The Coming Crisis in Central Asia

The American pullout from Afghanistan has the potential to destabilize the entire region.

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An Afghanistan National Army soldier and ISAF soldiers attend a change of command ceremony at ISAF headquarters in Kabul on February 10, 2013. (Reuters)

In his State of the Union speech on February 12, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that by the end of 2014 "our war in Afghanistan will be over." This step, long expected, will decrease security in neighboring Central Asia. Flows northward from Afghanistan of terrorists and narcotics will put at greater risk a region already weakened by corruption, despotism, and ethnic and water tensions. The West should do more to enhance security in Central Asia, comprised of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

U.S. policy is predicated on the expectation that the 350,000-strong Afghan National Army, with assistance from U.S. advisers, will be able to keep the Taliban at bay. It is more likely that after 2014, barring a political agreement, the Taliban will remain in the field with control in most Pashtun areas and perhaps beyond. A bloodied but still standing Taliban would also pose a danger beyond its borders.

In the 1990s, Taliban control in Afghanistan spurred extremists in Central Asia. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and carried out bombings in Uzbekistan and kidnappings in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In 2004 a splinter group, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), claimed suicide bombings in Uzbekistan and targeted the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent. Both groups are now holed up in ungoverned areas of Pakistan, but as NATO leaves Afghanistan they will probably carry the fight back to Central Asian homelands.

More Afghans will turn for sustenance to the opium industry, perhaps one-third of their country's gross domestic product. Trafficking northward will exacerbate staggering addiction problems in Central Asia and Russia. Afghanistan and nearby areas provide over four-fifths of Europe's heroin.

Central Asia faces other sources of insecurity. Dams that may be built in impoverished Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would boost their economies but choke off much downstream water for agriculture in Uzbekistan. Its ruler, Islam Karimov, recently warned of "water wars." The lush Ferghana Valley -- shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- is a swirl of peoples and oppression, and a recruiting ground for Islamic jihadists. In 2005, a large number of protesters died at the hands of Uzbek security forces in Andijon, Uzbekistan, and in 2010 several hundred Uzbeks and a much smaller number of Kyrgyz died in ethnic clashes in the Kyrgyz city of Osh and nearby areas. A cesspool of corruption in Central Asia undermines governance. On Transparency International's index of corruption perceptions of 174 countries, Central Asian states rank poorly, averaging 157th place.

Caught Between Great Powers

Central Asia lies between ambitious regional and great powers. In December 2012, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned against Russia's manipulation of a customs union it dominates in order to "re-Sovietize" Eurasia. Despite popular objections at home, Kazakhstan has joined the union but resists its becoming a political body. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may have no choice but to sign up since one-third to one-half of their economies depend on migrant-labor remittances from Russia. If after NATO draws down in Afghanistan fighting spreads northward, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- both of which host Russian military bases -- might seek added protection from Moscow even as they try to maintain wiggle room to protect their own interests.

Presented by

John Herbst and William Courtney

John Herbst was U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan and Ukraine, and consul general in Jerusalem. He is currently the director of the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.

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