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Growing U.S. Security Interests in Central Asia

Authored by Dr. Elizabeth Wishnick. | October 2002

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As Secretary of State Colin Powell told the House International Relations Committee in February 2002, the United States ?will have a continuing interest and presence in Central Asia of a kind that we could not have dreamed of before.? After providing background on the development of U.S. security interests in Central Asia, this monograph examines post-9/11 trends in U.S. policy and military engagement.

In the 1990s the United States initiated military engagement with Central Asia to support the region?s integration with western political-military institutions, as well as to protect the sovereignty and independence of these states, assist them to improve their border security against transnational threats, encourage them to adopt market-oriented reform and democratization, and ensure access to energy resources in the region. U.S. military cooperation expanded rapidly with Central Asian states in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 due to the framework of relations that had been built piecemeal in the 1990s. For the first time the United States acquired temporary basing in this region in response to a changing security environment, as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan became frontline states in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Anti-terrorism became the central focus of U.S. policy in the region, although other goals still remain important.

The author argues that by placing a priority on anti-terrorism in U.S. policy toward Central Asia and rewarding Central Asian leaders for basing rights, the Bush administration is shoring up authoritarian regimes and encouraging public distrust of U.S. intentions in the region. She points out that weak regional security organizations, contingent support in Russia and China to the expanding American military foothold in the region, and instability in Central Asia will pose considerable challenges for the U.S.military. In conclusion, the author recommends an emphasis on rapid deployment from existing bases in Turkey rather than continued basing in Central Asia, a more coherent regional strategy and improved foreign area expertise for the Central Asian region, and a multilateral approach to addressing instability in the area.

Conclusions and Policy Recommendations.

There is a danger that U.S. policy toward Central Asia may prove counterproductive: to defend the peace against terrorism, the United States has ended up cooperating with the very tyrants responsible for the repression that increases support for home-grown anti-government and transnational movements. With greater U.S. involvement in the region, popular expectations of change will rise, and should the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia fail to reform, social explosions may occur in the region, perpetuating instability and harming U.S. interests.141 While the United States should continue to provide militaryassistance designed to provide border security and interdict narcotics and weapons trafficking, strict conditionality should be applied to ensure that the Central Asian states do not use American aid to further institutionalize social repression and instead are obliged to achieve clearly defined benchmarks in economic and political reform.

The U.S. military should withdraw completely from all Central Asian bases as soon as hostilities in Afghanistan end to avoid becoming a target or an inspiration for domestic anti-government or transnational terrorist movements. Instead, the U.S. military should focus its efforts on developing rapid deployment capabilities that could be located in existing bases in Turkey (Incirlik and Antalya). While U.S. forces remain in Central Asia, greater resources should be devoted to civil affairs projects and an effort should be made to rely as much as possible on local suppliers for base needs to provide some immediate socio-economic benefits to host communities.

Coordination in the development of military, economic, political, and economic assistance will help ensure that the goals of U.S. aid will be mutually supportive, but appropriate policies require a more detailed understanding of the region. In particular, the U.S. military should devote greater resources to foreign area training for Central Asia and develop a corps of experts with knowledge of Central Asian languages and background in Near East and Middle East studies, as well as CIS affairs.

Although anti-terrorism cooperation has dominated U.S. security interests in Central Asia since 9/11, over the long term domestic insurgencies within these states and inter-state rivalry will pose a greater threat to the region than transnational terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.142 To avoid compounding instability in these states, the United States needs a regional strategy for Central Asia that addresses a wide range of potential sources of regional instability, including conflicts over water resourcemanagement, border disputes, refugee issues, environmental concerns, and drug trafficking.143

In particular, the United States should take care to avoid singling out Uzbekistan, admittedly a key partner in the anti-terrorism coalition, but a potential regional hegemon in Central Asia.144 Since 9/11, the focus of U.S. security interests has shifted from Kazakhstan, the initial target of U.S. security aid due to proliferation concerns, to Uzbekistan, accentuating the rivalry between these two states and exposing weaker regional states such as Kyrgyzstan to Uzbek encroachments on its borders in the name of anti-terrorism activities.

With the successful conclusion of ENDURING FREEDOM, the United States government faces a choice of two vastly different policy directions. One would involve a unilateral strategy, based on self-defense and preemptive attack against terrorist groups and regimes, while the second would support continued multilateral collaboration against transnational threats. 145

A unilateral strategy would accentuate public suspicion of U.S. intentions in Central Asia and erode support in Russia and China for Washington?s regional anti-terrorism efforts, potentially resurrecting regional initiatives aimed at minimizing the United States role in the region. Multilateral collaboration, on the other hand, would encourage the Central Asian militaries to work with each other and within the framework of western military and political institutions. To this end, intelligence-sharing, PfP and joint peace-keeping activities should be continued and greater training for Central Asian military and security officials should be provided. In deference to regional sensitivities, the United States should recognize its outsider status in Central Asia and work within existing regional structures, such as the 6+2 framework.

One of the key lessons of 9/11 is that despite its preponderant power, the United States remains vulnerable to transnational threats and requires the collaboration of other states to combat them. In Central Asia, this will require a redefinition of U.S. security interests and development of a regional strategy that would address the interrelated nature of political, economic, and security problems in the region.


141Jonathan Curiel, ?Q&A; Ahmed Rashid; The Toughest Beat in the World,? The San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Review, March 3, 2002, p. 2.

142. Michael T. Klare, ?Can the Alliance Hold?? Newsday, January 6, 2002, p. B4.

143.Martha Brill Olcott, ?Preventing New Afghanistans: A Regional Strategy for Reconstruction,? Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Brief, No. 11, January 2002, pp. 6-7.

144. Pauline Jones Luong and Erika Weinthal, ?New Friends, New Fears in Central Asia,? Foreign Affairs, March-April 2002, p. 61.

145. G. John Ikenberry, ?American Grand Strategy in the Age of Terror,? Survival, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter 2001-2, p. 28.