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
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.
The leadership to do such a thing is another matter entirely, as is
having the wherewithal and drive to create a proper regional framework
to make any security efforts have value beyond the immediate goal of
securing borders and responding to crisis. That's where the United
States can come in. I share Steve Levine's deep skepticism
of anything like the "New Silk Road" being pushed by SAIS professor S.
Frederick Starr; however, the development of a regional economic
framework, with a goal toward creating regional infrastructure networks
(roads, rail, and electricity) is a perfectly reasonable goal that would
advance U.S.-Russian interests for a stable Central Asia and directly
help regional governments as well.