For some time now many in official Washington have viewed Central Asia and Afghanistan as Eurasia's flyover zone, to be quickly traversed as they "pivot" to East Asia, Russia, or back to the Middle East. Only in its final year did the Obama Administration pay the region much attention, by accepting Kazakhstan's proposal to set up an annual group consultation with Washington. Even then, the State Department, in a move directly at odds with U.S. interests and the Central Asians' own wishes, left Afghanistan out of the new grouping. As Talleyrand allegedly said of Louis XVIII, we seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
A host of clichés and semi-truths have fed the dismissive attitude harbored by many Americans toward the region. Many see "the Stans" as a group of former Soviet countries in Russia's "backyard" that failed to adopt the Washington Consensus on privatization through shock therapy, and now plod along with dysfunctional economies and authoritarian governments. Civil society languishes, beckoning the State Department to wag its finger at what it brands religious repression. True, Chevron and other American firms are making money pumping oil there, but who needs that oil, with all the shale oil and gas in the United States? As to Afghanistan, is it not a quagmire that sucks in and destroys all who enter? These and similar notions are advanced by those calling for further disengagement.
Those favoring reengagement cite a completely different body of evidence. They note that most of the regional economies are making steady progress, and so may offer economic opportunities for U.S. business. GDP growth there last year ranged from 1.2 percent (Kazakhstan), 2.2 percent (Afghanistan), 3.47 (Kyrgyzstan), 4.2 percent (Tajikistan), 6.5 percent (Turkmenistan), and 7.1 percent (Uzbekistan). This may lag behind China's 6.9 percent or India's 7.6 percent—assuming for a moment that any of these numbers are accurate—but it soundly beats Russia's -3.73 percent and compares favorably with Pakistan and Iran. A group of former World Bank economists predicts that all Central Asian economies have a realistic chance of reaching middle-class status by 2050, with Kazakhstan already there.1 Boosting their chances is the fact that all of them, including Afghanistan, boast rising generations of talented and well-educated young men and women whose values place them squarely in what the French sociologist Claude Levi-Straus once called the "global monoculture."
On the geopolitical level, champions of reengagement note that the region as the only one on earth surrounded by nuclear powers and vulnerable to destabilizing competition or, worse, external control, which is Putin's clear intent. But for thousands of years domination by an external power has been a formula for instability there and remains so today. The U.S. government, with aid from allies, should back Central Asian sovereignties and help them build security "from within." The engagers also stress that Central Asia is one of the historic seats of Islam, yet its governments are secular, with secular laws and courts. Their systems still suffer the effects of Soviet statism and repression. But for all their flaws, they offer a better model for Muslim societies than most countries in the Middle East and are far more open to modern learning.
As the debate between disengagers and re-engagers rages on, dramatic but little-noticed changes are occurring within Central Asia itself. First, the transition in Uzbekistan following the death of Islam Karimov this past September went smoothly, with even the OSCE acknowledging that the election, while imperfect, marked a step forward. This effectively killed prospects for a dynastic succession in Kazakhstan, which President Nursultan Nazarbayev had ruled out anyway. During the election campaign in Uzbekistan, the acting President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, launched a movement to resolve outstanding problems with all neighbors, reopened air flights to neighboring Tajikistan, which had been grounded for more than two decades, called for visa-free access from 15 countries, including the United States, sent his Foreign Minister to Kabul to open negotiations on expanding transport and trade, and promised for the first time to make the Uzbek currency convertible. In his inaugural speech he spoke boldly of making the offices of Governors and Mayors elective, and of setting up electronic complaint bureaus in every government office.
If President Mirziyoyev follows through on even half of these proposals, Central Asia and Afghanistan will be set on a new and more promising course. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan, in sharp contrast to Russia, is using the oil crisis to diversify its economy, mount a world exposition on renewable energy, and set up a regional financial center in Astana where disputes can be resolved through British law. Over the next two years Kazakhstan will also sit on the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile, gas-rich Turkmenistan has also felt the pinch of lower energy prices but is nonetheless forging ahead with construction of the TAPI gas pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. America tried to develop this mega-project but failed, yet TAPI directly serves U.S. interests. TAPI will produce large royalties for Afghanistan and will provide thousands of jobs for a country in which the U.S. government has invested so much in lives and treasure. Finally, the two poorest countries of the region, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, will soon benefit from the new CASA 1000 electric transmission grid, which will enable them to reap much-needed income from sending some of their huge potential supply of hydroelectric energy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In short, there are powerful currents of change and development afoot in Central Asia today. These present the U.S. government with a choice: It can either remain disengaged and continue to try to leave Afghanistan, or it can commit to finishing the job in Afghanistan and facilitating the security and revival of Central Asia as a whole, on the grounds that an insecure Afghanistan and Central Asia will continue to impinge on U.S. security concerns, as it did so tragically on 9/11. Exhausted from years of unrequited activism in the Middle East, Americans have difficulty even framing this choice. Instead, they debate the past. Those who would minimize America's future engagement with Greater Central Asia view American actions to date as largely fruitless and, in Afghanistan, tied to expenditures so vast and ill-advised that no possible gains can offset them. Both judgments are wrong.
This gloomy view misses more than half of the story. The legacy of U.S. policy towards the post-Soviet states of Central Asia since 1992 may be mixed, but it is largely positive. U.S. policy helped solidify the sovereignty of these states, helped them develop sound institutions to a reasonable extent, and helped them grow economically. It didn't turn them into liberal democracies, nor did it instill human rights as Eleanor Roosevelt would have understood them, although undeniable progress has been achieved in both areas.
However, Hillary Clinton tried but failed to help turn the region into a transportation hub, ultimately ceding the initiative to China. Nor was there any real coherence, let alone mutual reinforcement, among U.S. strategies in the areas of economics, security, and governance. A prime reason for this is that little or no coordination exists among the main executive agencies responsible for Afghanistan and Central Asia—namely, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the Department of Commerce—and within particular agencies. Security, trade, reform, and rights are pursued as separate goals, with USAID and the Pentagon each optimizing the efforts of its particular "stovepipe" with little concern for the single overarching strategy that both claim to be advancing. Obviously, such an approach precludes achieving synergies among them, let alone the trade-offs and, yes, deals that would make such synergies possible. Read more
S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. His recent book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age, is being translated into 19 languages.
Image attribution: www.the-american-interest.com, accessed on March 17, 2017