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.
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.