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U.S. Interests in Central Asia and the Challenges to Them

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | March 2007

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SUMMARY

Central Asia is an area whose importance to the United States is growing. Yet it also is an imperiled region because it faces numerous constant challenges stemming from pervasive internal misrule and the continuing interest of terrorist organizations in overthrowing local regimes. Its significance is, first, strategic due to its proximity to the war on terrorism and major actors like Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and India. Only secondarily is it important by virtue of its energy. Another key interest of U.S. policy is the promotion of democratic reforms and of open societies throughout the region.

Today American interests are under challenge in three definable areas. First, Russia and China have launched a coordinated campaign to oust the U.S. strategic presence from Central Asia. Second, they and local governments, who have good reason to fear democratic reforms, have waged an ideological campaign, accusing the United States of organizing ?color revolutions? to oust those regimes from power. The purpose here is to preserve the status quo and, for Moscow and Beijing, to further erode America?s capability for action in the area. The third challenge is that posed by a revived Taliban offensive in Afghanistan. Thus America faces simultaneous and overlapping military, political, economic (attempts to close markets, in particular energy markets), and ideological challenges to its interests.

These challenges succeeded to a point in 2005 because of a lack of policy coordination at home and due to diminishing policy interest in the region, e.g., a neglect of the need to answer ideological attacks on U.S. policy. Consequently, any successful U.S. strategy must be holistic, i.e., embracing and utilizing all the instruments of power?diplomacy, information, military, and economic. It must, first, be coordinated rigorously at home within the framework of clear policy guidance as to just how important this region is for America. The recommendations for policymakers that are contained here also emphasize the need to work with allies both within the area and outside it, e.g., India, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This means working with all the regional governments to the extent that it is possible, no matter how unsavory their conduct is or has been. Only on the basis of this internal reorganization of our own policy process that employs all policymaking agencies in a coordinated fashion, as well as by ongoing and simultaneous close monitoring of the possibility of failed states here, and cooperation with allies will it be possible for the United States to retrieve the situation and reinvigorate its capacity for securing important national security interests pertinent to Central Asia.

INTRODUCTION

Central Asia is an area whose importance to the United States is acknowledged to be growing. In 2004 Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Central Asians that ?stability in the area is of paramount importance and vital national interest.?1 Yet today American interests are under attack from three sides in Central Asia: Russia and China, the Taliban and their supporters, and the authoritarian misrule of Central Asian governments. Worse yet, it is not implausible that some local governments might fail. As Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte reported to Congress,

Central Asia remains plagued by political stagnation and repression, rampant corruption, widespread poverty, and widening socio-economic inequalities, and other problems that nurture radical sentiment and terrorism. In the worst, but not implausible, case central authority in one or more of these states could evaporate as rival clans or regions vie for power?opening the door to an expansion of terrorist and criminal activity on the model of failed states like Somalia and, when it was under Taliban rule, Afghanistan.2

While some of these attacks are or would have been unavoidable, others are due to shortcomings in U.S. policy which gave these adversaries opportunities to exploit those defects in U.S. policy to their own advantage. This monograph addresses these deficiencies and includes recommendations for extricating America from the present unhappy situation confronting it there.

ENDNOTES

1. Jim Nichols, ?Central Asia: Regional Developments and Implications for U.S. Interests,? CRS Issue Brief for Congress, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, December 10, 2004, p. 3.

2. John D. Negroponte, ?Annual Threat Assessment of the Director of National Intelligence for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,? February 2, 2006.