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

Read 8307 times Last modified on Wednesday, 31 May 2017 08:30





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


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.