Friday, 17 March 2017 00:00

Time to Re-Engage Featured

Article, The American Interest, March 17, 2017

S. Frederick Starr, Time to Re-Engage

Whipsawed by years of foreign policy activism and then by general retreat, the United States is at risk of losing an opportunity to cement hard-won gains in Central Asia/Afghanistan.



For some time now many in official Washington have viewed Central Asia and Afghanistan as Eurasia's flyover zone, to be quickly traversed as they "pivot" to East Asia, Russia, or back to the Middle East. Only in its final year did the Obama Administration pay the region much attention, by accepting Kazakhstan's proposal to set up an annual group consultation with Washington. Even then, the State Department, in a move directly at odds with U.S. interests and the Central Asians' own wishes, left Afghanistan out of the new grouping. As Talleyrand allegedly said of Louis XVIII, we seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

A host of clichés and semi-truths have fed the dismissive attitude harbored by many Americans toward the region. Many see "the Stans" as a group of former Soviet countries in Russia's "backyard" that failed to adopt the Washington Consensus on privatization through shock therapy, and now plod along with dysfunctional economies and authoritarian governments. Civil society languishes, beckoning the State Department to wag its finger at what it brands religious repression. True, Chevron and other American firms are making money pumping oil there, but who needs that oil, with all the shale oil and gas in the United States? As to Afghanistan, is it not a quagmire that sucks in and destroys all who enter? These and similar notions are advanced by those calling for further disengagement.

Those favoring reengagement cite a completely different body of evidence. They note that most of the regional economies are making steady progress, and so may offer economic opportunities for U.S. business. GDP growth there last year ranged from 1.2 percent (Kazakhstan), 2.2 percent (Afghanistan), 3.47 (Kyrgyzstan), 4.2 percent (Tajikistan), 6.5 percent (Turkmenistan), and 7.1 percent (Uzbekistan). This may lag behind China's 6.9 percent or India's 7.6 percent—assuming for a moment that any of these numbers are accurate—but it soundly beats Russia's -3.73 percent and compares favorably with Pakistan and Iran. A group of former World Bank economists predicts that all Central Asian economies have a realistic chance of reaching middle-class status by 2050, with Kazakhstan already there.1 Boosting their chances is the fact that all of them, including Afghanistan, boast rising generations of talented and well-educated young men and women whose values place them squarely in what the French sociologist Claude Levi-Straus once called the "global monoculture."

On the geopolitical level, champions of reengagement note that the region as the only one on earth surrounded by nuclear powers and vulnerable to destabilizing competition or, worse, external control, which is Putin's clear intent. But for thousands of years domination by an external power has been a formula for instability there and remains so today. The U.S. government, with aid from allies, should back Central Asian sovereignties and help them build security "from within." The engagers also stress that Central Asia is one of the historic seats of Islam, yet its governments are secular, with secular laws and courts. Their systems still suffer the effects of Soviet statism and repression. But for all their flaws, they offer a better model for Muslim societies than most countries in the Middle East and are far more open to modern learning.

As the debate between disengagers and re-engagers rages on, dramatic but little-noticed changes are occurring within Central Asia itself. First, the transition in Uzbekistan following the death of Islam Karimov this past September went smoothly, with even the OSCE acknowledging that the election, while imperfect, marked a step forward. This effectively killed prospects for a dynastic succession in Kazakhstan, which President Nursultan Nazarbayev had ruled out anyway. During the election campaign in Uzbekistan, the acting President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, launched a movement to resolve outstanding problems with all neighbors, reopened air flights to neighboring Tajikistan, which had been grounded for more than two decades, called for visa-free access from 15 countries, including the United States, sent his Foreign Minister to Kabul to open negotiations on expanding transport and trade, and promised for the first time to make the Uzbek currency convertible. In his inaugural speech he spoke boldly of making the offices of Governors and Mayors elective, and of setting up electronic complaint bureaus in every government office.

If President Mirziyoyev follows through on even half of these proposals, Central Asia and Afghanistan will be set on a new and more promising course. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan, in sharp contrast to Russia, is using the oil crisis to diversify its economy, mount a world exposition on renewable energy, and set up a regional financial center in Astana where disputes can be resolved through British law. Over the next two years Kazakhstan will also sit on the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, gas-rich Turkmenistan has also felt the pinch of lower energy prices but is nonetheless forging ahead with construction of the TAPI gas pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. America tried to develop this mega-project but failed, yet TAPI directly serves U.S. interests. TAPI will produce large royalties for Afghanistan and will provide thousands of jobs for a country in which the U.S. government has invested so much in lives and treasure. Finally, the two poorest countries of the region, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, will soon benefit from the new CASA 1000 electric transmission grid, which will enable them to reap much-needed income from sending some of their huge potential supply of hydroelectric energy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In short, there are powerful currents of change and development afoot in Central Asia today. These present the U.S. government with a choice: It can either remain disengaged and continue to try to leave Afghanistan, or it can commit to finishing the job in Afghanistan and facilitating the security and revival of Central Asia as a whole, on the grounds that an insecure Afghanistan and Central Asia will continue to impinge on U.S. security concerns, as it did so tragically on 9/11. Exhausted from years of unrequited activism in the Middle East, Americans have difficulty even framing this choice. Instead, they debate the past. Those who would minimize America's future engagement with Greater Central Asia view American actions to date as largely fruitless and, in Afghanistan, tied to expenditures so vast and ill-advised that no possible gains can offset them. Both judgments are wrong.
This gloomy view misses more than half of the story. The legacy of U.S. policy towards the post-Soviet states of Central Asia since 1992 may be mixed, but it is largely positive. U.S. policy helped solidify the sovereignty of these states, helped them develop sound institutions to a reasonable extent, and helped them grow economically. It didn't turn them into liberal democracies, nor did it instill human rights as Eleanor Roosevelt would have understood them, although undeniable progress has been achieved in both areas.
However, Hillary Clinton tried but failed to help turn the region into a transportation hub, ultimately ceding the initiative to China. Nor was there any real coherence, let alone mutual reinforcement, among U.S. strategies in the areas of economics, security, and governance. A prime reason for this is that little or no coordination exists among the main executive agencies responsible for Afghanistan and Central Asia—namely, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the Department of Commerce—and within particular agencies. Security, trade, reform, and rights are pursued as separate goals, with USAID and the Pentagon each optimizing the efforts of its particular "stovepipe" with little concern for the single overarching strategy that both claim to be advancing. Obviously, such an approach precludes achieving synergies among them, let alone the trade-offs and, yes, deals that would make such synergies possible. Read more

S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. His recent book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age, is being translated into 19 languages.

Image attribution:, accessed on March 17, 2017

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  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...

  • CACI director Svante Cornell's interviewed on the 'John Batchelor Show' podcast regarding Turkey's 2023 presidential election
    Friday, 19 May 2023 00:00

    Listen to CACI director Svante Cornell's recent interview on the 'John Batchelor Show' podcast regarding Turkey's 2023 presidential election. Click here!

  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53