to hard power. Each of the five Central Asian nations practices, to one degree or another, what Kazakhstan first defined as “multi-vector foreign policy,” meaning that they seek positive relations with Beijing, Brussels, Moscow, and Washington.
Although Central Asia is on the other side of the world, although Washington has interests and commitments around the globe, we do, indeed, need to remain a key player in the strategic crossroads of Central Asia where Russia and China are vying for influence. It is very much in our own US national interest to do so. If history is any guide, we inevitably will come to need them again in the future.
Richard E. Hoagland served as US ambassador to Tajikistan (2003-2006) and Kazakhstan (2008-2011).
This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.