Going right back to our founding in 2003, Registan.net has been consumed with one very fundamental conceit: the region of Central Asia is important, both strategically and economically, to the world in general and the West in particular. So it was with some dismay that I read the latest CNAS report, which details their proposal for a regional strategy for South and Central Asia, and saw the actual region of Central Asia de-prioritized:
This report focuses primarily on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, viewing the surrounding neighbors as influential but ultimately less vital actors…
From a military standpoint, an improved network of trade and transport throughout Central Asia would provide the United States and NATO robust options for supplies beyond overland routes through the to Torkham Gate and the port of Karachi, removing one more point of Pakistani leverage over the allied effort in Afghanistan…
The United States will also need deeper intelligence and security relationships with the states of Central Asia to contain and defeat al Qaeda and its allies, as these terrorist groups seek new locales that offer respite from the intense pressure they now face in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, deepening these relationships creates a conundrum for the United States, since autocrats rule these countries and democratic movements are often suppressed. The United States must continue to advocate for democratic reforms while engaging in these counterterrorism partnerships. In the best case, military-to-military and other security relationships may help establish a standard of democratic civil-military values in the region. This is an important and consistent component of any U.S. military assistance efforts.
And that’s… just about it. Now, no one would argue that from the strict perspective of terrorism, Pakistan is the enormous elephant in the room: it is the greatest agent promoting instability, the most likely to fall apart, and the most dangerous to its neighbors should that eventually happen. Pakistan is why the war in Afghanistan has dragged on for so long—and Pakistani-trained militants are killing hundreds of NATO soldiers and thousands of Afghan civilians each year.
Now, all of that being said, CNAS includes in their report at least part of why the northern post-Soviet States are so important, even if they discount the real importance those states might hold. To an extent, I’m retreading the argument I laid out for The Century Foundation Task Force on Afghanistan, namely:
- The Central Asian states do not have the same interests in Afghanistan that we do, and those interests might in fact work at odds to what we want to accomplish regionally;
- The promise of economic growth and development is very appealing to the governments of the region, and a U.S.-led crusade against terror groups is very unappealing;
- Given their involvement with several militias and other organizations involved in the war, as well as their linguistic and social proximity to half of Afghanistan, the Central Asian states can play a positive role in any reconciliation efforts.
But these points also bear expanding upon. As CNAS notes, the state of strategic energy in the region will be very important, and the NDN provides a vital way of asserting alternative leverage against Pakistan (which routinely holds our access to the Torkham and Chaman border crossings hostage). We could probably add, in Kazakhstan at least, a compelling interest to prevent the proliferation and sale of dangerous nuclear materials (though this is a problem in most of the region).
CNAS is very wrong, however, about the need to deepen our relationship with the intelligence and security services in Central Asia (what is a “standard of democratic civil-military values” anyway?). It is that belief—that our interests are best served whilst in bed with the local thugs contributing to the problem—that brought us to our current dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan. We would do well to avoid the same mistake in Central Asia. Hopefully without ruffling too many feathers, this is a common mistake when people who do not understand Central Asia very well try to craft policy in the region.
As I noted in my six-year retrospective on the Andijon massacre, the U.S. government gets a deeply distorted picture of the players and problems in the region when they rely too heavily on the local governments for understanding. It was how the assumption—as false as they can get—that Akromiya was behind the initial street protest took root in the DC policy community, and how, even to this day, some former administration members insist some super-secret shadowy Islamist group no one ever really hears from was behind an uprising that never happened.
Christian Bleuer has documented on more than one occasion that in Tajikistan—the Tavildara area “scares the shit out of us,” according to a senior Obama official in 2009—the reports of “insurgency” are little more than rumors. The “insurgency” there has very little to do with radical Islam, but is instead about social and political factors.
As a result, the U.S. is slowly funneling more and more money into “military training centers” both in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (they’re hiring!) to address a problem that actually has very little to do with us. In effect, we are helping those countries suppress their populations—with the unintentional consequence that we actually make the al Qaeda problem we’re seeking to contain much worse in the long run. (There is a related problem: the popular writers people listen to about Central Asia, like Ahmed Rashid, actually have no idea what they’re talking about and are consistently wrong about the region.)
The end result of relying too much on host governments to get intelligence about a problem we don’t understand leads, predictably, to building bases to train militaries that don’t actually address the problem we’re concerned with. This is important, though not the most important thing to U.S. strategy in the region—and in fact, many would say that it suggests even less engagement so as to prevent the accidental misuse of resources. But that’s not quite right either.
In a very real way, the Central Asian states represent what happens when the U.S. decides an area is unimportant to its interests—as it did in the 1990s.
That’s Uzbek dictator (don’t sue me, bro!) Islom Karimov debating future IMU commander Tohir Yo’ldosh in Namangan in December of 1991. Karimov basically says that if he becomes a tyrant he can grant them their Islamic State, just as they want, but those pesky trappings of Democracy are getting in his way. There is a helluva lot more to the story of how Karimov responded to the existential threat the IMU posed to his government, but here’s what I find so interesting: as the 1990s wore on and the IMU moved first into Tajikistan and then into Northern Afghanistan, it became integrated into the power structure of the Taliban. And as the 2000s wound on, the IMU became much closer to al Qaeda.
This is badly simplifying a complex story for the sake of argument, but in large part the reason why we even face an IMU—which continues to assert control over Northern Afghanistan and threaten to undo the war’s progress there—is because we chose not to care about what was going on in Uzbekistan in the early-to-mid 1990s. Even today, a single-minded focus on counterterrorism clouds out actual understanding of the countries and groups involved, which leads us to misjudge both the situation and what to do about it.
To bring it back to the CNAS report: I do not dispute that Pakistan is the biggest problem to be addressed, and that the Central Asia states are at the periphery of this problem. However, a regional strategy is a regional strategy, and looking at Pakistan only in terms of Pakistan is mistaken and shortsighted. The CNAS authors hint at a regional strategic rivalry (disappointingly, they call it a “New Great Game”) between China and India. This is very true, but that game isn’t being played out only in Pakistan—it is also being played out in Kazakhstan, in Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere. Iran is one of Tajikistan’s largest investment donors.
The NDN through Central Asia is America’s best shot at disentangling our reliance on Pakistani territory for supplies and transit, thus increasing the leverage we could exercise over Pakistan’s support of militancy—yet it is given barely more than a passing mention by the CNAS authors. And let’s not even talk about Manas, and the many problems we’ve contributed to Kyrgyzstan through a laser-focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the exclusion of smaller, “unimportant,” states in the region (or, for that matter, the nasty choices our desire for an air base in the region has prompted policymakers to make).
While definitely not at the center of the immediate threat coming from the region South and Central Asia, it is shortsighted to pretend that the Central Asian states don’t really matter to the region’s future. They matter deeply, and if they’re not paid attention to, they have the potential to act as spoilers. They can also contribute substantially to a good outcome. But only if we take the time to understand what they’re like, what their priorities are, and how we can work with them and through them.