Pondering Negative Spillover Effects in Central Asia

by Joshua Foust on 3/29/2010 · 22 comments

My first article for Current Intelligence (where I am an associate editor) is up, looking at how spillover in Central Asia is a two-way street:

Strangely, though, what one finds reading the general consensus in the non-government foreign policy community is a rejection of any spillover effects, deriding them as a revamped “domino theory” and worthy of disdain. There’s no escaping the fact that regional issues matter and they are as close to the broader issues of Taliban control in Afghanistan as they can be. But at what point does a concern merit decisive action? That seems to be the debate currently occupying vast swaths of the punditocracy, and currently paralyzing the Obama Administration. The Taliban certainly pose problems, but are those problems worth all the effort, money, and lives expended? …

It’s worth considering that spillover effects work in reverse, as well. There is a growing enclave in the Central Asia policy community that sees the advent of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) — a series of agreements between the U.S. and countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Russia to transport supplies into Afghanistan—with what can only be described as dollar signs in their eyes. Its view is that Central Asia, the good part not tainted by that Afghanistan mess, is the new frontier in American presence-making.

I’d appreciate your comments, either here or over there.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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reader March 29, 2010 at 3:37 pm

“There is a growing enclave in the Central Asia policy community that sees the advent of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) — a series of agreements between the U.S. and countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Russia to transport supplies into Afghanistan—with what can only be described as dollar signs in their eyes.”

There’s the money quote; it’s all about the Benjamins, that and hubris. God help us all, the game will not stop until the cash dries up. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are not critical to our vital interests. A weakened dollar is far more dangerous. If anything, Central Asian Islamic insurgency- assuming such a thing happens- is a concern of the Chinese and the Russians. I guess we are going to use this situation to our advantage to get said super-powers on board, or at least neutral, to our quixotic campaign against Iran. People have absolutely no clue about the connection between domestic economic degradation, national security and international standing. Whatever, yes they are a threat, yes America needs to get involved, yes Central Asia is a front in the global war on terror. We need to develop those nations, build lots of infrastructure or else hordes of Iranian and Al Qaida funded Uzbeks will show up in places like Phoenix with murder on their minds. Everything else should be sacrificed to fighting Islamic terror in Central Asia. We need to build a Central Asian COIN university and make sure we are in the ‘stans for the next century. Perhaps we should add a value-added sales tax on everything to fund it. No wait, that might make execution of the war politically infeasible. Let’s cut the funding for the Interstate commerce commission and National Park service, and let’s print some more cash. I think that we will be successful ultimately. We need to be, our freedom and democracy hangs in the balance. I just hope Eric Prince is still ready to serve our needs.

reader March 29, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Ire in above post was directed at the unnamed parties who see potential profit $ or career-wise in a US presence in Central Asia; not at Foust. Ire was also directed at the likes of Sam Brownback. Why do Midwestern and Western go with your guy kind of Congress people feel so strongly about places they only dimly understand?

Josh March 29, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Looks like the spillover alarmists are still at it: http://csis.org/publication/ferghana-valley-south-waziristan

DE Teodoru March 29, 2010 at 6:05 pm

le passe:

le presant:

A little silly but nevertheless “I was there” retropspective I just came across and a most critical resurgence that causes instant links for Russians all the way to China in order to make a mad-mullahs-sandwich.
Lastly, under Bush we did a lot in Central Asia that makes Chinese look like saviors. As you say, $ is getting weaker. Bullets and bombs cost lots of $$$ but accomplish little when we claim we’re there to build. Central Asia will be dragged into all this unless we get out because there will be too many $$$ floating around and to many weaponse trying to pick it up. So, what now that we’re no longer the only character in Central Asia playing the locals?

DE Teodoru March 29, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Has anyone read Diplo Hiro’s INSIDE CENTRAL ASIA?

Joshua Foust March 29, 2010 at 10:04 pm

It was shallow and not terribly informative. He doesn’t actually “go inside” anything, he just lists wikipedia-level facts about the countries with a quickie on history.

Anonsters March 30, 2010 at 9:31 am

Did Joshua Foust disemvowel himself?

oldschool boy March 30, 2010 at 1:26 am


I see your sarcasm, and believe me the Central Asians feel the same way about the US help. This cash of yours is nothing more but a sop. If the US really cares why not share technologies and help build competitive economies?
So far, the US is viewed as not a savior but as escalating conflicts: Iraq, Afghanistan, now Iran. For most people, not just in Central Asia, Americans are not promoting democracy and human rights, but merely protecting their oil interests.
There have been a few articles in local newspapers, including websites, that during NATO presence in Afghanistan since 2001, Allies build far less infrastructure, that Soviets had built during 1979-1989 war. That includes roads and hospitals. Some articles portray NATO in Afghanistan as cowards sitting in their fortified bases and only protecting their own asses.
That is shortly after Russia crushed Georgians who were counting on the USA back-up, but NATO had no guts to interfere.

reader March 30, 2010 at 10:02 am

NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan is anything but altruistic and is characterized by hypocritical brutality, the US invaded Afghanistan because of payback. All this female empowerment stuff is just milk sop for our consciences and the European public. But critique of the US aside, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was more brutal; qualitative and quantitative data bears this out. The brutality of the Soviets towards the population is indefensible, including the deliberate targeting of children. But if one’s goal is the liberation of females and is not squeamish about the means used, then one should be cheering for the Soviets and Saddam, for that matter.
If there is one constant in Central Asian, Russian, and Middle Eastern history, it is bad governance by by venal, brutal local elites and more recently by meddling outsiders driven by ideology which barely hid their greed and hubris. Looking at the history of the region as a single Eurasian unit, it is hard to be appalled by the centuries of human tragedy.
Your point about the Georgians brings up the tangled history of Western involvement in the Caucasus, when the jihad of the Circassians was a cause celebre for the Brits who rendered aid to said mountaineers. Just as with Afghanistan in the 1980s, it shows that the West has not always been at war with radical Islam, we are more than willing to ally ourselves with anyone to fight the enemy dujour. It also shows that the Russians have always had imperial designs on their neighbors to the South. Was this caused by Russian historical paranoia? Keep the Muslims conquered or else hordes of Tatars and ghazis will come riding out of the East? Who knows? Assuming greed isn’t a driving force for all the players, there is something of the irrational in all of this.

DE Teodoru March 30, 2010 at 7:23 pm

It was more brutal because of US! Let’s see whar assassin McChrystal will do as the clock gets close to 12!

reader March 31, 2010 at 7:58 am

It was brutal because it was the Soviets, the same system that killed millions domestically.

DE Teodoru March 31, 2010 at 12:34 pm

As one who lived under Soviet system I must share your view. But we sure brought the worst out of them in the way we pushed them in Afghanistan. Russians know only TOTAL WAR. And they paid for it duly, READER. But their prime issue was that we made their helicopters unsafe with heat seekers that climbed right up their engines; they were well aware that this was Vietnam payback for what they did to our choppers. A lot of facts are there now and these suggest that indeed we should share some of the blame for making Afghan War such a slaughter. That includes some guys around Carter and Reagan with an old score to settle. It always is a bit of everyone with blood on their hands. You’ll see now as Subway incidents come to be seen as related to our ops to the south instead of to the east of Russia.

Lastly, I found it outrageous that Hillary melded our war on terror with the Russian one. The reasons are different, somewhat. The fact is that Russian tactics cannot include as able a force nor as able repair as we can offer and, with all our flaws, our war against Islam is not like Israel’s war of extermination nor Russia’s war of devastation to teach a lesson. We get mean only when “their” body count is low and “our” casualties are high but Russians are inured to both their losses and those of Muslims.

IndianBrownAle March 30, 2010 at 12:35 pm

U.S. officials and analysts dangerously underplay the unintended consequences of foreign military operations in this region. Can NATO-ISAF capture and kill more insurgents than their presence helps to recruit?

As for this: “The Taliban certainly pose problems, but are those problems worth all the effort, money, and lives expended?” I feel that because the al Qaeda (now conflated with the Taliban) threat has been so overblown that it allows Western leaders and the pundits that inform them to respond with measures that are wildly out of proportion. Let’s think about it this way: 3,000 Americans killed on 9/11 in a horrible and despicable terrorist attack; in response, the United States invades two countries, uproots millions of innocent people, and incidentally leads to the deaths of untold hundreds of thousands. Maybe I’m crazy, but that seems dangerously out of balance.

And as for this: “Strangely, though, what one finds reading the general consensus in the non-government foreign policy community is a rejection of any spillover effects, deriding them as a revamped “domino theory” and worthy of disdain.” I’d take a different track. Not so much that domino theory does not exist, but that others in the non-government foreign policy community, the O’Hanlons and what-not, overplay the extent to which spillover directly threatens America’s national security. The argument can be made that after withdrawal from Southeast Asia, communist Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 therefore (I think correctly) buttressing the domino theory. But less than two decades later America emerged victorious in the Cold War and the most dominant hegemon on the planet.

Maybe the author of this post and I don’t agree on everything, but I appreciate the nuance that he offers; it is sorely lacking in the political discourse.

DE Teodoru March 30, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Where have you been, IndianBrownAle akll this time I assumed all the job-seekers were guzzling the Pentagon Kool-aid? BRAVO! GOD BLESS YOU!

IndianBrownAle March 31, 2010 at 9:53 am

Ha! Thanks, DE Teodoru. It is truly a shame to hear the Beltway consensus trumpet an indefinite occupation of the region (not just Afghanistan). For analysts and officials in D.C. to declare that Afghanistan and other regions never again be a safe haven for terrorists is a handy justification for never ending intervention. Take care 🙂

DE Teodoru March 31, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Much of what WE as a nation suffer– now, really, only our mom and dad soldiers– is the corporate avarice disgized, in the workds of Mike McConnell as: our no#1 security issue, cheap oil! And still, things are not goos, costs are high and our soldiers are everywhere following incompetent commanders whose PR shop is bigger than their ops shop!

Nobody March 31, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Six months ago the Uzbeks were moving from Waziristan across the north and parcelling themselves out in small units, this after Mehsud got killed and they lost their protection there. So I think spillover is a legitimate concern, and so does Russia, they have said publicly that they believe if militancy is not addressed now their boys will be dying in t ]he area in ten years time. I don’t know what the situation is with the Uzbeks now, Atta has a good handle around Mazar, and Hezbie was the biggest threat and they’ve now signed up with Karzai.

I also disagree with reader on the russian occupation, which is viewed favourably now compared with US in Afg, at least in the north. This may be because memories are short, but the Russians airlifted orphans to Tajikistan, taught them three languages, while you should see the state of the orphanages in Kabul and elsewhere now. They also provided education and buildings for a lot of Afghans, at least in the north. I’m sure the southerners have a different view. Regardless, compared with the US dog’s breakfast right now, and bearing in mind the sepia toned view, the Russians look better, relatively.

oldschool boy March 31, 2010 at 1:01 pm

The thing is that in the 1979-1989 war, not only Russians were fighting. There were Uzbeks, Kazaks, Tadzhiks, Turkmens, and etc. The Afghan war veterans are influential in their countries, they have almost the same legal status as WWII veterans. That is why the Soviet entanglement in the former Soviet part of Central Asia is not viewed as bad as it is viewed in the West.
Also, in Afghanistan, there are thousands of former students educated in Soviet Union. Plus, Russia and the -stans have very big muslim population. Add the “short memory” factor, and, voila, we have “bad” Americans (Westerners) and relatively “not that bad” Shuravis.

DE Teodoru March 31, 2010 at 6:09 pm

But still OLDSCHOOL BOY, the command was Russian and the troops from the “stans” did mostly occupation duty– there is the issue of cannibalism!

I am an old anti-Communist and pro-American. But I am appalled at the table rasa military minds that lead since 9/11. The Yugoslavia thing can be blamed on politicians but the Afghan/Iraq thing is strictly DoD.

My opposition started when I saw that we were proposing a NEW Afghan world while rolling in with money and deadly air strikes done by SF spotters that I’d rather say nothing about until historians analyze them. I felt that US was stepping on the middle of alQaeda serpent so when it turned around and but it on the leg DoD went nuts trying to cover-up its criminal negligence. Anyway, Afghan War was bait-and-switch—all assets using port-a-johns in Afghanistan and moving on to Iraq; and that disgusted me totally out of my deep affection for Bush & Republicans. Cheney is your prototype corporate criminal devoid of courage, manliness, and ethics; history will show what that kind of hateful but hollow people tend to do. Finally their circumflex coronary avenges mankind! But Rumsfeld was the leash holder and he is really a criminal mind as could be seen from dealing with him in Nixon years. He was just too short to measure up to American morality.

America’s slide to evil begins with self-deception–>utter incompetent action–>gathering of the wolves to pick at the carcass of US policy–>cover-up–> perpetuation of the crime to avoid terminal failure and pass it on to successor. How long can we survive sacrificing our mom&dad soldiers to such larceny?

The Soviets will look desperate in the eyes of history but we will look like avaricious cannibals using war mostly for non-combatant careers moving. One day we’ll be alone and the “barbarians” will storm the gates, making us ruins for archeologists to ponder. I have three all-American kids and four all-American grandkids. I think I owe them more than Rumsfled/Cheney dirty weaklings midget-wrestling show America.

oldschool boy April 1, 2010 at 1:14 am

DE Teodoru

I understand your feelings, however, the US is far and -stans, Caucasus, and Russia are there. I wouldn’t dramatize situation too much though. If I was to say something to the NATO leadership, I would say: no help is needed, thank you very much, just do not make it worse.

Abdullah April 3, 2010 at 8:00 am


I want to address one of your parting comments in relation to what seems to be your main point at the introduction of your article.

“in a stereotypically American mindset it’s impossible for anyone to willingly chose Islamism over America.”

As an American, who happens to be a Muslim, living in Central Asia, I too see this as a great concern for the Islamic community in which I am a part of inside and outside of Central Asia, as this mentality directly influences what is labeled as,

“negative spillover effects.”

The idea then of an increasing Islamic presence becomes, “The Concern” for National Security agencies, therefore labeling such as “negative spillover effects.”

The resurgence of an Islamic presence / identity has ever slowly increased since the fall of the Soviet empire. However, this resurgence began to really take a foothold in the late 1990’s, around 98’-99, and has continued to grow to present. The main supporters initially behind this resurgency were concerned only with the propogation of Islam and true Islamic values for the benefit of the society itself, however, western interference countering these measures, in regions inside and outside of Central Asia, especially since 9-11, coupled with the oppression of the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan against any movement seen as counter to their governmental objectives, or personal agendas for that matter, has created an atmosphere that legitimizes those who would prefer to propagate extremist ideology. By oppressing legitimate “Islamic values” extremist ideology is easily propagated and accepted as the only alternative. Oppression, the lack of opportunity for Central Asia’s youth, and an ever declining economy, drive toward a desperation that make the unthinkable attractive.

The idea of “negative spillover effects” in regards to the War in Afghanistan, is perhaps the wrong terminology, in my humble opinion, as it depicts an influence spreading into other parts of Central Asia , “a cup filled too quickly with soda”,
therefore infecting, or affecting these areas from the outside in. I would see it as another form of legitimizing and adding to the seed and sprouting what already exist within these areas. The War in Afghanistan for many reasons, geographics, demographics, etc…is at the forefront of this legitimization of adopting extremist ideology, but policy and campaigns in general all have an effect, such as the ongoing campaign in Iraq and the situation in Gaza as with Western, primarily, American, policy throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. So when we look at the recent opening of supply corridors through Central Asian territory, once again we are adding to a perspective, which is counter-productive. We have to make a seperation here between Government and people. The Uzbek Government will accept almost any proposal with a dollar attached, especially in this day and time, and that in itself is bitter in the mouths of Uzbeks as they know that the common people will not benefit from it and that the regime will only get richer. So Joshua, I tend to agree with what I think you are saying in that our continued engagement in Afghanistan, while needed for the necessary removal of Taliban influence, in which I also tend to agree with you on at least on the surface, is not really creating or leading to a spillover into the other regions, however, with all due respect, I think you are way underestimating the actual Islamic presence and influence currently present throughout all of Central Asia, especially in regards to Uzbekistan and parts of Kazakhstan, of which, and again with all due respect, you cannot possible fathom until you are a real active part of the Islamic community inside and outside of Central Asia.

DE Teodoru April 6, 2010 at 5:30 pm

After reading over 100 papers of Shanghai Accord by NSC and other “agencies,” I can’t help but wonder how is it that if they think it’s such a dud they write sooooo much analysis of it?

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