U.S. experts agree on the need for Washington to rethink its strategy for Central Asia in light of its withdrawal from Afghanistan but are divided on what shape that new strategy should take.
Until 2001, few Americans knew this remote region. But it played a key role in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan hosting air bases and helping the coalition transport critical goods.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lesslie Viguerie said Central Asia is still strategically important, despite the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. “Many things have changed over decades, but our overarching goals remain the same: sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” Viguerie said.
At a recent U.S. Institute of Peace forum, Viguerie said the nations of Central Asia— which include Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — have become more concerned about their own security since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
As the State Department’s top official for the region, he said Washington steadfastly supports political, economic and social reforms.
“Pluralism and democratic governance are the foundational bedrock for a free and prosperous society,” he said. “We continue to advance the rule of law, promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and fight corruption.”
In 2015, Washington created the regionally focused C5+1 forum to discuss common challenges and “to enhance connectivity, economic integration and energy linkages.” That discussion included links with Afghanistan, but whether that continues will largely depend on the actions of the Taliban, officials said.
Viguerie said regional cooperation could help the five nations to deal more effectively with problems as diverse as the pandemic, climate change and disinformation campaigns.
“Recent events in Kazakhstan remind us of the importance of addressing the underlying social and economic factors that can lead to instability,” he said in reference to nationwide protests sparked by a sharp spike in fuel prices.
“We continue to highlight the positive role civil society can play in examining the root causes of economic and social frustrations.”
Richard Hoagland, a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, said that while Washington speaks publicly about democracy and economic development, it is more quietly focused on countering Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
In the 1990s, Hoagland recalled, U.S. policy presumed that the nations of Central Asia “would surely become free market democracies if only we could offer enough assistance. But they didn't. And in retrospect, that's not the least bit surprising.”
The ways of the West were too foreign to Central Asians who had long lived under repressive rulers, Hoagland said.
Going forward, he said, these five countries will need to resist outside pressure in order to balance their relationships with Moscow, Beijing, Brussels and Washington. “Russia would not be at all displeased to see the West and especially the U.S. pack up its bags and go home.”
Beijing, the largest investor in the region, made further commitments during a virtual meeting last week between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the five Central Asian presidents. India showcased its own interest in investing in the region during a similar summit a day later.
Hoagland argued that U.S. concerns over governance and human rights problems should not lead Washington to dial back its relations with the region.
“We need patience,” he said, noting the rise of a new generation in Central Asia, including some with Western education and values.
Jennifer Murtazashvili, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said U.S. strategy for the region does not take current realities into account.
“The U.S. can play a very constructive role in Central Asia but has to understand their needs, desires and goals,” she said at the USIP forum.
She urged Washington not to look at the region through the lens of Russia or China, saying, “We can't be reactive to what other countries are doing, but proactive.”
Murtazashvili said U.S. engagement with the region should focus on the intersection between economic development and public administration, including efforts to combat corruption and work with emerging civil society. “Without reforms in these areas, it will be difficult for Central Asians to achieve their goals,” she said.
She considers education the biggest area of demand for cooperation with the U.S. because of youthful populations.
Security cooperation first
But Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, contends that security cooperation should instead be front and center. “A discussion with the countries that honestly includes security, sovereignty, self-government and self-determination is what's been missing,” he said.
Speaking at the same virtual forum, Starr said Central Asia is the only region in the world that doesn't have its own intraregional organization without outsiders and urges Washington to support such initiatives.
“The C5+1 is thin. The concept is good, they have meetings, but it's been very passive by comparison to what China and Russia are doing,” Starr said.
“We have to be more patient and tenacious with those who are underperforming in areas that are important to us,” he added. “Treat them as a region, treat them with respect, foster a regional thinking in our programs.”
Murtazashvili sees Afghanistan as a place with potential to foster positive relationships among Russia, China and the United States. Now that the geopolitical implications of a major foreign presence in Afghanistan no longer overshadow more immediate regional interests, she said, major powers could collaborate on development and investment opportunities in this part of the world.
“Having a Central Asian strategy that was so dependent on what happened in Afghanistan was a huge risk,” she said. “We weren't seeing the strong mutual interests that many countries in Central Asia had with Afghanistan regardless of who is in power.”
Starr and Murtazashvili recommend the United States make Afghanistan part of a renewed strategy. “Central Asians are more confident in dealing with Afghanistan than we are,” said Murtazashvili, specifically referring to Uzbekistan’s humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.
Steve Swerdlow, professor of human rights at the University of Southern California, argues for a values-first strategy toward the region. In an interview with VOA, he said America’s reputation as a defender of human rights and democracy has been damaged in recent years but argued that the Afghan withdrawal frees up the U.S. to reclaim a more values-based approach to Central Asia.
"Washington should speak out more about the harassment of journalists and create greater recognition that support for civil society is a core national interest of the U.S.,” he said.
“Global Magnitsky sanctions against bad guys should be used more in Central Asia in a strategic way,” he added. “Go after corrupt individuals; curtail some of the globalized, offshore asset holdings by” a close circle of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Swerdlow said Washington should utilize the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations to raise human rights issues in Central Asia and negotiate with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as members of the U.N. Human Rights Council about their obligations.