For the U.S., Central Asia is a place where challenges and opportunities meet. On the one hand, the region is prone to many of the problems the U.S. faces around the world: a resurgent Russia, an emboldened China, and the rise of Islamist extremism. On the other hand, there are many economic opportunities between the U.S. and the region—oil and gas from the region can help reduce Europe’s dependency on Russia, and close cooperation with regional countries can help solve larger problems like the situation in Afghanistan and the fight against extremism.
Although the region has been an important crossroads for economic and security matters for centuries, the U.S. is a relative newcomer to the region, unlike many of the other actors in the region. Today, the U.S.’ interests in Central Asia derive primarily from energy and economic opportunities, the war against transnational terrorism, and the desire to balance Chinese, Russian, and Iranian influence in the region.
U.S. engagement in Central Asia has waxed and waned over the years since Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan gained independence. In the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. began to pursue relations with these newly independent republics with vigor. After a few years, that initial enthusiasm for engagement in the region petered out. This quickly changed, though, after the tragic events of 9/11. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the U.S. had to scramble to rebuild relations with the region because the region was needed for U.S. anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. But when President Barack Obama ended U.S.-led combat operations in Afghanistan, U.S. engagement in Central Asia waned yet again.
Today, it is time for the U.S. to reengage with the region with the same level of enthusiasm it had in the early 1990s. America’s primary goals in Central Asia can be summed up with four “S”: secure, sovereign, secular, and security in Afghanistan:
• A secure Central Asia. The U.S. should promote policies in the region that help with regional security. A secure Central Asia region brings many economic, trade, and energy opportunities. A secure Central Asia will encourage much needed foreign investment. Assisting the countries in the region in becoming a stable and secure transit and production zone for energy resources will greatly benefit America’s interests and those of its allies. Helping the countries in the region combat extremism and terrorism are needed, too—especially in light of foreign fighters coming forth from the region.
• A sovereign Central Asia. It is in America’s interests that the Central Asian countries remain fully sovereign with little or no influence from outside or regional powers. This is particularly true given Russia’s maligned influence in the region. In addition, China’s Belt and Road Initiative must be watched closely. The U.S. should caution the region from agreeing too easily to Chinese investment and BRI initiatives that could undermine its national sovereignty. Strong and stable governments resilient to outside influence are in America’s interests in the region.
• A secular Central Asia. For the most part, radical Islamist movements have not established deep roots in the region the same way they have in the Middle East and North Africa. This is mainly due to the secular nature of the governments. It is in America’s interests the situation remains this way. However, there is a cause for concern. Approximately 2,000 foreign fighters from Central Asia have joined the ranks of ISIS. As ISIS is defeated in Syria, it is reasonable to suspect that some of these fighters will try to return home.
• Security in Afghanistan. Many fail to see Afghanistan for what it really is: a Central Asian country. Referring to Afghanistan as part of the so-called “broader Middle East” is misleading. Culturally, historically, economically, and geographically, Afghanistan is part of Central Asia. The countries in Central Asia, especially those that border Afghanistan, have to be part of the larger solution to the problems faced in Afghanistan. Also, a key plank of the Trump administration’s new Afghan strategy is pressuring Pakistan to end its support for the Taliban and associated groups. A consequence of this approach with Islamabad might be that the ground and air resupplies transiting Pakistani territory could be cut or stopped all together. If this happens, the Central Asia region could become very important for the military effort in Afghanistan once again.
Any discussion about U.S. relations with Central Asia is not complete without highlighting the legitimate human rights concerns in the region. However, this cannot be the overriding issue that trumps all others for the U.S.
Instead, U.S. strategy for Central Asia must be seen as a chair with four legs, focusing on security, economic cooperation, energy, and human rights. If one leg is longer than the other, the whole chair is unbalanced at best, or unworkable at worst. For too long, the U.S. has focused too much on just one of these four issues, and usually at the expense of the others. This is not a healthy or sustainable way to advance U.S. interests in the region.
So how is the U.S. doing in the region today?
Outside the context of Afghanistan, the Obama administration had little meaningful engagement with the Central Asia region other than setting up the “C5+1” dialogue. In November 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry visited all five countries in Central Asia. However, nothing from this visit marked a major change in U.S. policy towards the region.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a C5+1 meeting in New York City during this past year’s United Nations General Assembly meeting. At a minimum, this shows that the U.S. will continue with this Obama era initiative, which is generally viewed as positive. U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry was meant to travel to Kazakhstan last summer but his trip was canceled due to a major hurricane hitting Texas. Unfortunately, it has not been rescheduled.
In January, the White House welcomed Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan, for a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. This was the first working visit by the head of state from a Central Asian republic to the White House since Trump’s inauguration almost one year ago.
The Trump administration, distracted by domestic issues, has not formulated an apparent strategy for the region and U.S. engagement remains minimal. Central Asia’s mention in the recently published National Security Strategy was minimal and mainly focused in the context of Afghanistan. While this alone is not bad, a more comprehensive view of U.S. goals and interests in the region is long overdue.
It is time for the U.S. to show a more enduring and strategic engagement with the region before it is too late.
WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM OCA#28 SPRING 2018 USA EDITION Text by Luke Coffey