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that the United States and NATO take direct responsibility for what will happen in Central Asia even after they have withdrawn all of their troops from Afghanistan.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.

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.

The ABD is working on one such program, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation. While it's still very early to say for certain whether the effort will be successful, it shows a great deal of promise in knitting the region together in a way that reduces the potential for conflict and improves everyone economically. There are other, less well-formed ideas percolating out there, too.

What the U.S., and Russia (even in asking for U.S. help, which will probably never happen) should be careful not to do is to base all of their cooperation on military-to-military relationships. That has been the majority of U.S. activity in the region, and it's been very narrowly focused on combating terrorism and supporting the war in Afghanistan. Those are both laudable goals, but they're very short term: it is reasonable to think the longer term interests of everyone involved are served by more functional governments, better integrated economies, and regional economic and security frameworks that don't rely on foreign guarantors.

Focusing only on security relationships is fraught with problems. As we speak, the U.S. is slowly funneling more and more money into "military training centers" both in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (they're hiring!) to address a problem that actually has very little to do with us. In effect, we are helping those countries suppress their populations--with the unintentional consequence that we actually make the al Qaeda problem we're seeking to contain much worse in the long run. When we remember that most of our incorrect information about the nature of the regional threat comes from those same governments we funnel money to in the quest to end terrorism, the conflicts of interest in pushing ahead with a military-first approach are simply overwhelming.

All of this talk about developing some sort of regional framework to better manage our relationship with Central Asia sounds pretty, but it faces one impassable hurdle: the nature of the governments themselves. The states of Central Asia feel no particular desire to take on responsibility for their own futures. They want everyone else -- Russia, the U.S., the SCO, the CSTO, the UN, the World Bank -- to do it for them. That fundamental imbalance in priority has the potential to undo any good we outsiders could possibly hope to achieve there, and until it changes any talk -- from Russia or anywhere else -- about taking responsibility for what happens there is probably premature.

A version of this post appeared at Registan.net.