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After Two Wars: Reflections on the American Strategic Revolution in Central Asia

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | July 2005

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Since September 11, 2001, the United States has fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these wars, the United States has accomplished or more precisely revealed a strategic revolution. Most notably, U.S.-led coalitions sustained forces in Central Asia and the Caucasus over an extended period by sea and air for the first time in history. Thus, American leaders and commanders revealed that the new military capabilities hitherto associated with the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) could be deployed anywhere in the world, that U.S. forces would and could be optimized for global power projection capabilities, and that new theaters like Central Asia were of considerable strategic importance to Washington. Their actions reflected a parallel to the ongoing Revolution in Strategic Affairs (RSA) that reaffirmed the importance of that area as a potential theater of strategic operations (a term taken originally from Soviet military thought).

However, we must understand that the importance of Central Asia and the Caucasus to the United States lies not only in the presence of abundant energy resources, but also in these zones? geographic proximity to key theaters in Europe, the Middle East, and across Asia. Military power can be projected back and forth from any one of these theaters; the Transcaspian area that embraces the Caucasus and Central Asia is pivotal to any such exercise. Access to these zones has become an issue of great strategic and policy importance, in view of America?s global responsibilities and vital interests (not to mention less critical interests around the world).

However, these zones are epicenters of domestic instability and great power rivalry. Moreover, the U.S. concept of foreign access is changing dramatically due to the new Global Posture Review. Therefore, our future access to these areas will not resemble that of the past with sprawling bases, but will remain relatively austere pending future contingencies. To secure and maintain that access, it is not enough to have a purely contractual military relationship with these states when a crisis arises. Instead, we need a holistic and strategically conceived program of interaction with them to help them ward off challenges to domestic security and threats from nearby great powers who would like to subordinate these new and fragile states to their own quasi-imperial designs. Thus the United States has to help strengthen our partners not only against terrorism, but also against threats that could lead to it if state order breaks down. In other words, our presence must become one that is regarded by local governments as not being a purely contractual or one-shot deal, but rather as having a legitimacy acquired by an overall improvement of domestic and foreign security.

The central lesson of the RSA is that there are no intrinsically nonstrategic regions from which U.S. vital interests cannot be threatened. If we wish to avoid being either surprised or overextended, we need extensive peacetime engagement with like-minded foreign militaries and governments in the Transcaspian and elsewhere, so that in wartime we can fight with them and gain access to those theaters. This effort must be seen as a critical factor of our strategy. The purpose of this monograph is to analyze the trends that have gone into making that RSA, particularly as it affects the Transcaspian and surrounding regions, and what the United States must do to retain the advantages that have accrued to us by virtue of the capabilities that we have built and assembled.