AFPC Defense Dossier

June 3, 2020
S. Frederick Starr

This Spring, the Trump administration formally released its official strategy for Central Asia. [1] The occasion marks the first time in more than two decades that the United States has articulated a serious approach to a region where vast economic, geopolitical, and civilizational stakes are in play. Coming on the heels of repeated visits to the region by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the new strategy emphasizes American support for the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states, encourages the growth of regional cooperation among them, and acknowledges positive steps toward political and economic reform. Crucially, it also supports the expansion of relations between the Central Asian states and Afghanistan.

In releasing this strategy, the Trump administration has made clear that it views Central Asia as a world region where the United States has intrinsic economic and security interests. This represents a significant departure from the past practice of various U.S. administrations, who allowed the region to slip between the cracks of other national security and foreign policy concerns that were deemed more important.

A HISTORY OF NEGLECT

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, if the U.S. government looked at Central Asia at all, it was through a Russian lens. True, there had been Americans like the budding diplomat Eugene Schuyler (1840­–1890) or the geologist Rafael Pompelli (1837–1923) who saw the region as a distinct cultural and political zone in its own right. But these thinkers were few in number, and distant from the councils of government. The perception persisted even after the collapse of the Soviet Union; for a decade after 1991, most American officials dealing with the region perceived it mainly as “Russia’s backyard,” as President Clinton famously put it.  

Indeed, until quite recently, Washington subordinated its Central Asia policy to other geopolitical and domestic concerns. These considerations were connected directly with Afghanistan, which after the events of 9/11 suddenly replaced Russia as the main driver of U.S. thinking on Central Asia.

The first post-Afghanistan concern was over the potential for the spread of Islamic extremism in Central Asia. A number of attacks did indeed occur in the region, most notably in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. But the substance of these incidents was largely misinterpreted by the U.S. government – most conspicuously, in the case of the 2005 unrest in Andijan, Uzbekistan, when Islamic extremists precipitated a confrontation with authorities and the State Department effectively took the side of the instigators. Moreover, in the main, U.S. concerns did not turn out to be warranted; over the years, Central Asian governments have generally dealt harshly with extremism and suppressed militant movements where they have appeared.

The second concern revolved around drugs. In the years after 9/11, the U.S. spent huge sums to eradicate poppy production in Afghanistan, and came to view Central Asia as a key hub in the distribution of opium. It held this view even though it was Russians, with their direct access both to Afghanistan and Europe, who dominated the trade, rather than the Central Asians, who were secondary middlemen.

The third worry, driven mostly by the U.S. Congress, pertained to human rights and religious freedom. At several key points during the first quarter-century of U.S.-Central Asian relations, Washington imposed restrictions based upon what it judged to be punitive measures by local states against religious believers. Identifying victims ranging from Jehovah’s Witnesses to what the Department of State termed “especially pious Muslims,” Washington used the issue to curtail relations at critical moments. This approach served to alienate the U.S. from its potential regional partners. Even when the United States accurately identified problems, its method of addressing partner shortcomings—which, more often than not involved hectoring rather than working with them to solve the problem—proved ineffective, breeding resentment and hostility in the very places that America was trying to steer toward constructive engagement.

The first sign of a change to this status quo occurred in 2016, when the U.S. established regular meetings with Central Asian countries as a group. The resulting “C5+1” structure, instituted by then-Secretary of State John Kerry at the instigation of Kazakhstan, introduced a regional dimension to U.S. actions as a supplement to existing bilateral relationships. However, the question of Afghanistan’s place in the region remained unresolved. By then, Americans had sacrificed several thousand lives in Afghanistan and expended nearly a trillion dollars there. Moreover, Washington knew full well that Afghanistan shares common borders with three of the post-Soviet states of Central Asia, that those countries all had co-nationals within Afghanistan itself, and that they all considered Afghanistan to be a part of Central Asia instead of an inconvenient neighbor. Yet the United States new “regional” initiative of 2016 did not include Afghanistan, nor does it today.

TOWARD DEEPER ENGAGEMENT
In early 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both of which had recently undergone transitions in presidential leadership. Then, in February of this year, the State Department formally released its new strategy for the region—a document that had been several years in the making.

To some extent, the strategy—and the shift in Washington’s thinking that it encapsulates—came about as a result of changes in the region itself. For one thing, the new presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have, in recent years, each signaled their intention to introduce basic changes that would curb bureaucratic caprice and elicit the views of elected bodies and civil society on a range of policy issues. Additionally, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirzioyev and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Takayev have sought to reform laws, courts, and the legal profession in order to strengthen the rights of citizens, private businesses, and foreign investors in their countries. Notably, the reform process has advanced further in Uzbekistan,[2] which in turn has inspired would-be reformers elsewhere in the region (although it has also elicited official resistance in some quarters as well).

Washington’s decision to create region-wide consultations and structures also follows initiatives arising from the Central Asian governments themselves. It was the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia that banded together back in 2006 to declare their region a nuclear-free zone. And it was those same governments that successfully lobbied the United Nations Generally Assembly to approve a resolution recognizing Central Asia as a distinct economic and cultural reality comparable to the lands comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the Nordic Council. The General Assembly also called on world powers to recognize and respect the common interests and actions of the countries that comprise it. The region’s five leaders have likewise taken steps toward establishing their own structures for regional cooperation, a process that could result in a kind of Central Asian version of ASEAN.

These significant developments mark the region’s shift from a random collection of post-colonial states concerned above all with preserving their newly-won sovereignty to a grouping of more self-confident states that seek to raise their standing on all key indices of development. While still protective of their sovereignty, all now see the practical benefits of cooperation and coordination. They are convinced that such an approach not only advances economic development but also enhances security by making it more difficult for foreign powers to play one of their number off against another.

America’s stated intention to engage more actively at the regional level follows a path opened first by Japan in 2003 and followed by the European Union, which adopted a region-wide strategy in 2007 and then substantially expanded and upgraded it in 2019. Meanwhile, the leaders of India, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, and several European countries have all toured the region. Significantly, the leaders of both China and Russia have also taken notice of Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the behemoth Belt and Road Initiative in the capital of Kazakhstan seven years ago. Moscow, desperate not to be marginalized by Beijing, is coercing regional states to join its Eurasian Economic Union and has also launched a fanciful vision of a “Greater Eurasia” in which all would be subordinated to Russia and China.[3]

The shift is a logical one. Neither President George W. Bush nor President Barack Obama bothered to think strategically about Central Asia, focusing exclusively on Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. However, in an era where great power competition is seen as the most serious challenge to national security, it is inevitable that the United States should focus more specifically on those countries sandwiched between Russia, China, India, Iran, and Pakistan.

America’s new strategy, in turn, emphasizes U.S. support for the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states. It encourages the growth of regional cooperation among them, and acknowledges positive steps toward political and economic reform. Even if it falls short of incorporating Afghanistan into the C5+1 format, making it C6+1, it does lend support to the expansion of relations between Central Asian states and Afghanistan. Finally, it emphasizes the importance of partnership with regional states to achieve progress on sensitive topics such as human rights and religious freedom. This represents a shift from “working on” those countries to advance these causes to “working with them” in order to do so.

REMAINING CHALLENGES

In releasing its strategy, the Trump administration makes clear that it views Central Asia as a world region where the United States has intrinsic national security and economic interests. This is an important departure from the past practice of allowing the region to slip between the geopolitical cracks. However, it would be a serious mistake to conclude that the challenge has been met and the task has been completed. Several important matters remain to be attended to.

First and foremost, Washington has yet to grasp the key role of Central Asia as a bastion of Muslim societies with secular governments, laws, and education. This model stands in a stark contrast to nearly all other members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which combines state and religion in various ways, and to the several formerly French colonies in West Africa that inherited anti-religious constitutions based on the idea of laicite. When viewed from this larger context, Central Asia’s model actually parallels the American system in many respects. For all the missteps made by Central Asian governments—nearly all of which can be traced to the heritage of Soviet thinking—the fact that their constitutions separate religion from the state may make their experience a model for Muslim societies elsewhere. The United States should acknowledge this opportunity, and work to sustain and promote secular government in Central Asia and elsewhere.

An additional lacuna in the new U.S. strategy is the woefully inadequate attention it devotes to Afghanistan. The bureaucratic excuse for this shortfall – namely, that the organizational chart of the State Department does not consider Afghanistan to be part of Central Asia – is absurd. Without close cooperation with Afghanistan, its five northern neighbors will never “open windows” to the South, specifically to the Indian sub-continent, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Stated differently, the failure to solve Central Asia’s transport problem in Afghanistan would force all five of the Central Asian countries north of the Amu-Darya/Panj river into a state of dependence on Russia and China for all their exports.

By not including Afghanistan in its Central Asian construct, the United States misses the region’s larger geopolitical picture. To wit, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline is finally becoming a reality, after a generation of failures. The fact that it might be financed by Middle Eastern sources and built by the Turkmen themselves does not make it less important to U.S. interests, for transit fees collected from the TAPI pipeline could become a major source of income for Afghanistan, and also of fertilizer made from Afghanistan’s portion of the gas. Most importantly for America, TAPI could break the monopoly control over Turkmenistan’s economy now exercised by Russia and China, thanks to their current domination of the region’s two existing export routes. A failure by the U.S. to embrace this issue would hurt Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, as well as America itself. Washington needs to recognize that Afghanistan is, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani himself has noted, in fact a Central Asian country, and fully include Afghanistan in its mechanism for consultations with Central Asian states.

Thirdly, the strategy does not mention the crucial east to west corridor linking Central Asia to Europe through the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus. Expanding Central Asia’s linkages with lands to the west should be a priority of American engagement, for it is a matter of prime importance not only to all five of the former Soviet states but also—if not especially—to Afghanistan. If the trans-Caspian corridor is not fully developed, it will be Afghanistan that will suffer, no less than Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. All these countries would be left with only one exit route to the West. For Kazakhstan, this would be Russia and for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, it would be Iran. Besides the obvious geopolitical blow this would inflict on these countries, it would mean the absence of competition over export routes and hence higher prices.

The failure to open an active trade route across the Caspian from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan would have very grave consequences for Azerbaijan and Georgia as well. The large investments in roads and railroads made by these countries, the European Union, and Turkey would all have been in vain. If the countries along this corridor were to become a direct and efficient “Land Suez” for trade between China and Europe, the major powers would have a direct interest in preserving their sovereignty and independence. If not, they will quickly become ripe geopolitical fruit ready for picking by Russia or Iran.  

Finally, the strategy acknowledges the security challenges Central Asian states face from Russia and China, but offers little detail regarding how the United States should address them. Doubtless Washington seeks to move away from the old zero-sum chess game that has dominated Central Asian life for a generation, but silence will not solve the problem. Washington should embrace the concept of balance as devised by the Central Asians themselves, and state emphatically that such an arrangement is not against anyone and does not exclude anyone. This may in fact be the thinking that underpins the new strategy. But by not stating it directly, the U.S. denies itself the basis for what could be a productive dialogue with Russia and China, and may in the end destabilize the region by leaving it no choice but to tilt more fully toward either the Chinese or Russian camps.   

Central Asia, including Afghanistan, represents geopolitically important real estate. Building on their rich indigenous cultures, its countries now look to the United States to provide a balance to other major powers in the region. They believe that such an arrangement can provide the basis for better relations for everyone involved. Until now, America has hesitated to embrace this challenge. The new strategy indicates that, at long last, Washington is beginning to take Central Asia seriously.

Having taken important first steps, however, it should now finish the job.

ENDNOTES
[1] U.S. Department of State, United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity, February 20, 2020, https://www.state.gov/united-states-strategy-for-central-asia-2019-2025-advancing-sovereignty-and-economic-prosperity/.
[2] See generally S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, eds., Uzbekistan’s New Face (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
[3] S. Frederick Starr, "Greater Eurasia: Russia's Asian Fantasy,” Wilson Center Kennan Cable no. 46, January 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/uploads/documents/KI_200106_cable%2046_v1.pdf.

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It’s a classic, bipartisan, and ongoing dilemma—but revisiting the wisdom of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships & Double Standards” can help us navigate it.

The American Interest

March 25, 2020
Svante Cornell

The author of “How Should America Deal with Authoritarian States?” responds to his critics. (The final entry in our series.)

Svante E. Cornell is director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. He is the author of Azerbaijan Since Independence (2011) and, with S. Frederick Starr, of Long Game on the Silk Road: U.S. and EU Strategy for Central Asia and the Caucasus (2018).

It’s a classic, bipartisan, and ongoing dilemma—but revisiting the wisdom of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships & Double Standards” can help us navigate it.

The American Interest

March 13, 2020
Svante Cornell

How should democracies deal with authoritarian states? This is a bipartisan problem that has confronted every American administration without exception. Answers vary widely, falling between two poles of a spectrum. Some believe it is America’s mission to promote freedom in the world in a principled manner; others claim that foreign policy should be about national interests alone, and that policymakers should deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be.

In reality, U.S. foreign policy has frequently tried to both advance freedom and protect the national interest. Foreign policy, after all, is largely driven by responses to events, where beggars can seldom be choosers. After 9/11, even the most principled democracy promoters realized the need to cooperate with authoritarian states to safeguard the American homeland. Conversely, President Donald Trump’s response to the Bashir al-Asad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria indicates that moral principles come into play even for the most dyed-in-the-wool realist. The George W. Bush Administration, for its part, tried to square the circle by claiming that the promotion of democracy would create a safer world for America. The results were not encouraging. Nor did President Obama’s approach—to “extend a hand” to avowed authoritarian rivals, while chiding allies for their democratic failings—improve the situation. Today, scholars and watchdog groups both point with alarm to a demonstrable backtracking of democracy around the world.

When and how, then, should America cooperate with authoritarian states, and how should it discriminate among them?  Neither traditional academics nor the think tank community have developed any helpful guidelines of late. But a classic essay does offer some clues.

In 1979, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick wrote “Dictatorships & Double Standards” for Commentarymagazine, wherein she denounced the foreign policy of the Carter Administration. Her main criticism was, simply put, that Carter took too harsh a line on right-wing authoritarian regimes that sought partnership with the United States, while adopting a soft approach to left-wing revolutionary regimes. Carter, Kirkpatrick argued, had it backwards: America needed to differentiate between “totalitarian” and “authoritarian” regimes.

The regimes she called authoritarian certainly violated human rights and sought to cling to power—but they did not spew anti-American ideology, nor did they educate young generations to hate America. By contrast, the regimes she termed “totalitarian”—at the time, mainly of a communist persuasion and backed by the Soviet Union—did exactly that. Not only were totalitarian regimes America’s adversaries, but their policies in both education and the information space made their countries’ road to democratic development much more challenging. Authoritarian governments, she argued, could gradually evolve into democratic states over time; totalitarian ones might never do so. Thus, she argued, America should engage with authoritarian regimes, while confronting the totalitarian ones. This became known as the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, and it profoundly influenced the Reagan Administration’s foreign policy, which Kirkpatrick later helped implement as UN Ambassador.

Forty years later, the Soviet Union is no more, and communism has been dispatched to the dustbin of history. Kirkpatrick’s doctrine has also been criticized for legitimizing polices, particularly in Central America, that undermined democracy to protect right-wing leaders. But how do her ideas hold up four decades later? Many authoritarian regimes that were allied with the United States largely did evolve into democracies, as countries as disparate as Chile and South Korea show. (The Reagan Administration did its part in nudging these allied countries toward democracy without sacrificing the relationship.) By contrast, those that fell into the totalitarian category, as defined by Kirkpatrick, have been notably slow to develop democratic institutions. This is true for Russia and the successor states of the Soviet Union, for China, and for communist-aligned states in the developing world like Angola, Ethiopia, or Cuba.

More importantly, Kirkpatrick’s crucial insight was that there are deep and policy-relevant distinctions between authoritarian regimes. Today, U.S. policymakers still cannot agree on what these guidelines might be. The distinctions that political scientists have identified within the literature on “hybrid regimes” are of little relevance to policymakers. What remains are democracy rankings like Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report. But even assuming such indices provide an accurate rendering of reality (a separate and important matter), they are not meant to be translated directly into policy.

A concrete example: How should America approach Turkmenistan and North Korea? Both countries receive among the lowest rankings for political freedom in the Freedom House index. But there are crucial differences between the two countries. One constantly spews anti-American propaganda, operates labor camps, starves its population, builds nuclear weapons, engages in systematic smuggling, and lobs missiles over its neighbors. The other is a reclusive but neutral country, a secular state on Iran’s northern border that has good relations with the United States and occasionally cooperates with U.S. interests in the heart of Asia.

Another example: on the latest Freedom House Index, U.S. allies like Azerbaijan and the United Arab Emirates are ranked lower or on par with Iran and Venezuela. Even assuming this reflects reality, should America take a softer approach to Caracas or Tehran, and downplay these regimes’ systematic entanglement with terrorism and drug trafficking? Conversely, if freedom indices were to guide policy, should America take a harder stance on two pro-American states that actually help counter extremist Islamists? Only the most single-minded democracy activists would argue that U.S. policy should be determined on the basis of freedom levels alone. Yet democracy promoters frequently do argue that America should take a harder stance against authoritarian practices in pro-American states, while advocating greater engagement with hostile actors. This approach certainly informed the Obama Administration’s approach to the world, especially Iran, with dubious success.

A Kirkpatrick doctrine for the 21st century must begin by observing that authoritarian states vary greatly among each other, and then determine exactly which criteria should factor in policymaking. I propose three key criteria: how a regime treats its population; what ideology motivates that regime; and the regime’s approach to the world around it.

By definition, authoritarian states do not treat all their citizens alike. Some rule, and others are ruled. Such regimes can never be fully meritocratic, and they will inevitably apply restrictions on political speech and activity to maintain their own survival.  But beyond that, authoritarian states come in many shades and differ in how they approach their population. Some are quite simply murderous and predatory, but there are also more benign forms of authoritarian rule: sometimes called “soft” or “liberal” autocracies.

The former category is what first comes to mind when the word “authoritarian” is used: It conjures up images of Kim Jong-un, Bashir al-Asad, or Saddam Hussein. These most egregious authoritarian regimes lack widespread public legitimacy and are often built around, and serve the interests of, a minority constituency. Such regimes go far beyond targeting political challengers; they resort to repression to generate a climate of fear in large circles of the population. Opposition is scarcely tolerated and the threat of violence abounds. Political dissidents suddenly disappear or die. When push comes to shove, these regimes do not hesitate to kill their citizens by the thousands. While the Kim dynasty’s North Korea, Asad’s Syria, and Hussein’s Iraq are the most egregious modern examples, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia also fit the bill: Witness their systematic killing of political opponents at home and abroad, and the fate of perhaps a 100,000 Chechens in the past two decades.

On the other side of the spectrum are what we might call the liberal autocracies. These are non-democratic governments that, while not permitting their citizens to elect their leaders, provide some protection for the rule of law and individual freedoms (as in 19th-century European monarchies). Twenty-five years ago, Francis Fukyama identified a “soft authoritarian” model in East Asia, and more recently, Fareed Zakaria contrasted liberal autocracies favorably to “illiberal” democracies, observing that rapid transitions to electoral democracy without a basis in strong institutions often degenerate into populist, divisive regimes.

The term “liberal autocracy,” of course, is only useful as an ideal type. Few such regimes fully live up to the “liberal” part of the term—but they still stand in strong contrast to the murderous regimes of the North Korean or Syrian type. More liberal authoritarian states often rest upon considerable public legitimacy, albeit derived not from elections but from dynastic lineage, tradition, or the charismatic authority of a leader. Legitimacy could even be a result of financial largesse and the provision of stability, which explains why so few oil producers experience revolutions. The point is that many authoritarian regimes focus considerable energies on ensuring they are supported by key constituencies. They may offer limited forms of political participation, and they often keep divisive ideologies like nationalism or religious extremism in check, garnering the support of minority constituencies.

It goes without saying that even the most benign autocrat will apply pressure on political challengers, the press, and civil society organizations when they pose a danger to the regime. Yet crucially, liberal autocracies do allow a limited civil society distinct from the state. Regular citizens, as long as they do not engage in politics, largely go about their lives normally. Challengers may be intimidated, muzzled, or even jailed, but they are seldom “disappeared” or outright killed as in the harshest regimes. Liberal autocracies often provide considerable public goods, too, and many have a decent record of helping to lift their population out of poverty.

Of course, in all authoritarian systems, the well-connected dominate business life and have privileged access to resources and state contracts. Political and economic power are frequently interconnected, if not altogether merged. Still, because more benign authoritarians have a vested interest in maintaining public legitimacy, they seek to establish a business climate conducive to foreign investment and to ensure that corruption does not spiral out of control. In short, the more benign authoritarian states endeavor to build efficient state institutions.

Of direct importance to American policymakers, the Middle East and Central Asia are home to a number of liberal autocracies, with regimes that prioritize stability and keep extremism in check while gradually, though not always successfully, seeking to facilitate economic development and build functioning state institutions. Examples include countries like the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Morocco in the Middle East, and Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Still farther east, China embarked on such a path under Deng Xiaoping, building a meritocratic bureaucracy and a state that succeeded in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Under Xi Jinping, however, the Chinese system appears to be reverting to a harder authoritarian system based on one-man rule, while forcibly interning hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities in “re-education camps.”

Some regimes, thus, cut across neat analytic categories. Take Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that is aligned with America and sits on some of the world’s largest energy resources, but has simultaneously played a key role in boosting the Salafist ideology that gave birth to the violent, anti-American extremism plaguing the Muslim world today. More recently, the incoherence has been compounded: The new Saudi leadership under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is responsible for the bloody murder of a dissident in a consulate abroad, while also embarking on a project of authoritarian modernization that includes loosening some stifling limitations on civil rights. While regular Saudis have experienced greater freedoms, the crackdown on political dissidents has actually gotten worse. Saudi Arabia combines elements of the malign and (relatively) benign forms of authoritarianism.

Such ambiguous cases do not obviate the need for these distinctions, however. For ethical reasons as well as for the sake of national interests, America cannot and should not ignore how governments treat their populations. It should be wary of dealing too closely with predatory and murderous regimes, making exceptions only when the national interest overwhelmingly compels it to do so. By contrast, U.S. policymakers should be open to cooperating with more liberal autocracies, and identify ways to strengthen the liberal elements in their systems of government. But the way a regime treats its population cannot be the sole criteria determining U.S. policy. Only at our peril do we ignore the ideological nature of authoritarian regimes.

Kirkpatrick famously distinguished between authoritarian and totalitarian systems. The regimes she called traditional autocracies “do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations.” By contrast, totalitarian ones, such as revolutionary regimes motivated by an all-encompassing ideology, “claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that . . . violate internalized values and habits.” Kirkpatrick rejected the Carter Administration’s tendency to “accept at face value the claim of revolutionary groups to represent ‘popular’ aspirations and ‘progressive’ forces.” In the end, she argued convincingly, such revolutions tend to bring to power regimes that are equally if not more repressive than their predecessors, and motivated by an ideology hostile to the United States.

Kirkpatrick’s observation is as valid today as it was four decades ago. Too often, American policymakers have focused on the perceived repressiveness of a given regime, accepting at face value the claims of a regime’s opponents that they represent a democratic force. If a regime is authoritarian, the logic goes, its opponents must represent democracy. But that is frequently not true. America has repeatedly ignored the ideology behind political forces only to see it manifest itself fully only after they secure and consolidate power—with serious consequences both for American interests and local populations. If she were with us today, Kirkpatrick would no doubt have found the American embrace of “moderate Islamism” eerily similar to (and equally disastrous as) the Carter Administration’s approach to that day’s “progressive” and “popular” forces.

In Kirkpatrick’s day, communism was the totalitarian ideology that chiefly threatened America’s security and national interests. Today, that role has been taken over by the equally totalitarian ideology of radical Islamism. This is not to say that Islamism is monolithic, any more than communism was. But in all its manifestations, Islamism challenges America in the realm of ideas and seeks to undermine American interests and allies.

In a throwback to the Carter years, however, U.S. policy has treated these anti-American regimes and movements quite favorably. The Obama Administration refused to take sides in the 2009 “Green Revolution” in Iran, but was perfectly willing to express support for protesters against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak two years later. Similarly, it embraced Turkey’s Justice and Development Party under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even as it purged and jailed hundreds of secularist opponents from 2010 onward, but publicly chastised neighboring secular Azerbaijan over its restrictions on media and civil society. The Trump Administration has tried to reverse this embrace of Islamism, adopting a more hostile approach to Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, while showing more understanding for secular regimes, as in Egypt. But its internal incoherence undermines its policies: Whereas many in the Administration favor a harder line on Turkey, the President himself appears to disregard this and prize his personal relationship with President Erdoğan.

The election of Hamas in 2006 shows how totalitarian ideologues can use the democratic system to their advantage, only to abolish democracy once they are ensconced in power. Given Hamas’s record in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, it should have surprised no one that Mohamed Morsi would seek to do exactly that in Egypt in 2012, following the maxim “one man, one vote, one time.” But in the spirit of the “Freedom Agenda,” the George W. Bush Administration had downplayed the Brotherhood’s deeply anti-American and anti-Semitic ideology to cultivate the organization. The Obama Administration then embraced it: Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper even went so far as to calling it a “largely secular” organization.

Going forward, America can hardly afford to repeat such errors. It must look beyond a procedural understanding of democracy, and take into account the ideology of regimes and political forces. As Kirkpatrick observed, political forces that “describe the United States as the scourge of the 20th century, the enemy of freedom-loving people, the perpetrator of imperialism . . . are not authentic democrats or, to put it mildly, friends.” This was true for the communists of her era; it is equally true for Islamists today.

Similarly, today Americans must consider whether a given regime or political force’s worldview is compatible with Western Enlightenment values. Do they promote a perspective of the world comfortable with the primacy of reason and experience? Or do they derive their views from a hateful ideology—whether a secular one like communism or ethnic nationalism, or a distorted interpretation of divine revelation, as in radical Islamism?

In the former camp are what Kirkpatrick defined as “traditional autocracies,” exemplified by regimes such as the monarchies of the Middle East or the secular states of Central Asia mentioned above. For too long, America has failed to fully value the states of the Muslim world that reject a role for radical religious ideology in their societies, and whose laws and education systems continue to be based on secular principles. Such states tend to be eager to participate in the world economy, and to look favorably toward engagement with the United States. Over time, they are likely to gradually develop in a more pluralistic direction.

Thus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have made the promotion of harmony among religious communities a cornerstone of their government policies. Both states maintain a commitment to secular governance and have created national universities inspired by the American model. Uzbekistan, which is undergoing important reforms since 2017, has touted the concept of “Enlightened Islam.” Morocco and Jordan, monarchies with strong Islamic legitimacy, are not fully secular but do play an important role in promoting religious moderation. As for the UAE, its government has implemented important education reforms that have put women on an equal footing. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s reversal of its earlier support for radical Islamism carries considerable importance, not least given the Kingdom’s role as the custodian of the holiest places in Islam. Whether the Saudi reform agenda can be sustained and ultimately create the conditions for modernization remains to be seen.

What is clear is that regimes motivated by Islamist ideology do not create such conditions, and do not tend to democratize. Even in “moderate” form, they continue to be driven by anti-American and anti-Semitic persuasions. Turkey, for example, may be more pluralistic than either Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, or the UAE. Yet President Erdoğan’s ideology means that Turkey poses a challenge of a fundamentally different character to America than those states do. While that does not mean America should sever relations with this NATO ally, the fact remains that it overtly peddles anti-American conspiracy theories and fills the airwaves with hostility to the West, something that must have consequences for U.S. policy. Meanwhile, countries like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, or the UAE may rank lower than Turkey in international democracy ratings. Yet they are countries in a hostile neighborhood that welcome American engagement, actively pursue cooperation with Israel, and encourage their citizens’ constructive interaction with the modern world. This difference matters.

Aggressive nationalism poses a slightly different challenge than millenarian ideologies like fascism, communism, and radical Islamism. Anti-American nationalism is increasingly a motivating force for both the Chinese and Russian regimes, as well as an ideology that helps their elites maintain power. This ideology makes a positive relationship with these states difficult—but not impossible—to achieve. Secular nationalists are generally less immune to reason than religious zealots are; thus, U.S. policymakers can at least try to negotiate rationally with Chinese or Russian nationalists, and seek to contain them if talks fail.

In short, the nature of regimes’ ideologies matters, and American policymakers need to spend more time trying to understand them.

The way authoritarian states engage on the international scene is a further point of divergence. It is true that democratic states rarely pose a threat to the international order, and that most countries that do are authoritarian. But it is crucial to distinguish between authoritarian powers that are revisionist or expansionist in nature, and those that accept the status quo in their neighborhood.

A number of larger authoritarian regimes—such as Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey—fall in the former category, pursuing foreign policies that have a destabilizing effect on their neighbors and on international security. As Robert Kaplan puts it in The Return of Marco Polo’s World, they increasingly behave like empires of yore, not nation-states in a rule-based international system. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and has been working hard for over a decade to expand its influence across the Middle East, from Yemen to the Mediterranean coast. Its designs have generated alarm and caused some of its neighbors to retaliate by sponsoring armed clients of their own, with devastating and protracted conflict as a result. Russia, similarly, has a revisionist and expansionist agenda, seeking not only to subdue the states that were part of the former Soviet Union, but to sow division and undermine Western states and institutions.

As for China, the picture is more blurred: On the one hand, China’s rise to international prominence has been based on its economic development and dependence on trade with the industrialized world. This has made Beijing considerably more interested in committing to international rules than Russia, for example, particularly if it can have a seat at the table to define them. But on the other hand, China’s rise has also been accomplished through systematic breaches of international norms, not least through the theft of industrial secrets and manipulation of currency. China is also assertively moving to establish its military predominance along its maritime perimeter, most obviously in the South China Sea. This has brought profoundly destabilizing consequences for its neighbors, from South Korea and Japan to the Philippines, Indonesia, and even Australia. China thus seems to be turning into an increasingly problematic and aggressive force.

Similarly, Turkey, traditionally a U.S. ally and a force for stability in its region, has lately displayed a more adventurist approach—sponsoring Islamist militias in the Syrian civil war, undermining the security of Israel, and bolstering the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab in Egypt. Its policies in Syria brought it into direct confrontation with the United States.

By contrast, many equally authoritarian but less ambitious states have established themselves as constructive international citizens. Morocco, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and the Central Asian states all cooperate with Washington to counter radical Islamism. Kazakhstan, which has taken on an activist international role since independence, stands out for advancing initiatives for confidence-building in Asia, hosting the international Atomic Energy Agency’s Low Enriched Uranium Bank, and facilitating the Astana talks on Syria. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan actively work to help stabilize Afghanistan. Similarly, across the Caspian and on Iran’s northern border, Shi‘a-majority Azerbaijan plays a crucial role as the corridor for Western access to the heart of the Eurasian continent, while promoting religious tolerance and maintaining the strongest ties to Israel of any Muslim-majority country.

Similarly, Jordan and the UAE have proven key partners for NATO and America, contributing both to the conflict in Afghanistan and to military operations in the Mediterranean. Dubai, an important UAE financial center, has made serious efforts to ensure that its financial regulations help prevent money laundering and terrorist financing.

Even the controversial case of Egypt deserves mention. After the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has not necessarily become more democratic than it was under Morsi; indeed by some metrics it has regressed. Yet Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has sought to fight the jihadi challenge in the Sinai, normalized relations with Israel, defended and protected the Coptic minority, and played a constructive role in the Libyan crisis. Moreover, he has sought to address the root causes of extremism by demanding change to the curriculum of Al-Azhar University, the Muslim world’s most prestigious establishment of higher education, which has increasingly been captured by radical ideology. On the international scene, Egypt under al-Sisi is a more reliable and more predictable actor than under Morsi. That does not mean America should ignore Egypt’s internal deficiencies. But neither should it fail to register the areas in which Egypt’s current regime is a positive change from its predecessor.

What, ultimately, are the policy implications of these distinctions between authoritarian regimes?

Regimes that tend toward liberal autocracies, are not motivated by anti-American ideologies, and play a positive role internationally should be viewed as partners that the United States can and should cooperate with. To the extent that such states welcome partnership with America, the U.S. government should reciprocate that engagement and build long-term partnerships that include security ties, economic and trade relations, and a dialogue on matters of good governance and human rights. The United States should not adopt antagonistic democracy promotion strategies or support regime change in such states; rather, it should seek to identify areas where U.S. assistance can promote good governance, improved accountability, and long-term liberalization in partnership with the government. In other words, U.S. policymakers should work with the government, not against it.

Of course, this is neither feasible nor desirable in the case of violent, predatory regimes that are motivated by anti-American ideology and play a destabilizing role in the world. With such regimes, it may be necessary to adopt policies of containment or rollback (to use Cold War terminology). But even here, support for regime change may be unrealistic or unwise. America may well need to apply antagonistic instruments of statecraft, such as targeted sanctions or support for regime opponents, toward such countries. And in cases like Venezuela, where a regime’s repressiveness combines with utter incompetence and criminalization to produce a failed state, regime change may in fact be the least worst option. But it should always be a matter of last resort.

The vast majority of regimes America deals with will fall somewhere in between these extreme ideal-types. They are likely to have unflattering as well as redeeming qualities. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are perhaps the most obvious examples. One is a NATO ally that is rapidly turning antagonistic toward the United States, while retaining some elements of pluralism and democratic governance. The other is a central actor in international energy politics, whose government is aggressively targeting dissidents while simultaneously correcting some of its past foreign policy misdeeds. Neither presents easy choices, suggesting that a cautious mix of sticks and carrots is in order, which is in turn only possible through a well-conceived engagement strategy. In the final analysis, America’s national interests should determine how it engages with a particular non-democratic state—and it is difficult to see how a policy resting solely on sticks rather than carrots would benefit U.S. interests in either of these two cases.

But, a skeptic might retort, doesn’t U.S. foreign policy already do this kind of reasoning? Perhaps, but all too often such assessments are done implicitly rather than explicitly, and on an ad hoc basis. It is not apparent to either Americans or foreigners how different calculations or criteria factor into policymaking. The result is an American policy that lacks transparency, and that applies different yardsticks to different countries. Large powers often get off the hook, whereas smaller states get slammed for democratic deficiencies of which larger U.S. partners are equally culpable. Moreover, because there is no single yardstick, domestic lobbies can have improper influence on policy. Therefore, some basic typology for differentiating among authoritarian states is necessary for U.S. policy to be consistent and predictable.

Post-Cold War dreams aside, authoritarian government remains the norm in large parts of the world, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. The sooner American policymakers make peace with this reality, and devise constructive policies to deal with it, the better.

Svante E. Cornell is director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. He is the author of Azerbaijan Since Independence (2011) and, with S. Frederick Starr, of Long Game on the Silk Road: U.S. and EU Strategy for Central Asia and the Caucasus (2018).

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RealClear World

March 4, 2020
Svante Cornell, Brenda Shaffer, and Jonathan Schanzer

Yesterday during remarks at the AIPAC annual conference, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the recent publication by the UN Human Rights Office of a database of companies that operate in the West Bank. Pompeo defined the report as “a real threat” that “only serves to facilitate the BDS movement and delegitimize Israel.” Pompeo declared that the United States will take actions on behalf of the “members of our business community that are being threatened by this release.” 

The UN Human Rights Office on Feb. 12  published a database of 112 companies that operate in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The vast majority of the listed companies provide basic goods and services to the people living in these disputed territories.

The database was originally slated to be released in March. However, it appears the United Nations released it early as part of its effort to counter the Trump administration’s new Middle East peace plan. The plan seeks to legalize Israel’s control over some of the territory it conquered in the 1967 Six Day War and has controlled ever since.

As Pompeo pointed out, the release of the database is also designed to do one more thing: to give a boost to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign that seeks to wage an economic war against Israel. The database is deliberately designed to assist their efforts to deter businesses from working with Israel. 

The best evidence that the UN Human Rights Council does not seek to act against foreign occupation of lands, but against Israel, is the fact that the database collects information on activities only in territories controlled by Israel, and not all territories regarded by the United Nations as under occupation. Indeed, the list does not include companies operating in Russia’s occupations in five regions in neighboring countries. Nor does it include businesses in Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara, Kashmir, Nagorno-Karabakh, to name just a few. The list immediately lacks credibility because it ignores these conflicts.

 The UN’s selective outrage and discrimination is best exemplified in their blacklist of leading international tourism services companies, such as Airbnb, booking.com, and TripAdvisor. These same companies offer services in other disputed territories and areas under occupation, but are subject to no UN condemnation for this activity.

Here the contrast in the UN’s policies is extraordinary: these same companies offer services in the settlement projects of other disputed and occupied territories but are subject to no condemnation for this activity. Most of Israel’s settlements are on public lands, and the tourism services are offered there for new homes built after Israel’s conquest of the territory. However, in contrast, in other conflict zones Airbnb, booking.com, TripAdvisor openly advertise homes and services in the homes of actual refugees.

In fact, these sites advertise specific dwellings that belonged to Azerbaijani refugees driven from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory under Armenian occupation since the early 1990s. Some of the original property owners have identified their homes in advertisements placed by Armenian settlers on Airbnb and other tourism sites.

Armenia has an extensive settlement project in its territories of Azerbaijan that it occupies. However, in contrast to Israel’s control of the West Bank, where the Palestinian population has been able to stay in their homes, Armenia expelled over 700,000 Azerbaijaniswhen it invaded the territories.  This happened in 1992-1994, not generations ago. Armenia’s expulsion of the Azerbaijanis is the largest population expulsion in Europe since the end of World War II, yet is hardly known in the international system.

If the UN Human Right Office indeed wants to promote peace and be taken seriously as such, it should include in in the UN Human Rights Office database the business activity of all occupied territories and protracted conflicts. This would be a sign that it is truly interested in solving territorial disputes everywhere, not just one.

In fact, when it issued its blacklist, the UN Human Rights Office may have inadvertently opened the flood gates. In today’s interconnected world, aggrieved parties are keenly aware of developments in other protracted conflicts. They will want to know why the world’s most prominent multilateral organization is willing to apply sanctions in one protracted conflict, but not others. The UN Human Rights Office must now be prepared to explain why some occupations are inconsequential, but only Israel’s control of the West Bank is deserving of a blacklist.

Brenda Shaffer, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Svante Cornell is the director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council. Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president at FDD, which recently published a monograph titled, “Occupied Elsewhere: Selective policies on Occupations, Protracted Conflicts and Territorial Disputes.” The views expressed are the authors' own.

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The most important takeaway from the killing of Qassem Suleimani doesn’t just have to do with Iran.

Foreign Policy

February 27, 2020
Svante Cornell and Brenda Shaffer

There has been no shortage of debate about the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani and its effects on U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and the broader Middle East. Not nearly enough has been said about whether it can broadly serve as a model for dealing with the problems posed by proxy forces elsewhere in the world.

By killing Suleimani, the United States indicated it would no longer tolerate Iran’s use of proxies to circumvent its responsibility for killing Americans and for other acts of terrorism and mass bloodshed. Washington decided to deal with the source of the terrorism, not its emissaries. The same principle should apply to the many proxy regimes established by various states—Russia most prominently—to circumvent responsibility for illegal military occupations.

Countries around the world are increasingly realizing that the most convenient way to occupy foreign territories is to set up a proxy with the ceremonial trappings of a state, including governments, parliaments, and flags. Why go through all that trouble? Because the norms of the liberal international order, which outlaw changing boundaries by force, risk leading to sanctions for the perpetrator state. Creating a proxy regime generates a convenient falsehood that obfuscates reality and helps states evade such consequences.

The most systematic user of this tactic is Russia. Since the early 1990s, it has manipulated ethnic conflicts in three different states and helped set up nominally independent entities over which it exerts control. Moscow’s practice began in Moldova’s Transnistria region and in two breakaway territories of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Following Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power in the early 2000s, the Kremlin’s control of these territories became tighter. Putin appointed Russian military and security officials to ministerial positions in the governing structures of these territories, indicating their direct subordination to Russia. Following its 2008 war with Georgia, Russia established permanent military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and formally recognized the independence of the two territories. This allowed Moscow to create a fictive legal basis for its military presence, based on so-called interstate agreements it signed with its proxies.

But until the 2008 war, the United States and European Union treated Russia like an arbiter in these conflicts, long after it was clear it was in fact a party to them. Twice a year, for example, Western powers approved extensions to the U.N. monitoring mission in the Abkhazia conflict that included overt praise for a Russian “peacekeeping” force that in fact was part of Moscow’s effort to shore up Abkhazia’s separation from Georgia. Even today, only rarely do Western powers refer to these lands as what they are: occupied territories.

Moscow’s tactic proved so successful in undermining the statehood of Georgia and Moldova that the Kremlin decided to use the same tactic in eastern Ukraine. And it worked: Contrast the international reaction to any of these conflicts with Moscow’s invasion of Crimea. Unlike these other cases, Moscow annexed Crimea outright, thereby accepting responsibility for its actions. This led to serious sanctions that remain in force to this day. But where Moscow hid behind the fiction of a “Donetsk People’s Republic,” which it created from thin air, it has largely escaped those consequences.

Similarly, Armenia not only occupied a sixth of Azerbaijan’s territory in the war in the early 1990s but evicted 700,000 occupants of these lands. But Armenia is subject to no sanctions whatsoever, mainly because Yerevan hides behind the fiction that it is not really a party to the conflict at all but that the “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh” is. Never mind that Nagorno-Karabakh’s two most prominent leaders went on to serve as Armenia’s presidents for 20 years and that other senior officials rotate seamlessly between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The entity’s most recent foreign minister was an Armenian diplomat for several decades, and on completion of his term in Nagorno-Karabakh, he returned to the Foreign Ministry in Yerevan. Likewise, Armenia’s deputy chief of the general staff was immediately appointed to serve as the defense minister of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2015. As in Russia’s case, the fiction of a proxy regime seems enough to achieve impunity. Even a considerable Armenian effort to build settlements in the occupied territories has led to a yawn in the international community.

Still, the United States has entertained the notion that Nagorno-Karabakh is somehow separate from Armenia. The U.S. Justice Department record of foreign agents in the United States lists “Nagorno Karabakh” and allows the so-called “Nagorno Karabakh Republic” to present itself as a foreign government and not listed under the Armenia filing. Several members of the U.S. Congress host meetings with the proxy representatives, often visit the region and hold direct meetings with Armenians from the occupied territory, and some even refer to Nagorno-Karabakh as a state. Few, if any, Western leaders point out the exchange of personnel between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, let alone impose any consequences for it.

Through establishing proxies, occupying states succeed to not be labeled as such. U.S. officials rarely mention Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh or Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and Transnistria the way they refer to Russia’s occupation of Crimea or Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. U.S. government-funded media broadcasts like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty use awkward wording to avoid saying directly that Armenia’s forces occupy Nagorno-Karabakh: The “region has been under the control of ethnic-Armenian forces that Azerbaijan says include troops supplied by Armenia” and “Armenia-backed separatist forces,” ignoring the fact that they are official units of the military of Armenia and that Armenia’s press regularly reports that Armenian soldiers are killed in skirmishes in the conflict zone. The U.S. government-sponsored broadcasts also avert stating that Moscow occupies regions of Ukraine and Georgia, preferring “Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk” and “Moscow-backed breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

Why this double standard? Maybe because the United States, EU, and the international system writ large are happy to have an easy way out. If accepting the fiction of a proxy helps reduce the load on their policy agenda, they appear happy to do so. The U.S. State Department does not challenge these fictions. It is a convenient non-truth that removes the issues from the State Department’s policy agenda. In Europe, however, the European Court of Human Rights has established that Russia exerts “effective control” in Transnistria and that Armenia does so in Nagorno-Karabakh. The EU has yet to allow these determinations to guide its policies, but at least, key institutions have begun to question the fiction of the proxy regimes.

Why do proxies matter? Are they not just one of the many inequities in international politics that, while regrettable, are just a fact a of life? There are two key reasons the United States should pay more attention to this problem. First, the fiction of proxies has directly caused greater instability in areas important to U.S. national interests. And second, they effectively serve to make conflict resolution impossible.

The danger of the use of proxies is that its effectiveness has made it increasingly popular. When weighing options in Ukraine in 2014 and onward, Putin no doubt operated on the basis of the Russian experience in Georgia and Moldova: Setting up proxies in eastern Ukraine would achieve the goal of undermining Ukraine and blocking its move toward NATO while carrying few costs for Russia. While Putin may have underestimated the tenacity of the U.S.-led sanctions regime, his calculation was essentially correct. Thus, because the West tolerated the proxy fiction in small states like Georgia and Moldova, it now has to deal with a threat to a much larger European state. If that works, the strategy will be used elsewhere, too.

Further, if the proxy model is allowed to continue, others will copy it. What is to stop Israel from telling the Palestinians to talk to the “Republic of Judea and Samaria” any time they have a problem with soldiers or settlers in the West Bank? Perhaps Israel would have spared itself a lot of headaches if it had declared a so-called independent state in the occupied territories. Why should Myanmar not blame Rakhine forces for the killing of Rohingya and thus evade international responsibility as a sovereign? It works for Russia and Armenia.

Similarly, the proxy fiction by design makes conflict resolution impossible. Whenever there is pressure on Armenia to make concessions in its conflict with Azerbaijan, for example, Armenian leaders emphasize that negotiations should really be held with the “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh,” thus evading responsibility for their military occupation—and escaping any consequences for it. The fact that Armenia is not willing to even admit that its forces are actively at war with Azerbaijan is not a basis for confidence-building in the peace process.

The proxies also facilitate illicit activity. With no state formally acknowledging its control and therefore responsibility for activity in the proxy regimes, these regions have become centers of human trafficking, money laundering, and counterfeit goods production. They are also likely locations of sanctions violations, for Russia and for Iran.

In the Middle East, the Trump administration understood that Iran’s use of proxies was helping it undermine U.S. interests and the stability of a half-dozen states in its neighborhood. It is now working to put an end to this subterfuge. The time has now come for Washington to take steps to call the bluff in Eurasia as well and stop effectively rewarding the use of proxies that undermine conflict resolution efforts and the stability of key U.S. partners.

Svante Cornell is the director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy. Cornell is the author, with Brenda Shaffer, of the report “Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupations, Protracted Conflicts, and Territorial Disputes,” published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Brenda Shaffer is a visiting researcher at Georgetown University. Shaffer is the author, with Svante Cornell, of the report “Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupations, Protracted Conflicts, and Territorial Disputes,” published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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  • CACI Director Svante E. Cornell Interview on AFPC Insights Episode 5: The Changing Politics of Central Asia
    Friday, 26 June 2020 00:00

     

    On June 26, CACI Director, Dr. Svante E. Cornell discussed the recent e-CAMCA (Central Asia, Mongolia, Caucasus, Afghanistan) regional conference organized by CACI and the Rumsfeld Foundation, the region's response to COVID-19, progress with political and economic reforms, risks and opportunities for regional states with regard to China-U.S.-Russia competition in the region.

    Listen to the extended interview with a q&a session: https://bit.ly/3g0nqk5

    Watch the recording of the interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPBMeP0yZGA

    Scroll down to listen to the full recording of the event.Screen Shot 2020-06-29 at 3.19.10 PM

     

     

  • S. Frederick Starr- Distinguished Speaker Lecture: Is Russia Becoming Central Asia's Near Abroad?
    Tuesday, 02 October 2018 00:00

     

    On October 2, S. Frederick Starr addressed the topic of Russia's relationship to Central Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center entitled "Is Russia Becoming Central Asia's Near Abroad" convened by the Kennan Institute 

    The video of the event is available from the following link.

    Scroll down to watch the full recording of the event.IMG 0817

     

     

  • S. Frederick Starr Testifies at House Subcommittee Hearing on "Current Developments in Central Asia"
    Thursday, 19 July 2018 00:00

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  • Resources on Terrorism and Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia
    Tuesday, 11 April 2017 12:20

    Recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, and New York City have been committed by perpetrators with an origin in Central Asia. The CACI-SRSP Joint Center has collected resources from its publication on the topics of terrorism and Islamic radicalism in Central Asia on this page.

    For press inquiries: the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute is part of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington DC (202-543-1006); the Silk Road Studies Program is part of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.(+46-734-150065) Please click here for further contact information.

     

     

    List of Analytic Resources

    Svante E. Cornell and Michael Jonsson, eds. Conflict, Crime, and the State in Postcommunist Eurasia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. (Includes chapters on Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the North Caucasus)

    Svante E. Cornell, “Russia: an Enabler of Jihad?Op-Ed, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, January 16, 2017

    Jeffry W. Hartman “The May 2005 Andijan Uprising: What We Know” Silk Road Paper, May, 2016, pp. 68

    John C.K. Daly “Rush to Judgment: Western Media and the 2005 Andijan Violence” Silk Road Paper, May, 2016, pp. 85

    Shirin Akiner “Kyrgyzstan 2010: Conflict and ContextSilk Road Paper, July, 2016, pp. 146

    S. Frederick Starr, ”Moderate Islam: Look to Central AsiaNew York Times, 26 February 2014.

    Peter Sinnott, “Peeling the Waziristan Onion: Central Asians in Armed Islamist Movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 4 (2009) pp. 33-53

    Didier Chaudet, “When the Bear Confronts the Crescent: Russia and the Jihadist Issue” China & Eurasia Forum Quarterly. Vol. 7 Issue 2, 2009, pp.37-58.

    Svante E. Cornell, Narcotics, Radicalism, and Armed Conflict in Central Asia: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Terrorism and Political Violence, 17:4, 2007, 619-639, 2007

    Galina M. Yemelianova “The Rise of Islam in Muslim Eurasia: Internal Determinants and Potential Consequences.” China & Eurasia Forum Quarterly. 2007, Vol. 5 Issue 2, pp 73-91.

    Svante E. Cornell, Narcotics and Armed Conflict: Interaction and Implications, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30:3 ,2007, 207-227, DOI: 10.1080/10576100601148449

    Michael Scheuer “Central Asia in Al-Qaeda's Vision of the Anti-American Jihad, 1979-2006” The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: Terrorism, Volume 4, No. 2,2006, pp. 5-10

    Saule Mukhametrakhimova “Perception and Treatment of the "Extremist" Islamic Group Hizb ut-Tahrir by Central Asian Governments” The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: Terrorism, Volume 4, No. 2,2006, pp. 49-54

    Svante E. Cornell & Regine A. Spector, Central Asia: More than Islamic extremists, The Washington Quarterly, 25:1, 2002, 193-206, 2002

     

     

    CACI Analyst Articles, 2014-2017, on Islamism, Central Asia and Syria

    Emil Souleimanov “Attacks in Chechnya Suggest Opposition to Kadyrov is Far from EradicatedThe CACI Analyst,  March 24, 2017

    At the turn of 2016 and 2017, events took place in parts of Chechnya that again challenged the triumphant statements of local pro-Moscow and federal authorities that the jihadist-inspired insurgency in this North Caucasian republic was eradicated. Aside from illustrating the latent character of armed conflict in the region in general and in Chechnya in particular, the recent upsurge of violence in Chechnya contains particularities that may have far-reaching consequences. Sporadic attacks against the Kadyrov regime will likely recur in the years to come and intensify should the regime’s grip on power weaken

    Stephen Blank “Central Asia: An Opportunity for the Trump Administration” The CACI Analyst, March 22, 2017

    Central Asia has never ranked high on U.S. priorities. That is unlikely to change under the Trump Administration. Yet recent developments in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan, do offer an opportunity to advance U.S. interests through a greater economic-political presence in the region, whilst also countering growing Chinese economic dominance and Russian efforts at military hegemony at a relatively low cost. The two key countries in this possible opportunity for the U.S. are Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

    Fuad Shahbazov “China’s Long March into Central Asia: How Beijing Expands Military Influence in Tajikistan” The CACI Analyst, February 21, 2017

    China's gradually increasing economic role in Central Asia since the early 2000s is unsurprising considering the region's geographic proximity to China's dynamic economy. In this context, Beijing has carefully shaped a military strategy in the region, particularly in neighboring Tajikistan. In September 2016, Beijing offered to finance and build several outposts and other military facilities (in addition to the Gulhan post, which was opened in 2012) to beef up Tajikistan's defense capabilities along its border with Afghanistan, whereas China's and Tajikistan's militaries performed a large counter-terrorism exercise in October 2016. These unexpected actions have raised concerns in Russia over rising Chinese influence in Tajikistan.

    Huseyn Aliyev “Islamic State-inspired attacks continue in ChechnyaThe CACI Analyst,  February 7, 2017

    On December 17, 2016, a shootout in central Grozny between members of the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and local security forces claimed the lives of three militants and one police officer. On December 18, a counter-terrorist operation (CTO) launched in the aftermath resulted in the death of four more insurgents, whereas four remaining members of a militant cell were arrested. Three police officers were killed and one injured. While the confrontation between militants and police in Grozny was only the fourth conflict-related incident in the republic during 2016, it demonstrates that ISIS still has the capacity to target Chechen security forces.

    Jacob Zenn “Abu Zar and Al Qaeda’s presence in Central AsiaThe CACI Analyst, January 16, 2017

    Abu Zar al-Burmi was one of the most prominent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) muftis and a close associate of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. Despite pledging loyalty to the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2015, he has recently renounced his support of ISIS and is preaching under the banner of the Imam Bukhari Brigade (IBB), which is a Syria-based IMU offshoot that is loyal to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The case of Abu Zar shows how, since the rise of ISIS in 2014, al-Qaeda has defended its stake in Central Asian jihadism.

    Stephen Blank “New signs of Chinese military interest in Central AsiaThe CACI Analyst , January 16th, 2017

    Recent evidence shows a gradual increase in Chinese military activity in Central Asia, particularly with Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, although China has for years denied any military interest in the region. In October, PLA and Tajik forces jointly participated in counterterrorism exercises in Tajikistan near the border with Afghanistan, following earlier activity in 2016. Whereas Tajikistan was then silent, this time it publicized the exercises, which aroused a visible anxiety in the Russian media although the Russian government has hitherto been unwilling to comment on this issue. China’s initiative could imply a major new development in Chinese policy and in Central Asia’s overall security, with lasting implications for the region.

    Farkhod Tolipov “Uzbekistan between a new president and the same nation: is it perestroika?The CACI Analyst, January 10, 2017

    On December 4, 2016, three months after the death of Uzbekistan’s first President Islam Karimov, the country held new presidential elections. The Prime Minister and acting Interim President Shavkat Mirziyoev became president-elect by defeating three competitors in a highly asymmetric campaign characterized by the utilization of so-called administrative resources. Yet Mirziyoev’s campaign was also an explicit demonstration of new domestic and foreign political trends in post-Karimov Uzbekistan towards more liberal reforms. The campaign also revealed rising new expectations on the part of the Uzbek nation after a quarter-century of one-person rule.

    Farkhod Tolipov “Uzbekistan-Tajikistan: game over, but what is the score?” The CACI Analyst, December 15th, 2016,

    Uzbekistan’s and Tajikistan’s independence in 1991 raised the Shakespearean “To be or not to be?” question concerning the ambitious construction of a dam on the mountainous Vakhsh river in Tajikistan, which would embody the Rogun Hydro Power Station. Uzbekistan – a downstream country – has permanently and vigorously rejected and resisted the project referring to numerous risks associated with Rogun for all downstream countries. Uzbekistan’s president has been the principal political antagonist of this project. Two months after his death in September 2016, Tajikistan’s president has decided to move on with the project.

    Stephen Blank “Russian intervention in Syria and the CaucasusThe CACI Analyst,  November 27, 2016

    Few people think about trends in the Caucasus with reference to or in the context of Russia’s Syrian intervention. But Moscow does not make this mistake. From the beginning, Moscow has highlighted its access to the Caucasus through overflight rights and deployment of its forces in regard to Syria, e.g. sending Kalibr cruise missiles from ships stationed in the Caspian Sea to bomb Syria. Therefore we should emulate Russia’s example and seriously assess military trends in the Caucasus in that Syrian context.

    Edward Lemon “Signs of improving relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan but tensions remainThe CACI Analyst,  October 19, 2016

    Since the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov in early September, signs have emerged of a thaw in relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbor Tajikistan. In the years since independence, bilateral relations have been plagued by mistrust, disputes over water resources and outright hostility. Both sides have adopted a series of punitive measures against each other. Although acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has expressed interest in “resetting” relations with Tajikistan, any improvement will be tempered by the ongoing conflict over Tajikistan’s planned hydropower plants.

    Huseyn Aliyev “Revival of Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus?” The CACI Analyst, October 14, 2016

    The last week of August 2016 saw two large-scale Counter-Terrorist Operations (CTOs) in the North Caucasus republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, followed by another CTO conducted in the second week of September. This relatively low-scale increase in military confrontations between militants and security forces in the region nonetheless indicates a steady recovery of non-ISIS Islamist cells, which have been in decline since the emergence of ISIS in the region. While these recent developments may not indicate a revival of the local Islamist insurgency, they indicate that local insurgent jama’ats are still present and active in the region.

    Dmitry Shlapentokh “Prospects of Turkmenistan-Iran gas cooperationThe CACI Analyst, October 12th, 2016

    On June 8, 2016, FSU Oil & Gas Monitor quoted former UK Energy Minister Charles Hendry as saying that gas from Turkmenistan could reach European markets by various different means, including “overland routes through Iran.” It is unlikely that Hendry would make such an announcement without having received encouraging signals from both Tehran and Ashkhabad. The prospect of gas deliveries from Turkmenistan to European markets is disconcerting for Moscow, which regards the monopolization of gas supply to Europe as one of its major geopolitical and geoeconomic goals.

    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “The North Caucasus insurgency: weakened but not eradicated” The CACI Analyst, October 6 th,  2016

    The North Caucasus insurgency has weakened dramatically in recent years. While Chechnya-based jihadist groups now number a few dozen fighters, jamaats operating in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay have been nearly wrecked. In Ingushetia, a few insurgent groups remain numbering a couple of dozen members. In Dagestan, the epicenter of the regional insurgents, several jamaats have survived and number around a hundred active members. Indicative of the unprecedented weakening of the North Caucasus insurgency is the jihadists’ inability to elect an amir of the Caucasus Emirate: since the liquidation of the last amir Magomed Suleimanov in mid-August 2015, the jihadist resistance has been beheaded as it lacks a formal leadership. Yet has the regional insurgency indeed been defeated?

    Franz J. Marty “The phantom menace of ISIS in Northern AfghanistanThe CACI Analyst, September 8th, 2016

     Many accounts allege that the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has expanded to northern Afghanistan and intends to infiltrate Central Asia from there. Taking a closer look, however, it becomes apparent that virtually all such claims lack a sound foundation and that the remaining, more specific hints like reported sightings of black flags also stand on shaky ground. Consequentially, and contrary to the eastern parts of Afghanistan, there is no compelling evidence of a presence of the self-styled Caliphate in northern Afghanistan and, hence, also no immediate threat to Central Asia.

    Farkhod Tolipov “The Tashkent summit and the expanded SCO” The CACI Analyst, July 27th, 2016

    50 years ago, Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent hosted a summit ending the India-Pakistan war of 1965, resulting in the Tashkent Declaration. It was, so to speak, a Soviet “Camp David” aimed at bringing two antagonists – India and Pakistan – to peace. The SCO summit of June 2016 was, symbolically speaking, a second – multilateral – platform created in the same place, Tashkent, for the same two states to restore peace. Yet this summit did not appear to be a second Tashkent “Camp David,” but rather a challenge for the SCO itself.

    Emil Souleimanov “Chechen authorities raise pressure on human rights organizations” The CACI Analyst, July 23rd, 2016

    Recent months have seen increased attacks on journalists and human rights activists in Chechnya. Such attacks have long become characteristic of the Moscow-backed Chechen authorities’ attitude to any form of dissent, both within and outside the North Caucasus republic. While most human rights organizations and journalists were pushed out of Chechnya in the 2000s, the recent wave of violence has been particularly aggressive and threaten to remove the last resort for complaints on human rights violations as well as the only remaining sources of data on such violations in the republic.

    Rafis Abazov  “Fixing the Aral Sea disaster: towards environmental cooperation in Central Asia?The CACI Analyst,  June 28th, 2016

    Kazakh experts have recently begun to call water the “liquid gold of the 21st century,” as all states in the Central Asian region face greater demand for water concurrent with a significant decline in water supply. The Aral Sea – which became a symbol of environmental mismanagement and environmental catastrophe at the end of the 20th century – shows that sustainable development policies can help to deal with even the most difficult water issues. Conversely, however, mismanagement and border conflicts over water might worsen the situation, leading to further political and economic tensions. The current question is whether Kazakhstan can collaborate with other Central Asian states in saving and perhaps reviving the Aral Sea.

    John C.K. Daly “The death of Mullah Mansour and the future of the Taliban” The CACI Analyst, June 7th, 2016

    On May 21, a U.S. drone attack killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour and taxi driver Mohammad Azam near Nushki in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Mansour was returning from Taftan, Iran, where he had gone for medical treatment, to his residence near the provincial capital Quetta, a 370-mile journey. Mansour and his driver had completed roughly two-thirds of the nine-hour trip. A Pakistani passport and a Computer National Identity Card (CNIC) identifying Mansur as “Wali Muhammad” were found near the wreckage. Mansour’s death, coming nine months after his contested election as “Amir al-Mu'minin” by the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, has added additional volatility to Afghanistan’s complex political landscape, effectively sidelining any possibility of renewing peace negotiations with the Afghan government as Mansour’s successor seeks to consolidate his position.

    Farkhod Tolipov “Ad-hoc peace or ad-hoc war: micro-geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus” The CACI Analyst, June 2nd, 2016

    A few weeks before the April 2-5 fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a border crisis occurred between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on March 18-26. Some observers connected these two events as links in the same chain. Indeed, both cases revolve around so-called frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space; where one of the conflicting sides is a CSTO member and the other is not; and where speculations proliferate of a hidden Russian hand in both the instigation and mediation of the clashes. The two conflicts can be seen as a by-product of the same process – the continuing divergence of the former single Soviet space.

    Dmitry Shlapentokh “Kazakhstan's history as a geopolitical battlefield” The CACI Analyst, May 27th, 2016

    Throughout 2015, Kazakhstan celebrated the 450th anniversary of what it regards as the beginning of its statehood as a major national event. This extraordinary interest in a seemingly academic subject had clear political undertones: Kazakhstan is not an “artificial” state, as sometimes proclaimed by representatives of the Kremlin. The country’s continuous process of distancing itself from Russia has been coupled with repression against suspected proponents of separatism in Northern Kazakhstan, populated by considerable numbers of ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers. Despite the existence of clearly pro-Russian attitudes in this region, Moscow has not supported them out of fear that it could raise extremist forms of nationalism in Russia, which would be highly problematic for the Kremlin.

    Jacob Zenn “The IMU is extinct: what next for Central Asia's jihadis?The CACI Analyst,  May 3rd, 2016

    For more than a decade after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was the “bogeyman” of Central Asian militancy. It was the most well-known militant group in Central Asia and abroad, even though it was in exile in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the protection of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Years of drone strikes and counter-insurgency operations failed to eliminate the IMU. Ironically, however, it was neither the U.S. nor coalition forces that destroyed the IMU. Rather, it was the Taliban who liquidated the IMU in late 2015 as punishment for its “betrayal” of the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) by pledging loyalty to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS). This will change the nature of the militant threat to Central Asia and force a reconsideration of Uzbekistan’s counter-extremism measures.

    Roger N. McDermott “Russia-Tajikistan antiterrorist exercises: strategic messagingThe CACI Analyst, March 28th, 2016

    Russia’s and Tajikistan’s joint antiterrorist exercise on March 15-20 involved five Tajik training ranges, and showcased bilateral security cooperation. The exercise seemed routine, consistent with each country’s national security concerns; however a number of factors coalesced on Moscow’s planning and deployment side to make it both unique and potentially revealing. Buoyed by its recent experience of military conflict in Ukraine and Syria, Russia’s Armed Forces display increased confidence in supporting a more pro-active Russian foreign policy posture. The elements it deployed in Tajikistan for the exercise contain strategic messages for the benefit of other actors and Russia’s potential adversaries in Central Asia: for regional governments, the message is one of reassurance and renewed confidence.

    Richard Weitz “Moscow's agenda in Central Asia and the Caucasus: it is officialThe CACI Analyst, March 18th, 2016

    The states of Central Asia and the South Caucasus are in for a rough ride if recent Russian national security documents and speeches genuinely represent the Kremlin’s worldview. Not only do these texts veto their membership in NATO, but they exclude mutually profitable partnerships for these countries with the European Union and other Western institutions, constrain their domestic development, and encourage the suppression of civil liberties by warning of fictitious Western plots to change their regimes under the guise of democracy promotion and human rights.

    Roger N. McDermott “Russia recalibrates 201st base in Tajikistan” The CACI Analyst February 25th, 2016

    Moscow has stated that among its defense and security priorities for 2016, Central Asia and the South Caucasus will top its agenda. Kavkaz 2016, the main strategic military exercise of the year, will take place in the Southern Military District (MD), while Tsentr 2015 occurred in Central MD with among its vignettes a rehearsal of intervention in Central Asia. Surprisingly in this context, the Defense Ministry plans to restructure the 201st Base in Tajikistan from divisional to brigade status. This initiative is driven by Moscow’s growing concerns about the future of Central Asian security as it faces multiple potential threats stemming from Afghanistan and Islamic State (ISIS). But paradoxically, Moscow’s latest moves to strengthen the basing of its forces in Tajikistan serves as an indicator of official perceptions that the region could suffer a serious security challenge.

    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “Azerbaijan, islamism, and unrest in NardaranThe CACI Analyst, December 27th, 2015

    On November 25-26, Azerbaijani law enforcement carried out a special operation in Nardaran, a township on the northern edge of the Absheron peninsula located 25 kilometers northeast of the capital’s center. The purpose of the special operation was to break the backbone of the Muslim Unity group, a purportedly militant Shiite organization. The context and implications of the Nardaran events have received little attention in Western media, despite the concerns raised both within and outside the region about Azerbaijan finding itself on the brink of religiously inspired civil unrest.

    Richard Weitz  “Building on Kerry's Central Asian tourThe CACI Analyst, December 22nd, 2015

    In early November, John Kerry made a long overdue trip to Central Asia, becoming the first Secretary of State to visit all five Central Asian countries in one diplomatic tour. His agenda focused on reassuring the regional governments that the United States cares about their concerns, specifically Afghanistan and religious extremism. Kerry also highlighted U.S. support for region-wide economic integration, ecological protection, and cultural and humanitarian cooperation. He further developed bilateral cooperation with each Central Asian government. However, there were no major agreements or blockbuster initiatives announced during Kerry’s visit. It will require sustained follow-through by the current and next U.S. administrations to achieve enduringly positive results.

    S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell “The EU and Central Asia: Developing Transport and TradeThe CACI Analyst December 10th, 2015

    A number of initiatives have combined to make the development of continental transport and trade across the heartland of Eurasia a reality rather than a mere vision. Some of these have been external, while many have been internal to the region. Yet Europe, which launched the visionary TRACECA program in the early 1990s, is largely absent from the scene today. Yet if Europe works with Central Asian states, it stands to benefit greatly from this process. This would involve work to make the transport corridors more attuned to market logic; to promote the development of soft infrastructure; to pay attention to the geopolitics of transport and support the Caucasus and Caspian corridor; and not least, to look ahead to the potential of linking Europe through Central Asia not just to China, but also to the Indian subcontinent.

    Huseyn Aliyev, Emil A. Souleimanov “Russia's missile launches and the militarization of the Caspian SeaThe CACI Analyst, November 23rd, 2015

    In early October, Russia's Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced that Russian navy warships based in the Caspian Sea had fired a total of 26 missiles at the positions of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. The minister claimed that all the 11 targets, located around 1,500 kilometers from the warships, were destroyed over two days. Russian authorities and pro-regime media have considered the strikes a big success. While information soon resurfaced that some cruise missiles had landed on Iranian soil, the fact that the October strike is definite proof of the failed attempts to turn the landlocked water basin into a demilitarized zone has received less attention.

    Farkhod Tolipov “Pluses and minuses of the C5+1 formatThe CACI Analyst, November 13th, 2015

    During the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2015 in New York, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kazakhstan’s, Kyrgyzstan’s, Tajikistan’s, Turkmenistan’s and Uzbekistan’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs to set up the new C5+1 format for dialogue between the U.S. and Central Asian states. As a first manifestation of this dialogue platform, Kerry made a Central Asian tour in early November. The C5+1 meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, took place in the context of global geopolitical turbulence that has raised Central Asia’s profile in U.S. global strategy

    Dmitry Shlapentokh “The ISIS threat and Moscow's influence in Central Asia and the Middle EastThe CACI Analyst, November 6, 2015

    Moscow has recently undertaken several actions aiming to increase Russia’s influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. On August 23-28, 2015, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes several members from Central Asia, undertook military exercises in Russia. Russian authorities stated that the maneuvers aimed to help CSTO members develop means to effectively move airborne forces and other troops to conflict zones, including in Central Asia. The exercises partly served to address a real concern on the part of Russia as well as other CSTO members over the rise of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS). However, Russia sees ISIS not only as a threat but also as an opportunity for both increasing Russia’s influence in Central Asia and providing a pretext for its venture in the Middle East.

    Avinoam Idan “Russia in Syria and Putin's geopolitical strategy” The CACI Analyst, October 22nd, 2015

    The deepening of Russia’s military presence in Syria and its direct involvement in aiding the Assad regime during the Syrian crisis is a game changing step in the geostrategic context of the Middle East. This is Russia’s third move during the last eight years to change the strategic status quo in the greater Middle East by means of military force. Russia’s new step in Syria aims to influence the geopolitical makeup of the Middle East following the collapse of the Sykes-Picot order. Russia aims to establish itself as a key player from the Caspian Basin in the east, via the Black Sea, to the Eastern Mediterranean.

    Erica Marat “Kyrgyzstan: beyond democratic elections” The CACI Analyst, October 12th, 2015

    On October 4, Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections marked by significant improvements in the country’s democratic development.  The elections have demonstrated the viability of Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 constitution, which delegates more powers to the parliament and aims to prevent the emergence of autocratic political center. Fourteen political parties competed, and six were able to pass the national and regional thresholds to win seats.

    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “Russia's Syria initiative and the exaggerated ISIS threat to Central Asia” The CACI Analyst, September 25th, 2015

    Russia’s recent military engagement in Syria and calls for the establishment of an international coalition against the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) has produced renewed interest in Moscow’s policies toward the jihadist quasi-state. Against this background, while many have speculated about Moscow’s true intentions in the Middle East, relatively little attention has been paid to Moscow’s interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the context of its increasingly vocal rhetoric of fighting ISIS. Moscow is actively utilizing the risks and threats stemming from the ISIS to boost its clout in the near and far abroad.

    Edward Lemon “Violence in Tajikistan emerges from within the state” The CACI Analyst, September 23rd, 2015

    Rather than resulting from external factors, as the regime has argued, the recent violence in Tajikistan erupted from within the state itself. Elites within the Tajik state continually compete for political influence and economic gain. These struggles occasionally break out into violence. Ironically, such conflicts are actually useful for the regime. They allow it to legitimize a purge of potentially disloyal members and a crackdown on other opponents. By blaming the latest conflict on the country’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), the regime legitimized its move to ban the party and arrest its leading members.

    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “A weakened insurgency precludes IS inroads to the North Caucasus” 09/02/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    Recent months have seen North Caucasian amirs pledging allegiance to the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS). Many have pointed to this process as a sign of the changing paradigm of the regional resistance, which is being transformed into – or absorbed by – the global jihadist insurgency. But these assumptions can be challenged by a look at the internal dynamics, the distance from key hotbeds of jihadist violence, and the limits of the North Caucasian insurgency. While ISIS may have some impact on the North Caucasian jamaats, it is likely to be rather limited and indirect.

    Farkhod Tolipov “Uzbekistan concerned over SCO expansion” 05/08/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its annual summit on June 9-10, 2015, in the Russian town of Ufa, which was an historical turning point in the organization’s evolution. It adopted a Development Strategy towards 2025 and admitted India and Pakistan as full members. Uzbekistan has taken over the Chairmanship of the SCO from Russia for the next one year period. During the summit, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov expressed concerns revealing Tashkent’s reluctant acknowledgement of the fact that from now on the SCO will be more than just a Central Asia-focused structure.

    George Voloshin “The Uzbek-Tajik détente: can it last?” 08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    On June 22-24, Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, hosted a third meeting of the Uzbek-Tajik intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. Unlike the two previous sessions, which were organized in Dushanbe in August 2002 and February 2009, this year’s bilateral trade talks took place against the backdrop of an emerging détente between the two Central Asian neighbors. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are currently confronted with a host of shared challenges ranging from the threat of radical Islam to socioeconomic instability, while their bilateral relationship is still constrained by unsettled disputes from the past.

    Charlie Smith “Islamic State in Central Asia: threat or opportunity” 08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    Central Asia is a key region that many believe has fallen into the crosshairs of the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS). Local governments are gravely concerned about returning fighters and possible ISIS infiltration in the region, and foreign powers, especially neighboring Russia and China, have expressed their deep concerns. This grim picture, however, obscures a more complex, and perhaps more accurate, story. Might the specter of ISIS have less to do with its on-the-ground ability to destabilize the region and more to do with the geopolitical concerns of those who are stating these threats?

    Kevin Daniel Leahy “Existing Paradigms for Resistance in the North Caucasus Challenged by Kadyrov, ISIS” 06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    With the recent death of its leader and the decisions by numerous field commanders in Dagestan and Chechnya to disassociate themselves with the organization, analysts are wondering if the Caucasus Emirate can endure. The terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) has emerged as the latest paradigm for resistance to Russian rule in the Caucasus. It is, however, only the latest in a long line of such paradigms to take root in the region, competing with the Caucasus Emirate, Chechen nationalism and other forms of ethnic separatism. What is the outlook for ISIS as a paradigm for resistance in the North Caucasus?

    Nurzhan Zhambekov “Russia’s Regulation of Labor Migration Set to Hurt Central Asian Economies” 04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    The slowing Russian economy suffered a triple shock in the form of Western economic sanctions, falling oil prices, and the plummeting Russian ruble in 2014, resulting in a negative impact on Central Asian states. In addition, tighter migration regulations in Russia, in force since early 2015, are having an effect on the flow of migration from Central Asia, particularly from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These three countries rely heavily on remittances from their migrant workers in Russia. The drop in remittances could increase socioeconomic disaffection in parts of Central Asia that are dependent on labor migrants’ earnings. 

    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “Caucasus Emirate Faces Further Decline after the Death of Its Leader” 04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    On April 19, 2015, the Caucasus Emirate’s leader Aliaskhab Kebekov, nom de guerre Ali Abu Mukhammad, was killed in a special operation carried out by Russian elite forces in Dagestan’s Buynaksk district. His death came at a time of profound decline of the North Caucasian jihadists, coupled with the ongoing split in their ranks as an increasing number of fighters and insurgent leaders turn to the Islamic State (IS). Upcoming months will show whether the North Caucasus insurgency, and particularly its Dagestani branch, will become dominated by IS sympathizers and ink up with the global jihad, or remain a largely local endeavor.

    Emil Souleimanov “Dagestan’s Insurgents Split over Loyalties to Caucasus Emirate and IS” 04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    Recent months have been hectic for Dagestani jihadists. Since mid-2014, this hotbed of the North Caucasian insurgency has witnessed a gradual split, with numerous Dagestan-based jihadist commanders pledging oath (bayat) to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. In response, the Caucasus Emirate’s formal leader, Aliaskhab Kebekov, himself a Dagestani, criticized the disloyal commanders for splitting the ranks of the local insurgency. In mid-February, the newly appointed amir of the Dagestani Vilayat, Kamil Saidov, joined Kebekov in his condemnation of those submitting to Baghdadi’s authority. Given the North Caucasian and Dagestani jamaats' weakening capacity, the ongoing developments in Dagestan could break the unity in this last bastion of the regional insurgency.

    Huseyn Aliyev “Conflict-related Violence Decreases in the North Caucasus as Fighters go to Syria” 04/01/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    The end of 2014 and early 2015 have witnessed a notable reduction in conflict-related violence across the North Caucasus. With the continuous departure of Islamist volunteers from that Russian region to the Middle East, in 2014 the number of casualties, among both militants and security forces, have decreased by more than half, compared to the previous year. While observers associate the current de-escalation of violence with the outflow of large numbers of North Caucasian youth to join Islamic State (IS) and with internal conflicts within the North Caucasus Islamist underground (Caucasus Emirate), reasons behind the recent decline of insurgency-related activities are likely to be more complex. 

    Emil Souleimanov “Dagestan’s Jihadists and Haram Targeting” 02/18/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    The recent attacks in Paris against the studio of satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, known for its caricatures of Muhammad, have sparked heated debates in Dagestan. While Dagestanis have primarily focused on evaluating the implications of this single case of lethal violence, their debates have unfolded against the background of increasingly frequent attacks carried out by members of local jihadi groups – jamaats – against targets deemed anti-Islamic according to Salafi dogma.