Contributions to the Campaign
The contributions of the Central Asian states to the U.S. campaign against terrorism and specifically to the current campaign in Afghanistan have been significant and unprecedented. This is a region in which the United States had no history of prior engagement before the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and which was viewed as firmly within the sphere of Russia’s influence throughout the 1990s. At the end of 2001, we now have U.S. troops operating in the Central Asian heartland. Of the three states bordering Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have offered basing facilities for U.S. and allied forces, while Turkmenistan has offered logistical support and search and rescue provisions. All three have served as conduits for U.S. and other international humanitarian assistance to the population of Afghanistan. Along with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the states have provided over-flight rights and intelligence sharing. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has also recently voted to allow the United States and its allies to use its airports for military and humanitarian activities in Afghanistan for up to a year. Building upon this support from the last three months, the United States now has a broader opportunity to forge strong relationships in a critical strategic region of the globe where it has had few real allies.
The Central Asian states are positively disposed toward close relations with the United States. Over the last decade, they have been engaged in a full range of U.S.-led political, economic and military assistance and development programs. Bilateral U.S. military relations, joint exercises with Central Asian states, and a robust set of Pentagon special forces training programs for Uzbekistan since the mid-1990s, have clearly been translated into the close cooperation that we see today in the campaign in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the Central Asian states share U.S. concerns about instability and the use of the territory to their south as a training and staging ground for militant and terrorist groups. Central Asian states have suffered from their own problems with terrorism. Since the late 1990s, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have experienced raids and attacks by forces of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which became closely tied to the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2000-2001. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have lent support to factions of the Northern Alliance in their struggle against the Taliban. Tajikistan, in particular, frequently served as a base for the forces of the assassinated Northern Alliance leader and ethnic Tajik, Ahmed Shah Masoud, and funneled supplies and weapons from Russia and other backers of the Alliance through its territory. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, as immediate neighbors of Afghanistan, also played an active role in the United Nations-sponsored “6+2” process to find a negotiated settlement for the Afghan civil war. Kazakhstan, further to the north, initiated parallel efforts to find a solution to the conflict, pushing the U.N., the U.S. and other major international actors to maintain their focus on Afghanistan, and offering its territory and good auspices for peace talks among the various Afghan factions.
Looking to future reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, as the current campaign moves into a new military and political phase, the Central Asian states have important roles to play. They have close historical and trade links to Afghanistan and are part of Afghanistan’s North-South communications axis stretching from Europe and Russia, to South Asia and the Indian subcontinent. In the Soviet period, this axis was dominated by flows of armaments and economic assistance from Moscow to Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the axis has been dominated by weapons flows south to the Northern Alliance from Russia, Uzbekistan and other states, and by drugs and armed militants flowing north into Central Asia from Afghanistan.
In the 1990s, Central Asia became the primary conduit for heroin trafficking from Afghanistan to Russia and from there to Eastern and Western Europe. This has spawned a huge intravenous drug use problem in Russia and Ukraine, and a public health disaster that is now approaching catastrophic proportions with the rapid increase of HIV infection and AIDS, extending back along the drug routes themselves into Central Asia. Efforts by regional governments to tackle this problem have been stymied by the continuation of civil war in Afghanistan and direct linkages between regional militias and the drug trade. The states will welcome U.S. and international programs to eradicate heroin production and trafficking in Afghanistan as part of long-term reconstruction efforts, and the primary challenge in the coming years will be to transform this North-South axis into a route for licit rather than illicit trade. In this regard, Central Asia’s energy resources may eventually come to play an important role. Projects for transporting gas from Turkmenistan and the broader Caspian Basin across Afghanistan to South Asia, which were stymied by the civil war in Afghanistan, could one day be revived in the context of a broader effort to restore and improve road, rail and other transportation and communication links.
Leave of Absence
Some projects are already underway in the region with financial assistance from the Asia Development Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Central Asian states have been engaged in organizations to promote broader regional cooperation and development. This includes initiatives sponsored by the European Union, trans-regional groups of other former Soviet republics extending to the Caucasus and the Black Sea, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings in Russia and China to resolve outstanding border and other disputes, promote trade, and combat terrorism. In the last two years, there have been several steps taken to set up counter-terrorism centers in the region, most recently in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, underscoring the commitment of the states to tackling regional issues.
Beyond its bilateral assistance programs and relations with individual states, the United States, to date, has not embarked on a more comprehensive effort in Central Asia and has not participated actively in regional organizations. In part, this was because prior to September 11, 2001, U.S. planners did not perceive a vital American interest in the broader region. The campaign against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan has provided that vital interest. The United States must now decide how, and to what degree, it wants to move forward and set priorities in its relations with the Central Asian states.
Priorities for U.S. policy in Central Asia
I will single out three priorities in the context of the campaign in Afghanistan:
The first is ending the war in Afghanistan and eliminating the Al Qaeda network and the Taliban leadership. The U.S. will continue to need the cooperation and support of the Central Asian states to effect this. In particular, it will need access to bases, airports and other facilities.
The second is bringing long-term stability to Afghanistan, and here Central Asia plays an important role. The war may be over soon, but peace is by no means assured in Afghanistan. There are real short and long-term risks of a resumption of civil war. Other international experience and Afghanistan’s own history suggest that the Taliban will be difficult to eradicate as a fighting force and political influence. Indeed, as we currently see in Afghanistan, many Taliban leaders and rank and file fighters have simply switched sides, reverting to their former “Afghan” rather than “Talib” identities. They have not necessarily shed their beliefs or commitment to a religiously based rather than secular society. Irrespective of the present agreements on the structure of a new government, support for a new project of state building will be thinly rooted and fragile. There will be little tolerance for inevitable mistakes unless there is some appreciable and immediate improvement in the lives of the general population.
In addition, many former Mujaheddin fighters and leaders linked with the Northern Alliance have been left out of the new interim government recently formed in Bonn. Some of these leaders, such as General Abdur Rashid Dostum, and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, have considerable support in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has served as Dostum’s patron, while Russia has supported Rabbani and other ethnic Tajik leaders, using Tajikistan as a base for contacts. Neither is likely to withdraw this support in the immediate future, thus bolstering their proxies in opposition to the new government and contributing to the fracturing of Afghan politics. This could be particularly difficult in the case of Dostum, who has been restored to power in his former regional stronghold in Mazar-e-Sharif near the border with Uzbekistan. If Dostum’s past conduct is anything to judge by, he will likely govern Mazar-e-Sharif as his personal fiefdom, forging ties with Tashkent rather than Kabul, and encouraging the continued fragmentation rather than consolidation of the Afghan state. If stability is to be ensured in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and other Central Asian actors will have to relinquish their ties to these old leaders and give their full support to the new government in Kabul.
The third priority—and closely linked to the second—is “draining the swamp” that has produced and supported radical militant groups in Central and South Asia. This is fostered by weak central government and the disintegration of state institutions, a collapsed economy, crushing poverty and the absence of a social safety net, high birthrates, high unemployment, poor and inadequate education, widespread illiteracy, the erosion of traditional social institutions and the infiltration of radical ideologies, free flows of drugs and illicit weapons, and isolation from all but the most immediate of neighbors. The Central Asian states, particularly Tajikistan, have many of the same elements that Afghanistan possessed in facilitating the rise of the Taliban and ultimately becoming a haven to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Without an approach to the reconstruction and development of the region that encompasses Central Asia as well as Afghanistan, we may simply see the shift of the current problems from the south to the north, and the emergence of Taliban and Al Qaeda-like movements in Central Asia itself.
The second and third priorities point to the importance of long-term U.S. political and economic engagement in Central Asia, even if the dynamic of the current war against terrorism precludes a long-term military presence as other networks outside the region are targeted and tackled.
In expanding and consolidating its relations with the Central Asian states, however, the U.S. faces some challenges—specifically to its long-term goals of promoting stability, market reform, and democratization in developing countries worldwide. Two recent incidents underscore this fact and should give pause for consideration of the current trajectory of U.S. strategy in Central Asia, which has emphasized close relations with Uzbekistan since September 2001.
First, on December 6, on the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Uzbekistan this past weekend, Uzbekistan’s parliament endorsed a proposal to extend President Islam Karimov’s current term from 5 to 7 years and hold a referendum in January 2002 that could potentially have him declared “President for Life.” This will put Karimov on par with his neighbor, President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who has devoted his life tenure to the restoration of an old-style Soviet personality cult and turned Turkmenistan into a Central Asian version of North Korea (minus the potential weapons of mass destruction).
Second, in spite of considerable pressure from the United States and international agencies, the Uzbek government dragged its feet for weeks on opening the Friendship Bridge at Termez to permit humanitarian shipments to cross into Afghanistan. Security concerns, including unsubstantiated reports of Taliban forces massing across the river, were accompanied by questions about the structural integrity of the bridge. But the real issue was the extent and nature of economic assistance that would be forthcoming to Uzbekistan from the United States. In late November a high-level Uzbek delegation visited Washington DC to press their case, and it was only after the Uzbek leadership had been assured that there would be significant assistance—to the tune of a reported pledge of $100 million—that approval was given for opening the bridge.
Risks in a close U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship
Uzbekistan may be the most strategically located of the Central Asian states, with the largest population and the most significant military capabilities and resources, but it is a problematic long-term partner for the United States in Central Asia. The increased emphasis on relations with Uzbekistan in Washington DC since September is troubling.
Uzbekistan is a source of regional tension, rather than stability, and a logjam for regional development. It has water and territorial disputes with all of its neighbors. It has periodically used energy exports to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as a lever to pressure their governments to make concessions in some of these disputes. It has begun to mine its borders to guard against militant incursions without consulting its neighbors, and has ruptured communication routes from Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and the sensitive Ferghana Valley that straddles the three countries. Uzbek mines have resulted in the death and injury of more than 50 people this year in Tajikistan alone. The casualties have been inhabitants of border regions visiting family or tending livestock, not members of radical forces.
Uzbekistan is also in perpetual domestic economic crisis. Indeed, crisis has become the status quo. Through a mixture of currency and exchange rate controls, state orders for its two main export commodities, cotton and wheat, and the good fortune of being self-sufficient in energy, Uzbekistan has muddled along for several years now, defying expectations of collapse and refusing to deregulate and open up its economy. Its system is similar to the unreformed Soviet Union of the late 1980s, in stark contrast to neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. If the current trajectory continues, Uzbekistan will become a closed state like Turkmenistan.
While Turkmenistan’s position on the periphery means it can effectively be avoided in regional projects, Uzbekistan’s position at the heart of Central Asia makes it indispensable to regional communications and trade. While Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have access to Russia and China, Tajikistan is almost wholly dependent on Uzbekistan for contacts with the outside world. Over the last several years, Tajikistan’s trade and communications with states beyond Uzbekistan have dwindled.
This is particularly dangerous. As stressed earlier, Tajikistan’s situation is akin to that of Afghanistan. After 5 years of civil war (1992-1997), it has its own mix of extremely weak central government, and high levels of unemployment and impoverishment that facilitate the growth of radical forms of Islam that may provide ideological motivation for terrorist acts. Tajikistan has already been the breeding ground for its own radical militants, many of whom fled across the border to join the Taliban in Afghanistan at the end of the civil war, and has been the staging ground for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Although the leadership and forces of that group seem to have been decimated in the course of the war against the Taliban, other groups may emerge. In northern Tajikistan, and across the border in southern Kyrgyzstan, clandestine Islamic movements such as Hezb-e-Tahrir have made considerable inroads among rural and urban youth alike, especially among the ethnic Uzbek population of the Ferghana Valley. They have stepped into the vacuum left by the collapse of secular political movements and by weak non-governmental organizations starved of resources.
Prior to September 11 and the war in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan was in a far different position in U.S. policy. The international NGO community had documented serious and persistent human rights abuses and infringements of political and religious freedoms and brought them to public and government attention. Although the U.S. had pledged increased military support for Uzbekistan—in light of the security concerns about Afghanistan and regional militant groups—criticism of the Karimov regime had increased in the State Department and Congress. Since the war began in Afghanistan, this criticism has been muted—in fact, almost silenced.
In three short months, President Karimov of Uzbekistan has been elevated from the position of Central Asian autocrat to strategic partner of the United States and has been emboldened. By leveraging his few assets of value to the U.S. and its international partners-bases and a bridge—he has extended his term and secured aid. Absent the war in Afghanistan, Karimov could not have expected to gain U.S. approval (tacit or otherwise) for violating democratic principles and extending his term, and there would have been no new infusion of economic assistance without evidence of a clear commitment to economic reform. Uzbekistan has made some token written commitment to reform in a November 30 Memorandum of Understanding between the two governments, but words are not easy to translate into action. In the pursuit of the war in Afghanistan, the United States may have consolidated and bolstered another authoritarian and bankrupt regime in Central Asia, and further set back the prospects for regional development and stability.
Uzbekistan’s lack of commitment can be directly correlated to a lack of confidence in the United States’ own commitment to a long-term presence in the region. In spite of the seeming new interest in Central Asia in the United States—underscored by the creation of this new Subcommittee on Central Asia and the South Caucasus in the Senate—the Central Asian states themselves are skeptical about future relations with the U.S. They have serious reservations about the nature and extent of any long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the region, and already see U.S. government attention moving away as the military campaign in Afghanistan progresses more quickly than first anticipated.
Although U.S. officials have repeatedly asserted that there will be no repetition of the early 1990s when the U.S. disengaged from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, Central Asian states and other regional neighbors fully expect that the U.S. will disengage-or at the very best engage half-heartedly. They have been bolstered in this conviction by high level and public discussions of a shift in the war against terrorism to targets in the Middle East and elsewhere, statements that the United States will not lead the long-term political and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan, and assertions that the U.S. will cede the task to the United Nations and other international actors. The imperative to grab concessions when and while one can seems like a rational strategy for Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states given these considerations.
Central Asian perceptions and considerations aside, there are serious downsides for the United States in not engaging with all of the regional states consistently and comprehensively. To stress again, if the U.S. does not engage Central Asia then it also risks the failure of its efforts to ensure stability in Afghanistan.
The U.S. needs to engage in a way that factors in all the Central Asian states rather than relying on one, such as Uzbekistan, or two, including Kazakhstan, which has become an important U.S. partner in energy development in the Caspian Basin. In fact, the two weakest states, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, need bolstering the most, and Turkmenistan, bordering Iran and Afghanistan, can not be completely ignored.
Recommendations for future U.S. engagement in Central Asia
In looking at next steps for U.S. policy in Central Asia, we need to have some immediate, short-term and long-term goals. I will outline what some of these might be.
In the immediate term, we should not congratulate our new ally, Islam Karimov, on the extension of his presidential term—especially if this should last a lifetime. Most certainly any invitations to Karimov to make a formal visit to Washington should be reconsidered in the light of the January referendum on his presidency. The U.S. Government and Congress should continue to protest the infringements on rights and freedoms in Uzbekistan, as they did in 2000-2001, and insist on movement toward political and economic reform. Now more than ever, with clearly shared goals in Afghanistan, a new partnership and the promise of significant economic assistance, we should be able to do this—but only if we are clear that we are engaged in Central Asia for the long haul and will not simply move on in another 3 months time. We should demonstrate that we do care about the future of Uzbekistan and all of Central Asia. This will necessitate more high-level visits to the region and movement on commitments for new programs in Congress and the Government.
Again, in the immediate term, we should not rush to fund and initiate new security and military programs with Uzbekistan. An over-emphasis on Uzbekistan’s external and border security and efforts to strengthen its military bases and forces will simply facilitate the creation of “fortress Uzbekistan” and bolster Uzbekistan’s negative leverage with its neighbors. This could potentially encourage Tashkent to push the resolution of territorial and other disputes by force. Pentagon programs for Uzbekistan should be brought into line with State Department and other initiatives that emphasize internal development and regional cooperation as well as security.
In the short-term, we should continue the engagement with the other Central Asian states that was also initiated in the 1990s, emphasizing U.S. relations with all regional actors. In the last several weeks, the U.S. Government has moved to develop a new relationship with Tajikistan-building on the military basing opportunities there, and close cooperation with Russia as the major guarantor of Tajik security. Although Secretary Powell did not include Tajikistan in his recent trip to Central Asia, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld did visit during his Central and South Asia trip in October. A renewed U.S. presence in Dushanbe is planned as is some kind of full official diplomatic representation for Tajikistan in the United States, which is currently absent because of a serious lack of funds. Congress should support the expansion of reciprocal U.S. and Tajik representation and presence to the fullest extent possible. Of all the Central Asian states, Tajikistan is the most receptive to U.S. and other international engagement and influence. The same factors of weak central government and a high degree of local autonomy and self reliance that offer opportunities for radical groups to exploit have also given rise to the most active civil society in Central Asia.
We also need to foster realistic expectations on the part of regional leaders about the extent and kind of aid that will be forthcoming. The World Bank and the UNDP, for example, will have clearly defined but relatively limited roles to play in Central Asia. They will not provide huge infusions of cash. World Bank loans for projects eventually have to be repaid, and regional governments are cash-starved and already heavily indebted. While the UNDP tackles poverty alleviation, this can only be done through structural changes, multilevel projects in conjunction with other donors, and gradual, incremental steps over a long period of time.
The United States, other bilateral donors such as Japan (which is the largest single provider of overseas development assistance to the region), and the European Union and its individual member countries, can provide far more significant funding. But, here too, there are serious limitations. All the Central Asian states have a low absorptive capacity for assistance. There are few actors outside the central governments. Local governments are often corrupt and inept and lack the skills and budget revenues for self-governance. Non-governmental organizations are largely absent in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, or closely tied to the government where they exist. They are squeezed politically and starved of funds elsewhere in the region and dependent on foreign donors. Some significant successes have been achieved in assistance to private sector and business association development and microfinance programs for small businesses by USAID and the U.S. Eurasia Foundation, in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but these can not be replicated easily in the closed economy of Uzbekistan or in isolated Tajikistan. Where governments have been constrained, private donors such as the Eurasia Foundation and the Open Society Institute have been able to develop very active small grantmaking programs across Central Asia, but they have made little headway in Turkmenistan and have seen their space for action shrink drastically in Uzbekistan over the last several years.
For the long-term, we will need a systematic approach to regional development that fosters coordination among programs and donors and plays to the respective strengths of individual organizations and states. The United States has already taken the lead with Japan and the European Union to convene a series of donor conferences and coordination mechanisms for Afghanistan. We should employ a similar model for Central Asia.
The region will require the same level of intensity and attention to detail if we are to avoid its future Afghanicization.