- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister sought to allay U.S. concerns about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in an interview, maintaining that the burgeoning alliance is not a military organization and is not designed to limit U.S. influence in the region.

“These are not the goals we have set for the SCO,” Ednan Karabaev said at his country’s U.S. Embassy late last week. “Its work is based on the peacemaking ability of each member, while taking into account certain security challenges that we all face.”

The bloc linking China, Russia and four Central Asian states startled the U.S. government at its 2005 summit in Kazakhstan with a call for a deadline for the closing of all foreign bases in the region. Kyrgyzstan is home to the Manas base, the key U.S. Air Force site for supporting the mission in Afghanistan.

The SCO countries also granted Iran “observer” status in the organization, something the United States was denied.

Kyrgyzstan, considered the most politically liberal of the Central Asian states, hosted the most recent SCO summit in its capital, Bishkek, in August.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Karabaev, who met with top Bush administration officials on a visit here last week, said there is a “common understanding” among all the SCO partners that Manas will be available to the United States and its coalition partners as long as needed for stabilization and counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

All the SCO members “do recognize that the base helps to solve issues of international security in our region,” he said.

In recent remarks at the Nixon Center, Evan A. Feigenbaum, deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, acknowledged that U.S. policy-makers have watched the unexpected emergence of the SCO — especially the designs of Russia and China — with a certain wariness.

He noted that the past two SCO summits have not repeated the 2005 statement on foreign troops and said it seemed even the SCO members feel “ambivalence” about the alliance’s future.

“Ask a Russian, ask a Chinese, ask a Kyrgyz, ask an Uzbek — you will hear four different answers,” he said.

“We’re watching the relationship between the SCO’s big powers and its smaller members,” Mr. Feigenbaum said. “Or more specifically — to be absolutely open and candid — we’re trying to gauge how Russia and China view the future of the SCO and their view of the American role in Central Asia.”

Mr. Karabaev said bilateral U.S.-Kyrgyz relations are strong, bolstered by strong U.S. backing for the reforms of Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution.

Kyrgyzstan’s economy grew at a brisk 9.2 percent clip in the first half of 2007, and President Kurmanbek Bakiyev pushes plans to attract foreign investment and diversify away from resource-based production.

Despite a spike in Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, Mr. Karabaev said, he sees signs of revival in that country.

“There has been progress. Today it is not right to paint Afghanistan only in dark colors,” he said.

Mr. Karabaev warned against too much outside pressure on Afghanistan to quickly adopt Western-style political and social reforms.

“We all have to be patient,” he said. “Otherwise, it is like putting first-grader in the 10th grade and expecting him to succeed.”

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