Has War in Afghanistan Ruined Central Asia?

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by Nathan Hamm on 5/23/2012 · 3 comments

While Central Asia’s international political profile has risen considerably since 2001, it has primarily been seen in the West through the prism of Afghanistan. The policies of Western governments towards Central Asia as a whole and as individual states have widely fluctuated, but in almost every case, been heavily shaped by policies toward Afghanistan. US and ISAF Afghanistan policy has been short-sighted and messy enough, making policy toward Central Asia even moreso.

In recent years, Central Asia’s governments have backslid, becoming more authoritarian and less able to provide services to all of society. This contributes to greater risks for instability in the future.

How much responsibility do Western countries, particularly the United States, have for this situation?

According to Alexander Cooley, who writes, “…the West has left a trail of repression, graft and unfulfilled commitments to Central Asia’s fledgling civil society,” a lot.

Cooley makes two big claims about how the US and ISAF campaign in Afghanistan has affected Central Asia:

  1. Security assistance has made Central Asian states more authoritarian and corrupt
  2. The drawdown from Afghanistan will magnify these effects

I acknowledge the possibility that Cooley is referring to a very small, slightly more than trivial, increase when using the adjective “more” to describe the changes in authoritarianism and corruption in Central Asia caused by western security assistance. However, it seems unlikely that he means “slightly more than trivial” for a few reasons. First, why bother writing about it in anything other than a theoretical way if that is indeed the case? Second, he does not write about these changes in the way one might expect were he describing small changes; the language suggests a qualitative and quantitative levels of authoritarianism and corruption rather than describing, for example, how western assistance creates new opportunities for the pre-existing corruption. Third, the tone suggests he means something big.

Perhaps the strong evidence is in his forthcoming book, because the case made in the article linked above is extraordinarily thin.

Before even looking at the evidence, this case should be approached with extreme skepticism. As a thought experiment, imagine there had been no war in Afghanistan. Would we expect any of the Central Asian governments to be qualitatively different in any perceivable way? Would corruption or authoritarianism be significantly less pronounced? To say they would be dramatically understates the agency these governments have.

Similarly, even with the war in Afghanistan, if western security assistance is a noteworthy contributor to increased corruption and authoritarianism, we should expect the effects to be more pronounced where that assistance is and has been greatest. It is hard to measure these things objectively, but looking at Freedom House and Transparency International scores or purely qualitative assessments of corruption and freedom as levels of US security assistance over the last decade shows no clear patterns. Uzbekistan was a little better in the early part of the decade when US security assistance was greatest and did most of its slide during the period of poor relations with the US. Kyrgyzstan has slid on corruption rankings and fallen and bounced back on freedom rankings. There is a lot more economy in explaining these changes by referring to the features of the particular governments than there is by pointing to US security assistance as the cause.1

So, Cooley has big evidentiary hurdles — ones he sets up himself by writing at the outset that, “Western security assistance has made the Central Asian states more authoritarian and more corrupt” — to clear to show a causal relationship between security assistance and increased corruption and authoritarianism. He simply does not clear them.

On promotion of political and civil rights, he writes,

The K2 eviction prompted Western officials to accept the Central Asian governments’ insistence that engagement on security issues was now antithetical with promoting political freedoms.

To support this claim, he points out that the US toned down criticism of President Bakiev in 2007 to prevent the eviction of Manas, that human rights organizations complain that the US will not raise rights issues with certain Central Asian governments because of security relationships, and that the EU addresses human rights issues in EU-Central Asia dialogues. This simply does not cut it. Yes, the US has toned down criticism at times, and some agencies are particularly prone to downplaying concerns over rights. However, it is incorrect to say that the US does not raise these issues, as some human rights organizations claim (though this argument is hard to refute without details). Whether or not this engagement makes any difference, especially in a systematic way, is an entirely different question, as is whether or not US officials are eager to bring these issues up. But the mountain of rights related reports and certifications required for security assistance required by Congress make it impossible not to bring these issues up. Is it really that hard to find people in government with knowledge of these negotiations or who can describe the far more complicated story on trying to promote rights and maintain security assistance agreements?

On corruption, Cooley describes the rent-seeking around the Northern Distribution Network and the massive corruption in fuel sales for the Transit Center at Manas. He is entirely right that western, mostly US, engagement on transit into Afghanistan has created opportunities for corruption for local elites. And he is right that the payments are likely to increase as equipment is moved out of Afghanistan on the NDN. Yes, this is “more” corruption quantitatively, but is it qualitatively? One’s mileage may vary, but any and all resources coming into the region from outside are likely to have a chunk taken out due to corruption.2

Cooley never directly supports his claim that western security assistance has made Central Asia more authoritarian. The closest he comes is when he writes,

…the Obama Administration in January of this year lifted a ban on providing military assistance and its financing to the Uzbek government, opening the way to transfers of material that is as likely to be used to target domestic opponents as it is for its publicly stated purpose of guarding these supply lines.

Cooley, like other analysts of US security assistance, would be better served by taking a look at what security assistance has been given and what is on offer. Vague reference to “material” muddies the water. Uzbekistan wants all kinds of military equipment, but what is actually being offered does not include weapons and ammunition. Specific items include night-vision goggles, thermal imaging sensors for border posts, and body armor, and it will probably also include things like computers, desks, certain kinds of vehicles, and similar equipment being moved back out of Afghanistan. It explicitly does not include expansion of training. I guess all of these things could be used against domestic opponents or the public, but is that really such a significant risk? These are not the tools of repression currently used, and to claim that this increases authoritarianism is making a mountain out of a molehill. Again, is it really that hard to find people, especially at State or on Congressional staffs, who have worked these issues and can provide another perspective to add something to the story?

I agree that US policy has been lacking in Central Asia over the last decade. There have been strategic missteps and missed opportunities. Western governments, particularly the US and German, have too often let themselves lose sight of the importance of human rights to the long-term security and stability of Central Asia in the pursuit of short-term goals in Afghanistan. Human rights organizations play an important role in reminding western governments that Central Asian governments are headed the wrong direction, and academics play an important role in providing inputs to orient policy in better directions. However, in either of these cases, that role is undermined by making thinly-supported arguments that overstate the effects of security assistance on Central Asian governments.

  1. Though Kyrgyzstan is a bit unique in one way. The corruption perception index rankings are likely dramatically affected by corruption in fuel contracting at Manas, which while not exactly security assistance, has to do with security relationships.
  2. I worked with a health organization in Uzbekistan that had children’s aspiring and disposable syringes stolen by staff and the local health dispensary for no other reason than that there was opportunity.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Wendell Schwab May 23, 2012 at 1:53 pm

I don’t find that much to be offended by, Nate. The evidence is thin because that blog post is a teaser for the book. It did its job – you are now interested in the book, if only to criticize it further. Cooley gets a lot right – a lot of Western foreign policy has treated Central Asia instrumentally; there has been corruption in fuel contracts at Manas; etc., etc.

I think the bigger problem is linking ALL of the Central Asian states together, as if individual governments, populaces, etc. are the same because they are Muslim and used to live in the Soviet Union. Some examples off the top of my head: US aid to Kazakhstan to destroy or manage nuclear weapons and waste is not the same as fuel contracts at Manas. The aid in the former case might (or might not) have made Kazakhstan more interested in presenting a good image to the world (e.g., wanting the OSCE chairmanship, trying to build a competitive market economy), while the latter may not have a similar effect in Kyrgyzstan.

Nathan Hamm May 23, 2012 at 2:11 pm

To be honest, this makes me less interested in the book. I’ve read enough analysis of western security assistance that totally misunderstand the security assistance part of the equation and makes overly broad claims about US complicity in [insert evil here] as a result. This stuff really isn’t that hard to research.

Does it not seem odd to you to pin the blame on security relationships for trends in Central Asian governments’ behaviors that existed prior to those relationships and are more closely related to factors peculiar to each government? Even if this is a teaser for the book, where (for the first time ever, apparently, because we’ve heard this exact same story for a couple years now) the dots will be fully connected, the math for the process described should roughly add up better than it does. It’s precisely because each of these countries receives different levels and kinds of security assistance that have no apparent direct connections to the amount of corruption or repression that I don’t buy the argument.

Joshua Foust May 23, 2012 at 3:41 pm


Another way of writing this post is “Alexander Cooley makes broad claims he cannot support with evidence.”

There are data to suggest that governments throughout the region are backsliding, as you suggest. Cooley points this out. We also know some countries in the region have received Security Assistance from the U.S. government. Cooley also points this out.

However, what Cooley cannot and did not point out was how the Security Assistance caused that backsliding. He argued causation then he only demonstrated correlation. You say this far too gently: as an act of scholarship it is worse than lazy, it is actively misleading.

I find this a lot in the post-OSI crowd. US assistance is bad in all ways because no matter what it makes everything worse off (unless it’s funding pet projects). But also, if the U.S. plans on reducing its presence, then it’s also making everything worse, in all ways. Such arguments don’t require data, because they’re supported by sources (none of which are ever named), or, like fellow OSI recipient Kenneth Roth, actually argues this is a dereliction of duty of the government in some completely undefinable way that is unrecognizable to anyone who’s ever studied or worked for the government.

This is a lazy polemic, in other words, not a work of scholarship. Cooley abuses basic terms: paying rent for access to an airport, for example, is not “security assistance,” it is paying rent for access to an airport (he does not demonstrate if and how the far lesser amounts the U.S. spent liaising with the Kyrgyz security forces contributed to the corruption of the regime). His basic terms are just wrong, so wrong I wonder if he ever bothered to check if he got the definitions right.

You went way too gentle on him for this crap. Cooley would never allow one of his students to argue something this incompletely, based far more on posturing than on data; he would, instead, fail them for forgetting their homework (or maybe give them an incomplete). Why the tiny New York-based Central Asia crowd refuses to do basic homework on how the U.S. government operates escapes me, nevertheless it is a common thread linking all of their misleading, lazy whinge together.

It’s awful, it distorts the conversation, and it should be embarrassing for them.

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