The four speakers offered an overview of the changes in United States policy toward Central Asia since September 11, 2001, and of recent developments in the region. The following summary of the seminar highlights the main points from the presentations and the subsequent roundtable discussion.
After the events of September 11, 2001, the United States’ national security interests in Central Asia underwent a drastic shift. The U.S. has been active in the region—in terms of foreign aid, military-military engagement programs, and energy resource development—since 1992. However, after September 11, it became clear that there was a security vacuum in the region that posed a serious threat to U.S. national interests and had to be addressed directly. Security issues have thus taken priority in U.S. policy approaches toward the region in 2001-2002, but the U.S. is still very much concerned with accelerating economic growth, fostering political development including the promotion of human rights, and facilitating international integration in Central Asia. These factors are seen as interrelated. U.S. policy in the region is based on the understanding that achieving long-term stability in Central Asia is a primary objective, but will not be possible without significant internal reform in each of the five Central Asian republics. As a result, the United States is pursuing its policy objectives in Central Asia through a combination of diplomacy, relationship building, and foreign assistance, in addition to increasing its military presence to pursue the campaign in Afghanistan.
Prior to September 11, 2001, discussions of U.S. interests in Central Asia tended to focus on issues related to the development of Caspian energy resources. Security perceptions of the region lagged behind. During the Soviet period, Moscow was the guarantor of security in Central Asia. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, scholars and analysts began to see Central Asia as an “emerging zone of no control.” In the 1990s, only limited frameworks for security cooperation emerged—including the Collective Security Treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States (the “Tashkent Treaty,” which Uzbekistan withdrew from in 1999), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—but there was no real mechanism to regulate security relationships. The United States presence in the region has changed this situation to some degree.
After September 11, the United States moved quickly to negotiate agreements with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to use existing bases and deploy troops in support of the war in Afghanistan. American troops are now stationed at Manas base in Kyrgyzstan and at the Karshi-Khanabad base in Uzbekistan carrying out supply and support functions for the Afghan campaign. The United States does not intend to have permanent bases in Central Asia, but it does intend to have long-term security relationships with the Central Asian countries which may include access to bases if required in future contingencies. At present it is difficult to say precisely how long the current U.S. military presence will be maintained in Central Asia, given the uncertain timeline of the campaign in Afghanistan—but the consequences of the security vacuum in the region in the 1990s (including the rise of the Taliban and the consolidation of international terrorist activity in Afghanistan) illustrate the opportunity costs of foregoing any kind of involvement.
United States current security interests in Central Asia, in addition to concluding the campaign in Afghanistan, include:
- Denying the use of the area to militant Islamic factions
- Impeding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
- Reducing the possibility of civil war and/or interstate conflict
- Preventing the spillover of Central Asian conflicts into nearby regions (such as Turkey and the Persian Gulf)
- Preventing the hegemony of any one country in Central Asia
- Gaining and maintaining access to Caspian energy resources
In this regard, the United States has identified the following priority areas for Central Asian security assistance:
- The Central Asian states need to undertake defense reform. The United States is committed to help the states assess the threats they face, and will work with them to develop an organizational design to best address those threats.
- Central Asian militaries need basic, up-to-date communications equipment, which the U.S. can help them to acquire.
- As regional militaries downsize, the issue of the mobility of armed forces becomes critical, and the U.S. can also assist them in the acquisition of essential equipment.
- All the states need to improve border security. Enhanced border security will not only facilitate efforts to prevent the incursion of militant Islamist groups into these countries and provide a first line of defense against the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, it will also reduce the drug trade through Central Asia.
Since the defeat of the Taliban and the military engagement of the United States in Afghanistan, stability in the region has increased. The destabilizing threat of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has decreased considerably, as the group was decimated after fighting alongside the Talibs in Afghanistan. Although Central Asian governments remain justifiably wary of the growing influence of the Islamist radical group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, this organization does not yet employ violent means to promote the establishment of an Islamic regime. In the future, to further enhance stability, the United States will work with the Central Asian governments to support efforts to foster moderate strains of Islam. In addition, the U.S. will focus attention on anti-narcotics programs that include law-enforcement training and a drug education component in order to reduce demand.
The Central Asian states have enormous economic needs and a deteriorating infrastructure that require international attention, and which have become a major focus of U.S. policy intervention. All of the Central Asian states have to contend with significant unemployment and poverty. The International Monetary Fund is actively working on basic economic reform packages with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and has recently started staff-monitored programs in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan is also working with the World Bank on a poverty reduction program. There has been some progress in economic development—albeit uneven—and more economic transformation is clearly needed. The United States will continue to push for reform with regional governments.
Since September 11, 2001, the funds set aside for U.S. assistance to Central Asia have dramatically increased, facilitating more policy initiatives in support of economic development. For example, in fiscal year 2001, the United States earmarked $230 million for the five Central Asian states; and in fiscal year 2002 the amount more than doubled to $595 million—due mainly to two large Congressional supplements. The majority of U.S. aid today is dispersed not to the central governments but to local and international organizations that are active on the ground.
In terms of the U.S. energy interests in Central Asia, which were a major focus of economic development initiatives in the 1990s, the multiple pipeline policy is bearing fruit. There has been progress with both the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipelines. Kazakhstan can now sell its energy on world markets for higher prices than before. But there is still room for more improvement in the Central Asian energy sector, including in the development of Turkmenistan’s gas resources.
There is a significant degree of political frustration in the countries of Central Asia. The regimes are less than democratic, and there is a lack of opportunity for political expression and very little free media. U.S. assistance has focused since the 1990s on opening up the political space by promoting the development of civil society, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media outlets. The U.S. is also assisting in the creation of an independent judicial branch, legal defense groups, and human rights monitoring organizations.
Within the region, there have been some positive changes in political development. As one example, in Kyrgyzstan, pressure from a vibrant civil society has kept the Akaev administration in check. In Uzbekistan, one opposition party has recently been able to hold regional party conferences and may be able to register officially for the next elections. Official censorship in Uzbekistan has also ended, although the regime still encourages “self-censorship.” Similarly, in Kazakhstan, an opposition political party has been registered and will be permitted to participate in the upcoming elections. The first independent radio station has also recently been registered in Tajikistan. In addition, representatives from Central Asian states convened a roundtable on issues of torture, while Uzbekistan has moved to convict police officers of torture and has freed 900 political prisoners. Exit visas in Uzbekistan have also been abolished for its population. Furthermore, in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, coalitions of NGOs have blocked legislation and pressured governments to change policies. In some cases, these are the results of the past ten years of U.S. effort rather than simply a recent breakthrough, but these examples do demonstrate a degree of progress—even if it is at a far slower pace than the United States would prefer.
In terms of its future assistance programs, after a decade of involvement in the region, the United States is now finding that resource deprivation has led to a serious deterioration in the educational system. In the past, the U.S. has tended to focus its efforts on higher education projects, but it will now broaden its approach to promote curriculum development and support primary and secondary education initiatives in Central Asia.
Regional and international integration
Central Asian countries suffer from extreme isolation—they are cut off from sources and flows of information and are not as connected to the international community as they ought to be. The United States is helping Central Asia to combat this isolation through educational and technical exchange programs bringing students and regional professionals to America. Exchange programs are seen to have a positive long-term impact on Central Asian-American relations as well as on internal social, political, and economic dynamics in Central Asia. The United States is also funding programs to increase internet connectivity in Central Asian schools and public institutions.
In addition, Central Asia is beset by considerable intra-regional tension—both within and between states. Particularly contentious issues include water-sharing arrangements and trade barriers. In response, the United States has established cross-border conflict resolution programs in specific localities in order to foster common solutions to common problems, and has facilitated governmental-level negotiations on larger regional issues like water resources.
Beyond fostering positive relationships among Central Asian countries, the United States recognizes the importance of promoting good relations with Central Asia’s neighbors, including Russia, China, and Afghanistan. As the situation in Afghanistan improves, for example, the possibility of opening southern transport routes from Central Asia to the nearest seaport of Karachi in Pakistan may become a reality. The United States is also working to avert competition and a tug-of-war between Russia and China over influence in Central Asia. In this regard, the U.S. is encouraging Sino-Russian investment in the region and advising the Central Asian governments that friendly relations with these powerful neighbors are imperative. The U.S. considers that an even-handed approach to relations with Russia and China is critical to maintaining peace in the region.
There are still significant obstacles to the long-term development and stability of Central Asia. Unlike other former Soviet states that are geographically positioned near Europe, the states of Central Asia are not pulled by Europe toward reform. Reforms in Central Asia are occurring and will certainly continue, but their pace is and will be slow. As a result, U.S. foreign policy toward Central Asia must be shaped by a long-term perspective and considerable patience. The United States adopted a similar patient and long-term approach to its policy in East Asia thirty years ago, and that region has since made significant strides, which Central Asia, with its rich human resources, could emulate and aim for.