February 21st, 2013
10:21 AM ET

Don’t forget about Central Asia

By Jeffrey Mankoff, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia Program. The views expressed are his own.

The Obama Administration has faced some tough criticism for supposedly cutting and running from Afghanistan. Less attention has been paid to the impact of the U.S. withdrawal on neighboring Central Asia, which has enjoyed substantial strategic and financial gains from U.S. and allied operations in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of foreign attention and assistance risks exacerbating the two biggest dangers to Central Asia’s stability: rivalries among the region’s states and the breakdown of governance within them. Rising instability in Central Asia in turn is a threat to U.S. interests because of its potential to undermine Afghanistan’s postwar transition (providing an outlet for Afghan drugs as well as a potential refuge for extremists) and to foster regional conflict.

The good news is that with its own dependence on access to Afghanistan through Central Asia set to decline, the United States has an opportunity to play a more constructive role in both promoting regional cooperation and encouraging reform, reducing the potential for Central Asia to become a source of broader instability in the years ahead.

The five Central Asian states have been important U.S. partners over the course of the war. In exchange for significant financial and technical assistance, Washington has received diplomatic support and secure access to Afghanistan (important because of frequent problems with Afghanistan’s other neighbor, Pakistan). However, dependence on the Central Asian states has limited U.S. willingness to press for political or economic reforms, a lesson that was reinforced when Uzbekistan closed a U.S. airbase in 2005 following U.S. and NATO demands for an investigation into the killing of demonstrators in the city of Andijan.

Four Central Asian countries (excluding Turkmenistan) provide ground transit to Afghanistan as part of the Northern Distribution Network. These states receive around $500 million a year each in transit fees, while local private companies earn additional fees for shipping goods. Central Asia has also benefited from international development assistance aimed at bolstering trade and investment in Afghanistan, for projects including railways, fiber optic cables, bridges, and power grids.

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In recent years, about a third of U.S. assistance has been to the military and security sectors. Washington pays Kyrgyzstan $60 million a year to rent the Manas transit center, along with around $200 million for fuel. As a recent Open Society Foundation report documents, much U.S. aid has been misappropriated, usually without consequence, because Washington is concerned the Central Asians will choke off its lifeline to Afghanistan.

As the drawdown from Afghanistan proceeds, the U.S. will have less reason to fear these transit routes being held hostage. With international attention to the region set to decline, Central Asia’s leaders have little interest in seeing this source of revenue dry up too. Moreover, though wary of saying too much in public, privately most Central Asian officials want a deeper partnership with the U.S. both to protect them from cross-border threats from Afghanistan and to balance growing Russian and Chinese influence. Already, Moscow is pressing hard for the other Central Asian states to join its Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus and to expand its military presence. China is now the largest trading partner of four of Central Asia’s five states (all but Uzbekistan) and is using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to promote its own economic and security interests. While fears that these organizations will erode the Central Asian states’ sovereignty are exaggerated, continued U.S. engagement can help maintain a more fluid regional balance, as well as address the much more pressing threats emanating from within the region in a way neither Moscow nor Beijing can.

In recent years, Central Asia has become increasingly unstable due to both poor relations among its states and poor governance within them. Cooperation among the Central Asian states remains the exception rather than the rule. More than 20 percent of the Uzbek-Tajik border remains disputed, and much of it is mined. Uzbekistan accuses its neighbors of harboring Islamist militants. A decade ago, the International Crisis Group warned that disputes over water could precipitate conflict across the region, and the situation has only worsened since.

Meanwhile, all five Central Asian states suffer from poor governance, corruption, and questions about their ability to pass power to new leaders. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are close to being failed states. Corruption, much of it linked to drug smuggling from Afghanistan, has thoroughly penetrated state institutions in both countries. Kyrgyzstan abolished its drug control agency in 2009, while the U.N. Office of Drug Control estimates that the authorities seize less than 5 percent of the heroin crossing Tajik territory. Tajikistan faces a growing insurgency that has more to do with regional elites’ grievances than with Islamism, but which risks becoming radicalized especially if instability in neighboring Afghanistan worsens after 2014.

The U.S. now has an opportunity to recast its relationship with the Central Asian states, using aid and engagement as leverage to address Central Asia’s most entrenched problems.  The U.S. must, however, avoid the temptation to leave Central Asia behind once the bulk of its forces are out of Afghanistan. While Russia and China have an interest in maintaining Central Asian stability too, they lack the capacity to either promote regional cooperation or address the serious governance challenges facing all five states. The U.S. also needs to target its aid and engagement more effectively. That means channeling less assistance directly to Central Asian militaries and more to building up courts, municipal agencies, and other institutions of governance. It also means doing more at the regional level, for example reducing barriers to trade and promoting regional dialogue on water and energy. Russia and China will remain wary of any extensive U.S. involvement in the region, but focusing a greater share of U.S. engagement on non-security sectors can go some way toward addressing Russian and Chinese fears, potentially laying a foundation for greater multilateral collaboration in the future.

For the last decade, Washington has viewed Central Asia as an adjunct of its strategy in Afghanistan. It is time to pay more attention to the region’s own problems, which could foster instability even after the U.S. is out of Afghanistan.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Central Asia

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. rightospeak

    The article is a typical propaganda piece. For your info , the US is BANKRUPT and in no position for imperial posturing. Obama needs to bring all troops home to save money, to stop paying the Communist Chinese interest on borrowed money. China because of its better financial situation is getting more influence there.
    We need more truth to inform the American public.

    February 21, 2013 at 10:41 am | Reply
    • Mark

      Thank you, rightospeak. I couldn't agree more!

      February 21, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Reply
    • kris

      America is the leader for peace. (1)we left europe hundreds of years ago to escape religious tyrants, though, we were unsuccessful with the Native Indian area. (2) our democracy shaped the world for the better and continues to do so better than ANY country to date.(3) we evolve better and faster i.e. civil rights, gays, religion( agnosticism), i can go on. (4) we dont just sit around, we help where it is needed and wanted. it is better we dont take a seat on the sidelines. Helping is what we would want from others. (4) DEBT, is just a number/word to keep the balance, NO amount of debt will keep AMERICA from building the world to its true purpose; Peace through war( unfortunately due to mainly islam and corruption) and to map the universe and build a SUSTAINABLE AND SAFE ( world environment/ protection).(5) NUCLEAR, well we know it can build big bombs, we lets control that, IAEA and UN help that, NUCLEAR also can raise our bar of technology by giving us the medium for building a next generation energy/ power...beyond nuclear, im talking differnt kinds of matter and also space exploration. REMEMBER the earth is young and we have a 24/7 news cycle with many biases, point of views, and characteristic so dont get to wound up in the politics.
      (5) once islam is controlled, herion is erased, corruption settled, ethnic rivalries eased, we will have PEACE!

      February 21, 2013 at 10:50 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        You seem to be overlooking the fact kris, that the right-wing fanatics in Washington want to make Islam a thing of the past or at least, get it out of the way so they can become more dominant in the world. America is not leading the world for the better as it seeks to bully weaker nations into submission. You need to see us Americans as we are!

        February 22, 2013 at 9:21 am |
  2. Claudia

    USA is not strong enough, that's why they are running away. USA is nevertheless not that weak, to give Chinese that influence. USA needs to reposition itself together with EU and NATO. Then USA with its Western Alliance partners can emerge as one winner or we can at least defend our positions. Please, be advised that Asia is stronger than it is being portrait in left-wing media.

    February 21, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Reply
    • Quigley

      The news media is right-wing, not left-wing, Claudia. Are you aware of the position that China was in back in 1900 just before the Boxer Rebellion or more recently, in 1950? I suppose not. On the other hand, the U.S. was the most powerful country in the world in 1950 as it was the only industrial country to emerge from WW2 with no serious war damages. It is astonishing however, that China caught up in just 60 years, surpassing both Russia and J apan.

      February 21, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Tajikistan is the poorest nation in Central Asia and is torn between old loyalty to Russia and new economic ties to China. Both Moscow and Beijing want a stable Tajikistan, which has been accused by its neighbours of tolerating the presence of training camps for Islamist rebels on its territory. Russia helps the Tajiks counter security problems and fighting drug smugglers, who cross illegally from Afghanistan. China has extended credits and helped to build roads, tunnels and power infrastructure. Chinese firms are investing in oil and gas exploration and in gold mining.

    February 22, 2013 at 4:58 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Could Kyrgyzstan still of interest to the US after 2014? The lease on the US military base at Manas would not be renewed when it expires in 2014.

    February 22, 2013 at 5:47 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Kyrgyzstan features in the US-Russian rivalry for control of Central Asia, as both powers have air bases in the country. Various Kyrgyz leaders have proved adept at playing the country's competing allies off against each other.

      February 22, 2013 at 5:57 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Vladimir Putin agreed in September 2012 to write off Kyrgyzstan's debt to his country, Atambayev agreed to a 15-year extension to Moscow's lease on the Kant air base and kicked the Americans out.

        February 22, 2013 at 5:57 am |
  5. Apzal

    Central asis will repot to Pakistan one day soon and Pakistan will rule the entire Umah wich will rule the kaffiristan like india, usa , uk eu and all other non-belivers.
    This writen in the holy scrip.
    God is great

    February 22, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Reply

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