Tuesday, 18 February 2020 00:00

A New Strategy for Central Asia

U.S. Central Asia policy has room to improve, but the Trump administration is steering things on the right track.


February 018, 2020
S. Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell

This month, the Trump administration released its strategy for Central Asia. This marks the first time in more than two decades that the United States has come up with a serious approach to a region where vast economic, geopolitical, and civilizational stakes are at issue. It follows visits by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the first trip to the region by someone in that role in half a decade.

Long seen as a stagnant land of Soviet holdovers, Central Asia has been undergoing a dramatic transition led by its two most powerful countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Leaders in both countries have plunged into meaningful domestic reforms that are now focused on expanding citizen rights, governmental responsiveness, and the rule of law. They have also taken some important steps toward establishing their own structures for regional cooperation, a process that could result in a kind of Central Asian version of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Other world powers have certainly taken notice. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the behemoth Belt and Road Initiative in the capital of Kazakhstan seven years ago. Moscow, desperate not to be marginalized by Beijing, is coercing regional states to join its Eurasian Economic Union, and has also launched a fanciful vision of a “Greater Eurasia” in which all would be subordinated to Russia and China. Indian, Japanese, and South Korean leaders have all extensively toured the region. The European Union released its own strategy for Central Asia last year, focused on supporting regional cooperation rather than mere bilateral ties.

Neither George Bush nor Barack Obama bothered to think strategically about Central Asia, shifting their attention instead to Afghanistan and the war on terror. Afghanistan has been intimately linked with Central Asia for 3,000 years, but for the past two decades, the United States treated the two as separate worlds. Subordinated to concerns in Afghanistan, Russia, and China, Central Asia became an afterthought. However, in an era where great power competition is seen as the most serious challenge to national security, the United States should care about countries sandwiched between Russia, China, India, Iran, and Pakistan.

The new strategy emphasizes American support for the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states. It encourages the growth of regional cooperation among them, and acknowledges positive steps toward political and economic reform. It also supports the expansion of relations between Central Asian states and Afghanistan. It emphasizes the importance of partnership with regional states to achieve progress on sensitive topics such as human rights and religious freedom.

In releasing this strategy, the Trump administration makes clear that it views Central Asia as a world region where the United States has intrinsic national security and economic interests. This is an important departure from the past practice of allowing this region to slip between the cracks. We have long argued for exactly this approach to the region and have ample reason to applaud the strategy drafters. However, the task has not been completed, for several omissions must be attended to.

First, Washington has yet to grasp the key role of Central Asia as a bastion of Muslim societies with secular governments, laws, and education. The United States should acknowledge this role, and work to sustain and promote secular government in Central Asia and elsewhere. Next, the United States has yet to fully recognize that, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has noted, Afghanistan is itself a Central Asian country. Noting this, the logical next step is for the United States to fully include Afghanistan in its mechanism for consultations with Central Asian states.

The strategy does not mention the crucial east to west corridor linking Central Asia to Europe through the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus. Expanding the Central Asian linkages with lands to the west should be a priority of American engagement. Finally, the strategy acknowledges the security challenges Central Asian states face from Russia and China, but it offers little detail on how the United States should address them.

Central Asia, including Afghanistan, presents geopolitically important real estate. Building on their rich indigenous cultures, its countries now look to the Americans to provide a balance to other major powers in the region. They believe that such an arrangement can provide the basis for better relations among all involved. Until now, the United States has hesitated to embrace this challenge. The new strategy indicates that at long last Washington is beginning to take Central Asia seriously. Having finally taken important first steps, it should now finish the job.

 Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell are the chairman and director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the American Foreign Policy Council.

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U.S. Central Asia policy has room to improve, but the Trump administration is steering things on the right track.

The Diplomat

March 01, 2020
S. Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell

In a recent opinion pieceDiplomat editor Catherine Putz offered a thoughtful criticism of our Feb. 18 article marking the publication of a new U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. While the main purpose of our article was to note the areas in which U.S. policy needs further development, we do indeed believe that the approach of the present administration to the region to be an improvement on those of its predecessors, both Democratic and Republican.

Putz challenges our contention that the new strategy marks the first time in two decades that the U.S. has come up with a serious approach to the region. She points to the 2011 “New Silk Road,” a 2015 Strategy document, and that year’s creation of the C5+1 mechanism as evidence that the American approach to the region was equally serious during the Obama Administration.

We are, of course, well aware of the steps taken by the Obama administration, and were in fact involved in their creation. One of us called for the establishment of a U.S. “Partnership for Central Asia” as early as 2005, and the Diplomat, among others, credited our 2007 book The New Silk Roads: Transport and Trade in Greater Central Asia for having played a role in nudging Hillary Clinton’s State Department to design the “New Silk Road” strategy. Finally, in 2014 we published a more specific call for a “Central Asia Six Plus One” entity, which differed from John Kerry’s C5+1 only in the latter’s decision to leave Afghanistan out of the mechanism. Why, then, our bold assertion that Trump Administration’s strategy – in which we played no similar role – marks a fundamental improvement?

Our criticism of past administrations, both Democratic and Republican, refers both to conceptual flaws and failures of execution. We presented our critique in a 2018 book, The Long Game on the Silk Road: U.S. and EU Strategy for Central Asia and the CaucasusIt is important to note that our criticism is bipartisan in nature: we view the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations as having pursued essentially identical policies toward Central Asia, which were inferior both to the strategies of their Democratic predecessor and their Republican successor.

The first flaw of the Bush-Obama era was conceptual: neither viewed Central Asia primarily as an area where the U.S. had intrinsic interests. Both were fixated on the issue of terrorism and Islamic extremism, something that led them to view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy – essentially, as a highway with a pit stop, the highway being the transportation routes leading across the region to Afghanistan, the pit stop being the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. Neither viewed the region on the basis of its intrinsic importance as a land of small and mid-size Muslim-majority states with secular government, surrounded by the most influential powers on the Eurasian continent. This is not to say that various officials in government agencies did not see this value: many did, and we worked closely with them. But they were never able to fundamentally shift the policy of their administrations in this strategic direction.

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Our second critique of the Bush-Obama years focused on the manner in which the U.S. treated the internal flaws and shortcomings of Central Asian states. The lack of meaningful democratic development in Central Asia for much of the thirty years since the Soviet Union’s collapse is well-known. The question has been what America should do about it. Should it work with Central Asian governments to address these deficiencies, through a policy of engagement focused on building trust and working toward gradual progress that will, in the long term, make their societies more free and equitable? Or should it, by contrast, work on or against them, by loudly pointing out these deficiencies, berating regional states for their shortcomings, and perhaps even apply sanctions, in the hope that a policy of naming and shaming will coerce them to make meaningful change?

From the promulgation of the “Freedom Agenda” in 2004, the U.S. government strongly tended in the latter direction, i.e., it worked on rather than with Central Asian governments. It didn’t work. We have long argued that this approach failed to bring about the desired change and instead served only to alienate the Central Asian countries and push them closer into the Russian and Chinese orbit.

It is true that the Obama Administration eventually came to realize that this approach had reached the end of the road, and we applauded it at the time for changing course. But neither of the two initiatives that reflected its desire to follow a more constructive path got off the ground.

The 2011 “New Silk Road” was an initiative that Secretary Clinton, to her credit, adopted at the urging of the U.S. military leadership. But for reasons beyond our comprehension, neither the National Security Council nor President Obama himself evinced the slightest support the strategy. In fact, neither so much as mentioned it publicly. The main effect of the New Silk Road Strategy was to challenge both Russia and China to come up with a counter strategy. Russia began preparing seriously its Eurasian Economic Union. China, pinching the name from the American program,  launched its own “Silk Road Economic Belt,” which it eventually rebranded as part of the broader “Belt and Road” initiative.

By contrast, C5+1 has proved to be more lasting in nature. Still, it should be noted that the United States was the last major power to create a regional mechanism for consultations with Central Asia: both Japan and the EU had already done so several years before John F. Kerry approved C5+1. And in reality, it was not the State Department but the Central Asians themselves, who for years had lobbied for it, who initiated this project. It was adroit pressure from Kazakhstan, not any internal initiative from State, that made the difference.

Having launched C5+1, State has pursued it in a lackadaisical fashion.  This is in sharp contrast to the European Union, which has developed detailed regional strategies in several spheres and appointed a Special Representative for the region as a whole, who has pursued his task with strong backing from Brussels.

In launching the C5+1, Kerry did not include Afghanistan, where the U.S. has invested considerable lives and treasure, even though it is an integral part of Central Asia and all the Central Asian governments are expanding their links there.

In this sense, the Trump Administration’s policy is reminiscent of the Clinton Administration’s fruitful approach to the region in the late 1990s: it appears grounded in a realistic approach to the region’s political development, a constructive attitude focused on working with rather than on Central Asian governments, as indicated in its hosting of the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 2018. The Administration’s policies show an appreciation of the region’s value relative to great power politics. In fact, the Trump Administration’s interest in Central Asia no doubt rests with its identification, in the National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy, of great power competition as the key challenge to U.S. global interests.

But as we point out in our article, there remain a number of areas in which U.S. policy toward Central Asia can and should be improved. However, the new strategy certainly departs from the consensus of its two immediate predecessors years in important and positive ways that future administrations, whether Republican or Democratic, should build upon.

 Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell are the chairman and director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the American Foreign Policy Council.

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One of the main tools of Russian influence across Central Asia remains poorly understood.
The Diplomat
January 17, 2020
By S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell

Since Vladimir Putin came to power twenty years ago, much ink has been spent detailing the role of the security services in Russian politics, and it is generally accepted that the Putin regime essentially is a result of the Soviet-era KGB's takeover of the Russian state. But few have connected this to Russian foreign policy in its neighborhood. Meanwhile, many observers have puzzled over the reluctance of former Soviet states to embrace political reform or liberalization. Many have connected this to Russia's active opposition to greater openness and political participation in neighboring states. But few have ventured into specifics – how does Russia make its influence felt? Who is the "enforcer" with the power and resolve to translate Moscow's words into action?

The role of security services in foreign policy is a notoriously challenging subject of study. Acknowledging this, we contend that there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence to suggest that Moscow's manipulation of security services is a key instrument in its efforts to maintain its "sphere of privileged interests" in its neighborhood, and equally, a leading impediment to political reform. This is illustrated by an examination of those moments in the life of the new post-Soviet states in which the hand of Moscow appears to be present.
Footprints of Enforcers
No post-Soviet state has so consistently been subjected to Russian pressure as Georgia, culminating in the 2008 invasion. But in 2003, Moscow had actually played a rather constructive role in the transition from Eduard Shevardnadze's government to the Rose revolutionaries led by Mikheil Saakashvili. What happened then?
The moment the relationship soured can actually be exactly pinpointed. When Putin and Saakashvili met for the first time in February 2004, Putin made two specific requests: first, not to demand the withdrawal of Russian military bases in Georgia. Second, to "take care of and not to touch" Georgia's State Security Minister, Valery Khaburdzania, a holdover from the Shevardnadze government whom high Georgian officials told us they suspected of channeling information to the Kremlin. Saakashvili, characteristically, immediately and unceremoniously dismissed Khaburdzania.

Are We Getting Closer to Peace in Afghanistan?

In the claustrophobic atmosphere of Kabul today, uncertainty reigns on every side: security, politics, business, and finance. Afghanistan is a big country, and Afghan society is rapidly changing. Are there compensating factors that we are ignoring and, if so, what are they? 

Speaker: Mr. Shoaib Rahim, Senior Adviser, Afghanistan's State Ministry for Peace

Moderator: S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at AFPC

Where: American Foreign Policy Council: 509 C Street NE, Washington, DC 20002

When: Tuesday, January 21, 2020 from 2:00 - 4:00 pm, 

RSVP: Click HERE to register

Published in Forums & Events
Thursday, 05 December 2019 16:58

Is This Central Asia’s ASEAN Moment?

The Diplomat
December 5, 2019

By S. Frederick Starr

On November 29, Central Asia re-emerged as a world region.

Hats off to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, First President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan, and President Sooronbay Jeenbekov of the Kyrgyz Republic. On November 29, 2019 these leaders jointly resolved to develop:

forms and mechanisms for the development of cooperation in the areas of trade, economy, investments, transport and transit, agriculture, industrial cooperation, protection of environment, energy, water resources, tourism, science and culture.

In short, they pledged to develop in Central Asia something akin to ASEAN, the Nordic Council, the Vishegrad Group, or Mercosur. After centuries of being played against one another, the Central Asian states have linked arms to advance their common welfare.




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