Why We Don't Get Central Asia

Fear of expansionist Islamist terrorism wrongly encourages the West to take a military-first approach to the region

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Alexander Golts wants a more activist America operating in Central Asia:

Moreover, Moscow should propose that the United States and NATO take direct responsibility for what will happen in Central Asia even after they have withdrawn all of their troops from Afghanistan. The Kremlin must soberly accept the fact that Russia and Central Asian countries do not have the means by themselves -- even collectively -- to ensure stability in the region. Thus, a broader security strategy  in Central Asia after the coalition forces leave Afghanistan should involve cooperation with the West rather than confrontation.

Golts is tapping into a fear, largely unspoken, that preoccupies many countries in the former Soviet Union: despite their public chafing against U.S. activism nearby, they are terrified of what will happen should we summarily withdraw. This fear is, of course, pure bonkers.

For starters, Golts repeats a common claim in the post-Soviet space, namely that once the U.S. withdraws from the region it will be overrun by Islamist crazies hellbent on murdering babies and ending civilization. But as we know from recent history, even when there wasn't an American presence in Afghanistan Islamist extremists did not swarm over the entirety of Central Asia.

The fear about expansionist Central Asian Islamist terrorism derives, like most of our information about these groups, primarily from the Central Asians themselves. Without putting too fine a point on it, the government of, say, Uzbekistan, has more than a few reasons to claim there is a massive threat from Uzbek terrorists, and that it doesn't have the means to handle them and could they pretty please have some U.S. money and equipment?

Granted, on occasion we see stories about Tajik border guards dying in a gunfight, but in a big picture sense Central Asia is actually doing okay for itself. While new U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker apparently still thinks Afghanistan is one step away from the Taliban using al Qaeda to conquer the heart of Asia, in reality al Qaeda is probably the least of anyone's worries in the region -- at least, if U.S. Counterterror chief John Brennan is right that the terror group is "on the ropes" (the contrast of one official declaring almost-victory while another uses the prospect of impending defeat to call for more war should be examined at some point).

None of this is to say Central Asia is without problems, or that it is unimportant to U.S. interests and therefore should have some sort of U.S. presence. In fact, I've written longish papers about the need to engage politically and economically with the post-Soviet Central Asian states precisely because of the positive dividends we would see in security and cooperation. However, there are two important barriers to consider:

  • The Central Asian states do not have the same interests in Afghanistan that we do, and those interests might in fact work at odds to what we want to accomplish regionally;
  • The promise of economic growth and development is very appealing to the governments of the region, and a U.S.-led crusade against terror groups is very unappealing.

Both concerns cut directly against Golts' call for more U.S. leadership in the region. So why not Russia?

Despite the bluster about Russia's decline, economically they're doing pretty good for themselves. The Russian military is modernizing, if not from internal development then from the purchase of advanced components like the French Mistral amphibious assault ships. The Sukhoi T-50/PAK FA looks to be a capable, is not superior next-generation fighter plane. From a technical and resource perspective there's no reason Russia cannot take on the leadership of creating security in Central Asia.

Presented by

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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