Over the last years, former Soviet Central Asia has been a source of increasing interest in Washington. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 in New York and Washington led to the war in Afghanistan and to the emergence of the Bush Doctrine in the region, focused in harvesting support for its military mission to oust the Taliban in Kabul. Ten years later, now the US is about to end its combat operations in the country, and since the beginning his Government, President Barack Obama has been devoting most of his time to other concerns, particularly the Global Financial Crisis and Domestic Health Care reform. At the same time, he has adopted his own doctrine in Central Asia, but with disappointing results so far.
It is clear that, since the end of the Soviet Union, the US has tried to set foot in Central Asia, expanding its influence over Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The region is well known for its untapped energy resources. This, and its strategic location, made it focus of tension and disputes for centuries before 18th century Great Game. As a relative newcomer to the region, Washington has faced additional challenges in its ambitions to increase its influence. Unlike Russia, it lacks decades of shared culture and history with local nations. Unlike China, it stands miles away, far from the borders of any Central Asian country. Obama’s challenge in the region has been to turn these liabilities into assets.
In a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington in 2009 (1), Assistant US Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, announced five principles that would be the basis for the US Policy Toward Central Asia in the Obama Administration:
First, to expand cooperation with Central Asian states to assist coalition efforts in Afghanistan; second, to increase development and diversification of the region’s energy resources and supply routes; third, to encourage political liberalization and respect for human rights; fourth, to foster competitive market economies and economic reform and lastly, to prevent the emergence of failed states, or in more positive terms, to increase the capacity of states to govern themselves effectively.
There are few signs that the US has had success while following these principles, except the first – that was already the key element of George W. Bush’s doctrine in the region. Apparently there are two reasons for that.
First, Russia and China are showing signs that are joining forces in order to minimize American influence in the region, particularly in the economic field – focus of Obama’s second principle towards the region. While the US has been for years a strong advocate of the Trans-Afghan gas pipeline, that would allow Central Asian countries to export its gas through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, therefore avoiding the current dependence of Russian infrastructure, Washington was overtaken by China’s investment. Beijing has already built pipelines to its Central Asian neighbors and is becoming the second largest import-export market for these countries (2), while Russia remains of paramount importance for exports through its own territory. The US ambitions remains moored in the Afghan instability.
China, particularly, has also given millions of dollars in loans to Central Asian states without asking for reforms in return – a key aspect of the third, fourth and fifth principles. Washington’s lack of ability in encouraging reform in the region is the second reason why Obama’s Doctrine has yielded few results so far. It seems that the US has not found a way to influence the long standing the local leaders.
One reason for that could be the fact that, despite its rhetoric, during the last years the US has only acted in the region in order to minimize the risk of terrorist activity and gather support to its efforts in Afghanistan. Both goals implied a strong collaboration with local regimes, which were not to be confronted. One of clearest examples of US failure in Central Asia is in the field of Human Rights. Islam Karimov is still ruling with an iron fist in Uzbekistan 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Using as an excuse the danger of extremist Islamic activity, he has crushed the opposition and maintains a dismal Human Rights record, according to NGOs such as Human Rights Watch (HRW). After the Andijan Massacre, in 2005, Karimov was target of criticism from the US and requested the American military to vacate the K2 base near Termez (3). The move was of little impact for American operations in Afghanistan, since the Manas air base, in Kyrgyzstan, could still be used by US forces. Despite this, little has changed in the US-Uzbekistan relations to date. The Uzbek decision to close the HRW office in Tashkent in June 2011 was met with a short statement from the State Department regretting the decision, with no direct criticism aimed at the Uzbek authorities (4). Uzbekistan remains a key US ally in the region, and Washington has made clear it will not pursue intrusive policies towards Uzbek affairs (5).
Developments in Kyrgyzstan – whose presidents were toppled twice in recent years during popular revolts – show that the American Government ambition of prevent the emergence of failed states in the region and increase their capacity to govern efficiently is seriously flawed. For years after the end of Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan was considered an example for the region. President Askar Akayev adopted economic reforms aimed at attracting foreign aid and held free and multiparty elections in 1995. But a combination of factors eventually made him change his mind (6). Regardless of his efforts, he was not able to attract enough investment to a country heavily dependent on exports of mineral resources. Uzbek-Kyrgyz tension in the Osh region, pressure from the significant Russian community in the country and from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – wary about how the democratic reforms adopted by Akayev might help extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – also played a part on this. Eventually, the tension inside the country rose to intolerable levels and Akayev was forced into exile. He was replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was also ousted from power, in 2010, during a period of particularly intense ethnic violence in the Fergana Valley. Throughout these years, little was done by the United States to help the Kyrgyz economy or foster stability in the country. This played nicely into Russian interests in the region. To date, the US maintains use of the Manas Air Base near Bishkek, but in 2009 the Kyrgyz government announced the American forces would soon be evicted. The decision was announced after Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Federation announced an agreement in which the Central Asian nation would receive US$ 2 billion in loans and US$ 150 million in financial aid from Moscow (7). American diplomats were forced into action and a new agreement to keep the base was signed. It raised the amount paid by America for the use of the facilities up from US$ 17.1 million to US$ 60 million (8).
An important aspect of the changes in US Foreign policy during Barack Obama term in office has being its relationship with the Russian Federation. In the 2009 G20 summit in London, Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, promised a “fresh start” in their relations. This “rapprochement” would necessarily involve a review of the American plans for a defense system in Eastern Europe. During the George W. Bush years, the plans – that involved the deployment of radar systems in Poland and in the Czech Republic – became a constant source of tension between the two countries. But the idea was later abandoned by the Obama administration. Furthermore, the two countries were able to sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, an additional bone of contention between them. The improvement in the bilateral relations has also had impact on the US ambitions in Central Asia. There are no signs that Washington has tried actively to rival Russian interests in the region. After Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed the agreement that preceded the negotiations over the Manas Air base in 2009, few voices in Washington raised criticism against Moscow. A Pentagon spokesman accused Moscow of trying to undermine American use of the Facility (9), and Defense secretary Robert Gates said Russia was “working against” the US in the region (10). These declarations, however, led to no further consequences. Russia, and also China, have been strengthening its links with former Soviet Central Asia through regional international cooperation bodies such as the SCO and EurAsEc, while America remains a distant partner.
Nonetheless, it is also clear that the US, China and Russia share in tackling extremist Muslim groups a very important goal in the region. For China, the links between Muslim Central Asians and the Uighurs in Xinjiang have always been a source of deep concern. For Russia, instability represents an additional risk for millions of Russians that remain in the area. Besides, Moscow is wary of extremist activity after so many attacks from Chechen groups and believes that Central Asia is a source of support for those separatists. Finally, after the September 11th, the US realized the need to fight Al-Qaeda and its allies regardless of how far away they were from America.
If its distance from the region represents additional hurdles for America’s Central Asian aspirations, it also could be an asset in a region that for centuries was dominated for its stronger imperialistic neighbors. For many in Central Asia, the years of Soviet domination are still a vivid memory. Still today, many see the presence of a numerous Russian community in Central Asia as an omen of a possible new era of domination in the future. Taking advantage of its distance from the region, showing no interest in domination and pursuing an agenda focused on mutual economic and defense gains, the US represents a new option of engagement for these countries.
In his speech at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Assistant Secretary Blake adopted a pragmatic tone when analyzing American goals in the region. He said that the US was looking into establishing “consultative mechanisms” with each one of the Central Asian countries to “regularize” their dialog and “channel them into realistic work programs that could really drive progress”. He also suggested that what America is trying to do now is lay the foundations with a view to pursuing its five principles in the future:
Sometimes it can be a challenge to help move our Central Asian friends in the directions that we would like. But I think all of you would also agree that the first step in trying to get that kind of progress that we want to achieve is to create the right atmosphere and the right forms of dialogue. And I think that particularly includes creating the right atmosphere on these tough issues, like human rights.
To summarize, although the Obama administration maintains an ambitious agenda towards Former Soviet Central Asia, it is clear that, facing a complicated situation on the ground, it has decided to follow a slow path in order to fulfill its goals in the region. The Department of State is now adopting a strategy that focuses in collaboration, rather than competition, with other players with interests in the region – namely Russia and China, with whom America share a common goal of tackling extremist activity. It is also trying to improve its ties with local countries by not confronting them in difficult areas such as Human Rights, believing that, as time goes by, it might be in a better position to influence them. Given its natural position, as a distant player, the US has an advantage in dealing with the Central Asian countries, which tend to see Russian and Chinese interests in the region with suspicion. What remains to be seen is whether the Obama Administration will be able to tap into this and make more headway, even with lower expectations.
(1) US Policy towards Central Asia. Remarks by the Assistant Secretary, Robert Blake, at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, July 30th, 2010 - http://www.state.gov/p/sca/rls/rmks/2010/145463.htm
(2) Central Asia and the Renewal of the Great Game. By Michael Hoffman, Program Manager at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. Diplomatic Courier Online, June 16th, 2011 - http://oilprice.com/Geo-Politics/Asia/Central-Asia-and-the-Renewal-of-The-Great-Game.html
(3) Last US Plane leaves Uzbek base. BBC News Online, November 21st, 2005 - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4457844.stm
(4) Closure of Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan. Press statement by Mark C. Tonner, Deputy Spokesperson, US Department of State, June 14th, 2011 - http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/06/166136.htm
(5) US Steps up its Central Asian Tango. By Indian Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, Asian Times Online, August 25th, 2009 - http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/KH25Ag02.html
(6) Jihad – The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid. Penguin Books, 2002. Pages 66-72
(7) Kyrgyzstan to shut US Air Base. Financial Times, February 3rd, 2009 - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8d9e47de-f227-11dd-9678-0000779fd2ac.html
(8) Kyrgyz parliament approves US Base deal. Reuters, June 25th, 2009 - http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/06/25/us-usa-kyrgyzstan-base-idUSTRE55O1DP20090625
(9) Financial Times, op. cit.
(10) Obama Loses a Key Base for Afghanistan. By Mark Thompson. Times Online, February 19th, 2009 - http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1880686,00.html