Central Asia: From Pax Americana to Pox Americana?

By James Durso

The fall of the American client government in Afghanistan has thrust Central Asia onto the front line between the rest of the world and what has been called a “cradle of jihad.”

U.S. engagement with Central Asia has typically been sporadic and transactional, but the fall of Kabul may force Washington to pay sustained attention to the region.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of State published “United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity.” The strategy’s goal was to support local “sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity” which would have been considerably easier without a jihadist regime in Kabul.

The U.S. must continue to engage with Central Asia in the wake of the Afghanistan debacle, but the local interlocutors will be thinking You did this.

The first order of business is to ensure that the upcoming political transitions go smoothly. In October, Uzbekistan will conduct a presidential election and the incumbent, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is expected to win handily. In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon is positioning his son, Rustam, as his successor. Both countries border on Afghanistan and will be buffeted by refugee flows and economic downturns, so the order of the day should be “steady as she goes.”

Next, ensure policy supports local economies which have been buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to the pandemic, Central Asian economies contracted by 2.1% on 2020, what the International Monetary Fund calls a “sizable turnabout after a year of strong growth in 2019 (4.8 percent).”

The U.S. departure will require increased security expenditures by local governments to deal with threats from Afghanistan. If the Taliban increases drug smuggling to raise money, local governments will have to spend more while dealing with the threats posed by organized crime networks that are cooperating with the Islamists in Kabul.

If the Taliban cannot enforce a rough stability  in Afghanistan, Central Asia- South Asia trade won’t fully develop, Central Asia will be reliant on paths controlled or influenced by Moscow and China, and the region will never get reliable access to the large Indian market. Likewise, plans for regional infrastructure improvements will be at risk.

Also at risk are local exports to Afghanistan which, in in 2019, imported over $600 million in vegetables, over $700 million in fuels, and sizeable amounts of chemicals and metals. The economic impact to the region will be across many business sectors, so the near-term prognosis will be reduced export income but increased security expenditures.

The U.S. can strengthen local economies and institutions by targeting its assistance efforts to anti-corruption agencies, tax collection, the judiciary and court administrators, independent regulatory agencies, and the adoption of international standards in finance, banking, and insurance, all of which will ensure the region stays attractive to investors.

Also, the U.S. can help local governments build resilience by providing alternate financing to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, though U.S. opposition to development bank financing for most fossil fuel projects will cede that portfolio to China and Russia.

The U.S. social engineering project is looking tattered after Afghanistan, so it should focus on strengthening local economies and governance institutions, not engaging with “civil society” which is a soft power program to empower the local political opposition until it delivers Washington’s preferred candidate. Economics and those boring ISO standards are less exciting for local diplomats than adopting their local pet activist but that is what pursing the national interest looks like.

An improving economy and effective administration will put more money in local pockets, improve service delivery by governments, raise citizens’ expectations of government performance and accountability and, ultimately, enhance the legitimacy of governing institutions.

Third, the security cooperation will become more complex as the local powers, Russia and China, pursue their interests unconstrained by U.S. concerns. Russia may focus on shoring up its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but the NATO retreat will allow China to open an uncontested path to Iran (and the Persian Gulf) via Afghanistan, nicely complementing the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, which gives Beijing access to the Arabian Sea.

In a message to the region, Russia announced that it and China would work to counter terrorism and drug trafficking from Afghanistan and “preventing spread of instability to neighbouring regions.” That message may resonate with people in Central Asia as regional polls indicate that “Russia enjoys evident dominance in public opinion, China is in a relatively well-regarded second place, and the U.S. comes in decidedly last.” And the prevalence of Russian language media will ensure Moscow’s message gets through.

The U.S. got the first taste of the new order in June when Russian president Vladimir Putin vetoed the presence of U.S. troops in Central Asia, forcing Washington to rely on bases in the Persian Gulf to fly to Afghanistan.

In August, troops from Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan held drills in Tajikistan, and Moscow announced it was “ready to deliver weapons and equipment to Central Asian allies that border Afghanistan” and at “at special low prices.” On the other hand, in July Putin suggested the U.S. and Russia coordinate actions in Afghanistan and he offered the U.S. the use of Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but the U.S. has yet to respond.

However the U.S. and Russia cooperate, Moscow will take the opportunity to integrate all of Central Asia into the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, unless the West can give them a better offer – and not make it sound like a threat. And though   China appears to be eclipsing Russia economically in the region, they will cooperate to create a Central Asian exclusion zone, to the detriment of the U.S. and Europe.

The U.S. recently tried to get Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to accept several thousand Afghan refugees while they underwent security screening. The locals refused, no doubt because they remember it took Washington up to eight years to find new homes for Uighur detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp after they were declared “No longer enemy combatants.”

The Central Asian states will maintain cordial relations with the U.S. but may be reluctant to draw too close to the retreating U.S. as Washington is far, far away and Russia and China (and the Taliban) are local realities.

For example, Tashkent has maintained contact with the Taliban and has been open about it since the August 2018 talks that encouraged an Afghan peace process.

Washington should use the C5+1 mechanism to coordinate a regional response to the Taliban regime that respects local political and economic interests, and to eventually bring Kabul into regional deliberations.

The challenge for the U.S. in what is already being called a “post-American Central Asia” will be to exercise restraint and empathy as it negotiates in a space where it can no longer rely on the old modus operandi, “So let it be written, so let it be done.”

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.