For Washington, hedging against Islamabad’s vagaries while moving materiel out of Afghanistan has meant greater dependence on the Central Asian Republics crucial to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) – despite the steep 17,500 USD transit cost per container. The Kabul – Khyber – Karachi route in comparison costs 7,200 USD.
Using the NDN however has proved costly for more troubling reasons. In diversifying supply routes for Operation Enduring Freedom, the US has exhibited a worrying tolerance towards a strained human rights record in parts of Central Asia. Considering ISAF hopes to use the route to move over a third of the non-lethal cargo out of Afghanistan, for the coming months – regardless of an escalation in transit costs or human rights abuses – a morally testing dependence on most CARs seems guaranteed.
Though with the dependence set to drop to close to zero soon after the drawdown, it is tempting to suggest that a less constrained Washington could find itself better positioned to redress some of the neglect towards human rights abuses. Potentially welcome news for a region where dissent – barring a few exceptions - has been stifled remarkably well. But unfortunately, if the dwindling aid flows are any indication of Washington’s broader moral interests in CA (American aid to the CAR’s is set to drop by over 10% in the coming year), it appears the US isn’t very keen to invest much more in this corner of Asia.
The waning financial generosity will certainly be missed – though almost exclusively by Central Asia’s elite, who often found other uses for the money. For the broader Central Asian region however, the drying dollar flows might not change very much. On the one hand, with even less incentive for the regions governments to embrace transparency or inclusive governance, opposition will find little legitimate space, and respect for human rights will likely remain a remote prospect.
Though reassuringly, concerning the spread of Islamist extremism from the Af-Pak region – Central Asia might not find itself at much greater risk. Partly because American assistance towards ‘peace and security’ operations won’t wind down just yet. Though more because not all groups operating in the Af-Pak region have ambitions that spread to CA. And because Russia and China still have robust interests in the region.
China’s trade with Central Asia now tops 46 billion USD. Russia’s trade stands at about 32 billion USD. And with both nations eager to see CA emerge as a land bridge, connecting Beijing and Moscow to markets further away – in the long-term, stability here will be of far greater economic consequence to both nations.
Of course, Moscow and Beijing’s interests in CA aren’t always congruent, and as they increase their engagement with central Asia, it will become harder to avoid more troubling questions about each others intentions. However for the moment, the advantages of voicing discontentment seem outweighed by the advantages of a tacit acceptance of the others presence. And the CAR’s stand to benefit immensely. A more engaged Beijing and Moscow would mean faster infrastructure development, a set of security concerns that matter to far more powerful actors and a perhaps most welcomingly, a Central Asia that is much more central to commerce in Eurasia.
Though for all the advantages a more engaged China and Russia promise, their presence is likely to do little to redress the more pressing threats CA faces. Decades of authoritarianism has predictably exacerbated social inequality and engendered spectacular levels of corruption. A consistent disregard for human rights, the skewed income distribution, nepotism and cronyism threatens Central Asia far more. And though most of CA’s leaders seem far from realising this, greater reliance on states that are happy to look the other way on these matters cannot bode well in the long-term.
Clutching at straws, one could hope that if Moscow and Beijing efforts result in a more integrated CA, political isolation of the sort seen in Turkmenistan or clique-ish governance of the sort seen in most other CAR’s would become less viable. Sadly, political openness and economic integration seem to rarely go hand in hand.