The US In Central Asia: Still An Important Balancer?
By Azad Garibov, JTW-USAK, May 28, 2013
For more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan has been the point of reference for U.S. policy toward Central Asia. American military bases in the region and the region’s role in facilitating the supply chain for U.S. and NATO troops were the chief concerns of U.S. policy throughout period. On the eve of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, Central Asian countries seem worried that the withdrawal will downgrade their importance for Washington. It is argued both in and outside the region that U.S. engagement in Central Asia will be weakened, leaving regional countries exposed to extremist threats from south as well as the influence of powerful neighbors such as Russia and China. Despite their efforts to maximize their economic and military gains from the withdrawal process, Central Asian countries would still prefer to benefit from ongoing U.S. commitment to the region.
U.S. strategy in Central Asia before and after the 9/11 attacks
Between 1990 and the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. had shown no particular interest in a strong presence in Central Asia. American diplomatic presence was mainly limited to missions in the capitals of countries in the region. The most important private sector engagement was Chevron’s hand in the development of Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil field. Washington also helped regional countries establish, with varying degree of success, new energy transportation and supply routes that bypass Russia in order to thwart a return of Russian dominance in the region. Another important U.S. interest in Central Asia was inhibiting a possible surge of religious radicalism that would increase Iran’s influence. Therefore, for much of the early 90s, Washington focused on promoting Turkey as a state model for Central Asian countries. Having a secular government and common ethnic roots with four of the five Central Asian states, Turkey was viewed by American strategists as a very suitable role model for the “democratization” and “Westernisation” of the region. However, these efforts were not received well and soon proved unsuccessful.
Central Asia’s strategic value for the U.S. came to prominence after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the start of the Afghan war. Since late 2001, military operations in Afghanistan have been a driving force of increased U.S. involvement in Central Asia. Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad Air Base and Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Air Base have both hosted – the latter still does – U.S. military installations and troops supporting Afghan combat operations. Moreover, cooperation with other regional countries in the “global war on terror” further bolstered the U.S. presence in Central Asia. During this period, Russia, still weak and engaged in an internal consolidation of power under Vladimir Putin, failed to impede the U.S. strengthening its position in Central Asia.
During the mid-2000s, events caused Central Asian governments to question U.S. goals in the region, and even tempted them to re-orient their foreign relations toward Russia; notably, the Bush administration’s support for the “color revolutions” across the post-soviet space, its backing of regime change in Kyrgyzstan, and its promotion of civil society, as well as Russia’s gradual resurgence due to its immense energy revenues helped to change the atmosphere. “The U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan came to an end in 2005, when the Bush administration reproached the country’s leadership for the bloody crackdown on demonstrations in Andijan, and Tashkent ejected U.S. military forces and again began searching for a closer relationship with Russia. The U.S. military’s inability to achieve ultimate victory in Afghanistan also negatively impacted the U.S. image in the region as well.
Consequently, the last years of the Bush administration and first years of the Obama administration were marked by the gradual decline in the U.S. positions in Central Asia. Moreover, under the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy with Russia, U.S.-Russia relations eclipsed U.S.-Central Asia relations.
Approaching withdrawal from Afghanistan and reactivation of U.S.-Central Asia relations
Recently, in light of the approaching 2014 withdrawal of the majority of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, Washington has been intensifying contact with Central Asian countries situated on Northern Distribution Network (NDN) routes. The NDN was first established in 2008-09 after talks between the U.S., Central Asian states, and Russia as a collection of routes that allowed the U.S. and NATO to ship nonlethal supplies to Afghanistan “without going through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass – logistical arrangements exposed to Taliban attacks as well as massive delays due to Pakistani obstruction.” After Salala incident of November 2011, involving US aerial strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and injured 13 others, Pakistan closed all NATO supply lines to Afghanistan passing through its territory. Lines remained closed for more than half of a year which massively increased the NDN’s importance for the U.S. In order to guarantee the smooth functioning of the distribution network, the U.S. promised countries in the NDN part of its Afghan military equipment and more financial aid. During this time Uzbekistan has become the main Central Asian partner of Washington. Currently A large percentage of U.S. military cargo going to Afghanistan passes through Uzbekistan, and Uzbekistan has seized this opportunity to build closer military ties with the U.S. Uzbek president Islam Karimov, in negotiations with U.S. officials, stated his wish for remaking his military, replacing its Russian gear with entirely American gear. Accordingly, “in late 2011 Washington loosened restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan that had been in place for nearly a decade due to human rights concerns.” And as the U.S. promises to leave some of its equipment behind in Central Asia after withdrawal, Karimov has reportedly expressed interest in heavy equipment, like helicopters and mine-resistant armored vehicles.
U.S. interests in Central Asia after 2014
Many argue that Central Asia is bound to become less central to U.S. foreign and security policy following the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. Even so, it will still remain consequential. Though the end of operations in Afghanistan will substantially decrease U.S. interests in the region, Washington will still have significant stakes in preventing the emergence of failed states that serve as a safe haven for international terrorism, avoiding regional conflicts which can draw in neighboring powers (some of them nuclear), disrupting drug-trafficking via Central Asia etc. The U.S. will also cooperate with regional countries to combat the rise of religious extremism and terrorism within their borders. Moreover, as Joshua Kucera claims, “having entrée to Central Asia enhances the U.S. ability to influence developments in Afghanistan—as well as Pakistan—which both face worsening insurgencies and the growth of radical forces.” Continuing U.S. interests in Central Asia also include supporting the development and diversification of the region’s energy resources and supply routes. This issue is also closely linked to Afghanistan, but in a more forward-looking way. In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promoted a vision for a New Silk Road, which was presented as a major U.S. contribution to regional development for the post-2014 period. The “New Silk Road” strategy aims at directing regional transportation routes southward, passing through Afghanistan to reach Pakistani and Indian markets and ports on the coast of the Indian Ocean. This vision was designed to direct public and private investment in such a way as to transform Afghanistan into a central transportation hub and facilitate its economic development and regional integration.
Even though U.S. priorities are shifting at the global level, Washington will continue to have important interests at stake in Central Asia that require sustained engagement. Therefore, despite its limited assets and interests, ignoring the role of the U.S. in Central Asia’s geopolitics would be unwise. Regional countries are still trying to balance the influence of Russia and China through engagement with the U.S. Now, the question that will define the future of the U.S. in the region is whether the country will fully withdraw from Afghanistan after 2014. Clearly, a full withdrawal that leaves the country open to the threat of chaotic collapse would be an imprudent direction for the U.S. The statement from Deputy Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, saying that “the U.S. will maintain its presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia after 2014” promises that the U.S. is not going to do that.
Azad Garibov is a foreign policy analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies (SAM) in Azerbaijan and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Khazar University. (Contact the author firstname.lastname@example.org)
JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).