Sat, 22 Feb 2020

Media reports about the Trump administration's plans to bar nationals of Kyrgyzstan, along with six other countries, from entering the United States as part of the latest proposed travel restrictions have many scratching their heads.

A January 21 report on Politico, a news website, cites two unnamed people familiar with the matter as saying the list is not definitive and that a firm announcement will be made later in the month.

The report offers few clues as to why Kyrgyzstan was included. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf is cited as saying that Washington has been relying on foreign governments to vet which of its citizens travel to the United States and that the failure of some countries to do so has necessitated restrictions.

"For a small number of countries that lack either the will or the capability to adhere to these criteria, travel restrictions may become necessary to mitigate threats," Politico quoted him as saying.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that Kyrgyzstan is on the draft list.

Unlike the administration's original travel ban in 2017, which began by targeting strictly Muslim-majority nations, the list mooted this time includes Belarus, Myanmar, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania.

Absent further explanation from the Trump administration, there are a number of possible rationalizations, from Islamic State to the glut of fake Kyrgyz passports traveling the world.

Do citizens from Kyrgyzstan really pose a potential threat?

The State Committee for National Security, or GKNB in its Russian initials, estimated that as of 2019 up to 800 Kyrgyz nationals had traveled to Syria to enroll in militant groups there. At least one quarter of those people have died fighting, according to official estimates. In the absence of a clear plan on accommodating returnees, it is uncertain how many battle-hardened fighters may be floating around the Middle East or further afield.

Assessing the scale of extremism and affinity for radical Islamic groups inside in Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, is a fraught question.

In 2018, Human Rights Watch concluded that that at least 258 people had been convicted between 2010 and September 2016 on charges of possessing extremist material. It also noted that as of June 2018, "540 people were imprisoned or serving conditional sentences on extremism- or terrorism-related charges."

But the watchdog questioned whether extremism charges were always justified and whether they were, in fact, being abused to jail undesirables.

Kyrgyzstan has a terrorism problem, but actual violence has been relatively rare. The most recent incident occurred in August 2016, when a suicide bomber rammed the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek with a car filled with explosives. The attack was largely a failure. Only two embassy employees sustained minor injuries.

But security officials in Bishkek have muddied the picture by attributing any number of other plots and alleged incidents to the Islamic State. A sustained gunfight in the capital in July 2015 was attributed to the group on the flimsiest of grounds and set a pattern for a spate of similarly dubious claims.

Taking their accounts at face value, observers would have to conclude that Kyrgyzstan does indeed have a grave problem with the Islamic State on its own soil. Scholars who have studied the confused messaging on this issue, however, have concluded that "elites in Kyrgyzstan manipulate the threat of terrorism to fit their domestic agenda, while trying to maximize their interests with international donors."

Even the U.S. State Department had to ruefully concede in its Country Reports on Terrorism 2017 that "the Kyrgyz government restricts public information on national security issues, making it very difficult to assess the efficacy of its counterterrorism operations and the true extent of the threat."

Does Kyrgyzstan have a problem with its passports?

It certainly does. That issue came to light last year, when a Chinese-born Uyghur businessman called Aierken Saimaiti was gunned down in a gangland-style assassination in Istanbul.

Early into the investigation, Turkish police revealed that the victim and two of the four suspects were in possession of fake Kyrgyz passports.

And that was not the only recent brazen assassination plot carried out by people with illegitimate Kyrgyz papers.

The question is whether the passports are being forged, which is what the Kyrgyz authorities insist, or if the documents are being handed out as part of a corrupt scheme.

Many suspect the latter is the case. If killers-for-hire can lay their hands on all but totally legit international travel documents, who else can too?

The government in Bishkek says it is working on overhauling the way it manufactures and issues its passports, but that whole process too has seemingly been bogged down in claims and counterclaims of corruption.

If the delay in introducing biometric passports has landed Kyrgyzstan on the administration's new travel ban, that might also explain why Belarus is listed as well. Minsk has also repeatedly stalled in its efforts to roll out biometric passports.

Halcyon days: Cooperation at the Manas Transit Center

What will this do to U.S.-Kyrgyz relations?

Nothing good, but in truth, ties have been far from ideal for many years.

A 1993 cooperation treaty between the United States and Kyrgyzstan had long served as the cornerstone of amicable relations between the two countries, but that agreement was torn up in 2015 after Washington angered Bishkek by bestowing a human rights award on an imprisoned ethnic Uzbek activist.

This marked a dramatic souring in ties for what were once close security partners.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the United States was granted permission to set up an airbase at the Manas International Airport outside Bishkek, a facility that would become a key logistical hub for NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Local impatience with the base waxed and waned over the years - the irritation was often mitigated by the considerable economic contribution made by the U.S. presence. The government of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was came to power in 2005 but was overthrown in 2010, hemmed and hawed about wanting to close the base.

It was President Almazbek Atambayev who finally pulled the plug, under pressure from Russia, which was wary of the American presence in what it deemed its strategic backyard. And so, in 2014, the U.S. abandoned what its military personnel huffily insisted should be called the Manas Transit Center (not base).

Security cooperation with Western partners, including the United States, continues through the auspices of organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and NATO, but the scope of such collaboration is limited.

The fit of pique that precipitated the cancellation of the 1993 treaty was pure Atambayev - the work of an often emotional and volatile individual. His successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who was elected in November 2017, is a more even-headed character, although he has done little of note to patch up relations.

Most of the effort is Washington's, whose strategy is to try and support greater intra-Central Asian solidarity, as part of the C5+1 initiative, ostensibly with the intent of weakening the region's dependence on its main partners, Russia and China. In recent weeks the State Department has promised to release a new strategy for its relations with the region.

At least one former American official pointed out the odd timing of including Kyrgyzstan: "Kyrgyzstan!? Literally right before the administration rolls out its much-hyped new Central Asia strategy? ... Some 'strategy,'" tweeted Evan Feigenbaum, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Central Asia in the George W. Bush administration.

Who is likely to be affected by the travel ban?

Not clear.

Writing, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States, Kadyr Toktogulov, queried a line in the Politico report that pointed out that the proposed restrictions might apply only to "certain government officials" or "certain types of visas."

"Therefore, we must wait to find out how this will actually affect Kyrgyzstan and our citizens," he told AKIpress news agency in an interview.

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