By Sylvia T Villalobos
Central Asia is a crucially important region to the United States for numerous strategic objectives. Although the region’s importance to the United States increased dramatically after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, U.S. interest in the region was certainly not a new phenomenon. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States sought to help the newly independent countries of Central Asia develop both politically and economically. The United States also had important security interests in the region, though U.S. focus at the time centered on the removal of Soviet-era nuclear stockpiles in Kazakhstan rather than the threat of terrorism and militant Islam. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Central Asia became a major focus for the United States as it began its initial offensives in the Global War on Terror to unseat the Taliban in Afghanistan. It quickly (and relatively easily) established military bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in order to more efficiently conduct its military campaign in Afghanistan. Yet recent developments in the region have exhibited concerns about a diminishing role for the United States in Central Asia.
Over the last five years, U. S. influence in Central Asia seems to have significantly waned. Decreasing U.S. influence has been accompanied by a concomitant increase in Russian, Chinese, and, to some extent, Iranian influence in the region. For example, Uzbek President Islam Karimov ejected the United States from the airbase at Karshi-Khanabad in July 2005 following harsh criticism of the Uzbek response to the violent uprising in Andijon in May 2005. More recently, Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev declared that he would close the U.S. airbase at Manas, outside of Bishkek after receiving a pledge of financial support of over $2 billion from Russia. U.S. attempts to persuade Central Asian countries to reorient their export routes for oil and gas away from Russia have been frequently thwarted. China and Russia have both sought stronger bilateral relations with Central Asian countries, and have also asserted themselves through an expanded role for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).For the first time in its history, the August 2007 SCO summit in Bishkek was accompanied by joint military exercises by all six members in China and Russia, ostensibly to demonstrate the growing capabilities of the organization. Iran also participated in the summit as an observer member, a fact that continues to annoy the United States.The recent ouster of Kyrgyzstan President Bakiyev and the uncertainty of a pure democratic transition of governance aggravates US decline of influence.
While some have described the competition for influence in the region a “new great game,” others claim that such a
picture is overstated and ill-suited given the independence of the Central Asian states. It is clear, however, that the United States, Russia, and China all have interests in the region – in some cases their interests are “conflictual”, but in other areas they share mutual interests. It is vital, therefore, for the United States to clearly define its interests and recognize whether those interests conflict or complement Russian and Chinese interests. In cases of mutual interest with Russia and China, it should search ways to cooperate. Cooperation in Central Asia, however, will of course be seriously impacted by the broader U.S.-Russia and Sino-U.S. relationships. Regardless of whether its interests conflict or coincide with other major players in the region, it is imperative that the United States understand the interests and challenges of the Central Asian countries themselves. Without such an understanding, the United States risks pursuing policies that differ from the goals of Central Asian countries, making it difficult if not impossible to achieve U.S. interests in the region. However, the United States cannot disregard its commitment to the values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in seeking to appease the interests of Central Asia’s authoritarian and often less than democratic leaders while pursuing its short-term interests. The challenge for the United States is to properly balance an understanding of the history and culture of the region and its individual countries without compromising its basic values. Far too often in the last several years the United States has not achieved the proper balance. A unsighted ideological attachment to values without an appreciation for the cultural and historical heritage of the region, together with a lack of a long term vision, are the factors for a failure to get the balance correct.
U.S. Interests in Central Asia
In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States was quick to recognize the independence of the new Central Asian states. It was the first to establish diplomatic ties with each of the Central Asian countries, and U.S. interests could be broadly grouped into three categories – political and economic reform, security, and energy.
In the area of political and economic reform, the United States focused on democratization and movement towards free market economies. To this end, the United States passed the Freedom Support Act on October 24th, 1992. Although its focus was on democratization efforts and establishing free markets, it also addressed security and humanitarian issues. The need to ensure the safekeeping of fissile material was the most pressing security concern of the United States in the early and mid-1990s. In December, 1993, Kazakhstan and the United States signed a cooperative threat reduction (CTR) agreement to remove former Soviet nuclear weapons. The region?s vast natural resource potential was certainly of great interest to the United States, as it was for most other large, energy-importing countries. However, rather than concerning itself with Central Asian deposits of oil and natural gas for immediate consumption, U. S. policies prior to September 11th focused primarily on ensuring a diversity of long-term Western energy reserves.
In the years prior to 9/11, U.S. interests still revolved around the three broad themes of political and economic reform, security, and energy. The primary U.S. security interest in the region during the mid-1990s remained the security of nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry from the former Soviet Union. The intent was that by slowly building civil society and democratic governance in Central Asia and by assisting them to develop their energy sector, the root causes of extremism could be eliminated before they ever developed.
By the late 1990s, the United States began to grow wary of Russia?s interests and intentions in the region. Not surprisingly, the United States began to promote the idea of alternative pipelines for the export of Central Asian gas and oil other than the existing ones that all transited through Russian territory. The U.S. government was not willing, however, to provide any funding for the construction of new pipelines. Instead, it limited itself to pressuring Western oil companies and local Central Asian governments to build the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 quickly changed the prioritization of U.S. interests in Central Asia. The U.S. significantly expanded its security role in the region by securing bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as it prepared for offensive military action in Afghanistan. Short-term security interests took precedence over all other U.S. goals in the region, to include the previous focus on building civil society. At that time, the United States and Central Asia – particularly Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – had mutual interests in the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Indeed, the leaders of all three of these countries had long been concerned about the Taliban – far longer, certainly, than had the United States. Even after the toppling of the Taliban, stopping the threat of terrorism remained the top priority for the United States in Central Asia. Thus, while there has been relative continuity in the broader interests that the United States has in the region, their prioritization has shifted since the opening of the war on terror.
United States interests in Central Asia today remain focused around the three broad categories of security, political and economic reform, and energy access. In the area of security, the focus is to counter the threat of terrorism and Islamic extremism emanating from the region. Political and economic reform focuses on movement towards liberal democracy and free market reforms. Energy access is important to the United States, both to secure additional sources of energy for itself and the West, but also to ensure the independence and sovereignty of the Central Asian states. Security, political and economic reform, and energy access are all equally important – one should not be the primary driver of U.S. foreign policy at the expense of the others. Central Asia today is a strategically important region for the United States? Global War on Terror both because of its proximity to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran and because of the potential for militant Islam to originate from the region itself. The combination of increasing instability in Pakistan and President Obama’s plan to substantially increase troop levels in Afghanistan renders Central Asia even more critical for logistical support. More broadly, the United States can project power from Central Asia into the Middle East, Horn of Africa, Persian Gulf, and if ever it needed to, the Asian mainland. Therefore, continued access to bases in Central Asia will remain a vital interest to the United States for the foreseeable future. For the same reasons, Russia and China will continue to oppose any continuing American presence in Central Asia. Base access in Central Asia does not mean the large, permanent complexes that characterized U.S. bases in Europe during the Cold War. In fact, such a presence would be counter-productive to the achievement of long-term U.S. interests in the region.
US,RUSSIA,CHINA Mutual Interests
Despite the frequent acrimonious rhetoric between Russia, China, and the United States, their interests in Central Asia need not be zero-sum. All three countries, along with the region itself, have an interest in defeating the terrorist threat from Islamic extremists, countering illegal drug and human trafficking, and addressing illegal arms trading. Additionally, all have an interest in economic development in the region. However, coordinating the efforts of all three to effect positive change still faces significant obstacles. Most significantly, China, Russia, and the United States are all concerned about their relative position vis-à-vis the other two. Moreover, any coordinated effort by the three external powers might be perceived by the Central Asian countries as a challenge to their own independence and sovereignty.
The United States, Russia, and China all stand to benefit from economic development in the region, as does Central Asia itself. Both Russia and China both trade heavily with Central Asia. In 1992, trade between China and Central Asia (Turkmenistan not included) was $500 million. A decade later, it had quadrupled to $2.3 billion, and doubled again only two years later, reaching $5 billion in 2004. Despite the increased trade between China and Central Asia, Russia remains Central Asia?s leading trade partner. Reopening the ancient Silk Road trade routes through Central Asia will expedite regional economic expansion, primarily in Afghanistan.
The period between September 11, 2001 and the summer of 2003 manifest the height of U.S. presence in Central Asia. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States saw a remarkable increase in its influence in the region. To some extent ironic, as Central Asia was in a position of negotiating strength given the U.S. need for base access and airspace over-flight rights. Central Asia did perceive it as a chance to secure increased U.S. economic and military assistance, but it did not want to impose its position. Moreover, Central Asia welcomed the U.S. effort to overthrow the Taliban because majority of the states in the region considered a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan a threat to their own security. With the Taliban strong foothold in Afghanistan, Central Asian leaders feared the threats of terrorism, drug trafficking, and international crime that originated from it. The entire of the countries of Central Asia were therefore swift to grant the United States basing access and over-flight rights, of the U.S. and allied forces.
Moreover the initial support provided by Uzbekistan?s offer of the Karshi-Khanabad airbase, Kyrgyzstan provided U.S. forces the use of the Manas airport. Perchance less significantly known, additional cooperation included the use of the airport in Dushanbe, Tajikistan for refuelling, as well as over-flight rights and other support provided by Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Yet more remarkably were the pledges by Central Asian leaders to initiate steps towards political and economic reform. In March of 2002, the United States and Uzbekistan signed the “United States-Uzbekistan Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework.” This was a notable achievement for two reasons – first, it amounted to a security agreement by the United States to a country of the former Soviet Union.
However evidence of declining U.S. influence in Central Asia in the last several years is apparent. The most obvious example was the ejection of U.S. forces from the Karshi-Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan in 2005 following harsh U.S. criticism of Uzbek authorities? handling of the events in “Andijan” in May of that year. Kyrgyzstan still plays host to US-NATO troops to this day. Although it looked in 2005 like Kyrgyzstan would follow Uzbekistan’s lead in expelling the Westerners, the Kyrgyz allowed them to stay after renegotiating the rent for US-NATO use of an air base. To shut the American air base outside of Bishkek will become the most recent strategic setback for the United States in the region. Both of these setbacks were due in part to Russian and Chinese efforts to weaken U.S. influence in the region. Prior to the decision to close the airbase at Manas, Kyrgyz officials had been demanding increasing payments from the United States. It is suspicious that Kyrgyz President Bakiyev would have been emboldened to demand such large increases in the lease payments from the United States without the support of Moscow. similarly, it is no accident that President Bakiyev was in Moscow and had received a guarantee by Russia of over $200 billion in financial aid at the time of the decision to close the American base at Manas.
There are three principal reasons for declining U.S. influence in Central Asia – firstly, United States policies within the region; secondly, actions by Russia and China to reduce or minimize American influence in the region; and thirdly, broader U.S. foreign policy actions., such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Even in its bilateral relations with the countries of Central Asia, the United States Within the region, U.S. influence suffers from a lack of a coherent, holistic approach. Fraction of this stems from structural flaws within the U.S. government. Due to lack of transparency on which department is in charge in formulating U.S. policy, the United States tends to support bilateral relations with each Central Asian government rather than negotiating with regional organizations habitually has foreign policy objectives that are ambiguous, such as promoting democracy and human rights while at the same time admonishing the fight against terrorism and extremism.
Since being kicked out of Uzbekistan in 2005, it is not surprising that the United States has had limited influence with Uzbek President Karimov. With its pending eviction from Manas, the U.S. position in Kyrgyzstan has clearly deteriorated as well. Declining U.S. influence in Kyrgyzstan is the product of the American-led invasion of Iraq, the apparent U.S. disregard for its relationship with Uzbekistan, and the increasingly destructive economic policies pursued by China and Russia. A general decline in popular Central Asian perceptions of the West, but the shift against the West has largely been directed toward the United States. Case in point, in February of 2007 Kyrgyzstan ended its participation in the ‘Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative’ (HIPC)
Countries that participate in this program concur to execute reforms in exchange for debt relief. Kyrgyzstanis withdrew their support because they perceived the program as a loss of sovereignty, but generally because they perceive that international financial institutions as being manipulated and abused by the United States. U.S. extensive campaign on democratization and its overt links between political reform and economic aid have also alienated many Central Asian leaders. Further eroding U.S. influence in the region are the implicit and explicit efforts on the part of other external powers, notably Russia and China, to weaken it. Even though Russia and China did not contested the American penetration of Central Asia in the aftermath of 9/11, earlier on, they have actively sought to reduce both the American physical existence and U.S. influence in the region. Both China and Russia try to leverage the SCO as a way of countering U.S. influence in the region. Iran, lately acquired observer status in the SCO, never misses any opportunity in this meeting to bash the policies of the United States. Considered as the most noticeable attempts by Russia and China to undermine the U.S. position in Central Asia occurred at the SCO summit in 2005, when Central Asian leaders called for a timetable for withdrawal of the “temporary” U.S. forces from the region. Eventually they succeeded, given the pending ejection of U.S. forces from the Manas airbase. Recent energy deals between both China and Russia and the leaders of Central Asia further revealed the declining U.S. position in the region.
Russia continues to assert its influence in the oil and gas sectors in Central Asia. In May of 2007, Russia sealed an agreement with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to upgrade the Prikaspiiski natural gas pipeline that travels around the Caspian Sea. Providing Russia, a near monopoly on Turkmenistan’s gas exports. More so, Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan agreed to restore two other natural gas pipelines. Considerably, Russia stands to double its imports of Central Asian gas to nearly 90 billion cubic meters. Both of these deals are setbacks to U.S. hopes to build a trans-Caspian pipeline that would thwart Russian territory.
Russia also secured an agreement with Kazakhstan to expand the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) route, and convinced Kazakhstan to supply up to seventeen million tons of oil per year through a Russian-controlled pipeline running between Bulgaria and Greece. These “triumphs” not only provide Russia with significant control over Central Asia, they also provide it with increased leverage over Europe and former Soviet republics. Foremost factor presently hampering the United States capability to achieve its foreign policy objectives in Central Asia is the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, given that all of the countries in Central Asia have Muslim majorities. Anti American sentiment basically did not exist before these wars. On the contrary, there was immense empathy for America…..but the outcome of these events such sympathy dissipated among the populace, specifically religious people.” Presently, it is evident among everyday Kyrgyz that wars against Muslim countries greatly manipulate their opinion towards United States. Majority in Central Asia were silent over the U.S. campaign to eradicate the Taliban in Afghanistan, fearing their own security interests were at stake and because they alleged the action as legitimate. The later events proved the fallacy of 9/11 and true hidden objectives of the US were exposed that turned the sentiments against them. However, it is often perceived not only in Central Asia but in countries like Pakistan, Iran and other Muslim countries in the region as a massive American campaign to eradicate Islam. If America can pull out its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan with no loss of time, it would help the US to redeem some of her lost respect in the Muslim World.
Sylvia T Villalobos is from Philippines, she is a free lance researcher. This paper has been written for Opinion Maker in
view of the recent developments in the region and Central Asia.