Is A U.S. Strategy For Central Asia Emerging?

By Stephen Blank

The U.S. has started to formulate and implement more comprehensive policies for Central Asia. The deepening involvement in the war in Afghanistan is the principal, but not sole cause for this policy initiative. Russia’s attempts to impose its hegemony upon Central Asia and oblige the U.S. to recognize it have triggered a reaction in Washington. Likewise, China’s completion of the pipeline to Turkmenistan and major investment projects in Central Asia forced the U.S. to devise new ways to enhance its energy and economic profile there as well. As a result, in early 2010, we now see the elements of a new and stronger policy initiative towards Central Asia.

BACKGROUND: In 2009 it was difficult to discern a clear U.S. strategy for Central Asia as a whole beyond the AF-Pak strategy relating to the war in Afghanistan.  Consequently, Russia and China sought to expand their presence there at its expense. Russia sought to become involved in massive hydroelectric projects, punish Turkmenistan for insisting upon higher prices for gas, and expand its military presence by adding a new base at Osh, thereby checking Uzbekistan’s pressure on its neighbors. Moscow also sought to expel the U.S. from its base at Manas. Only timely U.S. resolve and Kyrgyz diplomacy allowed Washington to retrieve its position and strengthen Kyrgyzstan’s posture vis-à-vis Russia.

China reacted by bailing out Turkmenistan from Russian pressure and completing its massive gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to China. While this strengthened China vis-à-vis Russia and the U.S. in Central Asia, it also deflected gas from Europe to China, making it harder for the U.S. to compete in gas-rich Turkmenistan.

By December, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Krol told the Senate that “The region is at the fulcrum of key U.S. security, economic and political interests. It demands attention and respect and our most diligent efforts. The Obama Administration is committed to that very approach”. Those were not just words.  Other Administration documents recognize the fragility of the region’s security situation. Therefore, the U.S. is now pursuing vigorous multi-dimensional initiatives going beyond the war in Afghanistan, which will allow it to maintain a presence in Central Asia after troops begin leaving Afghanistan in 2011. Krol announced the formation of a regular high-level dialogue with Central Asian states to help them resist both Russian and Chinese incursions on their independence, work with the U.S. towards that end, and foster regional cooperation. Obviously, this also means renewed U.S. interest in large-scale investments. More strikingly, high-level visits to the region have resumed.

President Islam Karimov’s action plan of January 2010 to put bilateral ties on a more productive and serious basis and the recent tour of Central Asia by U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke underscore the U.S.-Uzbekistan rapprochement. That action plan states that Uzbekistan will “insist on high-level participation in the political consultations from the American side – experts from the State Department, National Security Council, and other U.S. government agencies”, though no specific plans have yet been announced.

Holbrooke stressed that he regards the real security threat in Central Asia as coming from Al-Qaeda rather than the Taliban and indicated his desire to strengthen cooperation with Uzbekistan over security. Karimov also recently expressed “firm allegiance on behalf of Uzbekistan” to further develop ties with Washington to bring about lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan. The U.S. also clearly wants to improve the bilateral relationship. Secretary of State Clinton is expected to visit Uzbekistan in late spring, as are delegations of U.S. businessmen.  The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the landline from Riga, Latvia through Russia to Central Asia and Afghanistan, which is working successfully, is expected to create substantial economic opportunities for Uzbekistan and discussions about military-technical cooperation with the U.S. have taken place.

> Central Asia Map
Holbrooke also expressed U.S. desires to improve relations with Tajikistan because of its centrality to conflict resolution in Afghanistan and discussed both water and energy issues with the Tajik government. In Kyrgyzstan he conducted discussions about the renewal of the U.S. lease at Manas and also the U.S. intention to build a training center at Batken in Southern Kyrgyzstan with Kyrgyz support. Kyrgyz political analyst Mars Sariyev suspects that once the facility is built, U.S. instructors will come in to train Kyrgyz regular and/or Special Forces. This move clearly looks like a defeat for Moscow. Similarly, Kazakhstan also indicated a desire to upgrade ties with the U.S. Finally, the U.S. is now seeking more vigorously than before to gain access to Turkmen energy projects.

IMPLICATIONS: The implications of this new vigor relate not only to the U.S. presence. Both Washington and Beijing are clearly showing Moscow that they will not allow Russia to dominate the region and that they possess the resources to back up this assertion. Moreover, they are now committed to using them on the ground, not just in Afghanistan, but also across a wide range of investments in energy and other forms of infrastructure. Likewise, they are attempting to become more involved with local agendas. Russia is announcing support for regional hydroelectric projects as is China, and the U.S. is now clearly interested in those projects as well.

Undoubtedly, the U.S. business and economic interests coming to the region and that are linked to the NDN will also lead it in the direction of broader economic involvement with the region. Because of Russia’s fundamentally under-performing economy, Moscow will likely find it harder to compete with both China and the U.S. if they commit substantial resources to Central Asia. But Moscow will also find it politically harder than before to crack the whip because China’s example in Turkmenistan and the U.S. example at Batken and Manas have told Central Asian states that they now have more options than before to obtain great power support for their independence and for projects they consider vital to their needs. They can thus resist Moscow with greater security than previously, especially as it appears that Moscow has reached or is close to reaching the effective limits of its capability to project power into Central Asia.

While Russia will hardly retreat from Central Asia, we can expect to see more direct U.S.-China competition in energy and economic projects, if not on military issues as well. Krol’s remarks were unprecedented among previous U.S. administrations in underlining the abiding multi-dimensional importance of the region to the U.S. and the willingness of the Obama Administration to back up those words with tangible commitment of material and intangible political resources in support of that claim.  Manas and Batken show that the U.S. will not let Russia push it out of Central Asia or operate there exclusively on the basis of Russia’s sufferance. Likewise, we can expect more Chinese involvement as its investments in Central Asia grow and as the situation in Xinjiang, which drives much of its policy, remains tense. This could lead to a situation in which Central Asia becomes added to the list of issues where U.S. and Chinese interests are in more overt political and economic competition if not open clashes.
CONCLUSIONS: The Obama Administration has evidently decided to make an important policy stand in Central Asia beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, it is likely to invest more high-level political resources there and actively promote expanded economic ties between the U.S. and Central Asian states. While those governments will undoubtedly welcome this support and investment of those resources because they add to their room for maneuver among their neighboring great powers, Russia and China will obviously strive to minimize the U.S. presence, thrust, and impact.  But they will also simultaneously be competing against each other; a fact that can only contribute to the greater independence and freedom of action of Central Asian states, a primary goal of U.S. policy. To the extent that the U.S. deems it necessary to expand its presence in Central Asia to shore up its campaign in Afghanistan it will in many ways, both foreseen and possibly unforeseen, contribute to the ability of these states to stand on their own feet, an outcome that is necessary both in regard to the threat of terrorism emanating from Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their affiliates, and also in regard to the threat to their effective independence coming from Moscow and/or Beijing.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is Professor at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the US Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.



Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy to Afghanistan