The New Great Power Arena

ALEXANDER COOLEY — United States strategy in Central Asia was guided by the Afghanistan conflict. This singular focus may come back to bite American policymakers during the next decade.

In your Foreign Affairs article, “The New Great Game in Central Asia,” you note that “the governments [t]here are strong enough to use the clash” of superpowers “to their advantage.” What factors contributed to these governments’ stability, especially compared to some of their less fortunate neighbors? 

The number one factor that the contemporary Central Asian governments have in their favor is the institution of sovereignty in an age of globalization and growing external rivalry. They have access to international aid flows and investments and use membership within organizations and new regional organizations to bolster their political authority. They differ in their size and resource endowments: on one end of the scale there is Uzbekistan with thirty million people which lies in the heart of Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are both energy rich, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are comparatively poor with only a few million each.  But over the last ten years, all of these countries have developed strategies to leverage the external environment for their own gain,  whereby they practice some variant of multi-vectorism. Each maintains relations with Russia (some more strained than others), with China, with the West (through the European Union and United States) and with “strong second-tiered members” like Turkey, India, or South Korea. The small states also maintain relations with a wide range of international donors and aid providers.

You continue to describe how Central Asian nations have become unfriendly partners, eschewing the West for double standards on issues like human rights and democracy-promotion, while also turning to China and Russia for economic development. Can Central Asian nations be seen as allies, and how might Washington leverage its influence there? 

I would not call these countries “unfriendly partners,” but rather “selective partners.” The Central Asian countries have learned to push back on parts of the western agenda on which they are not so keen, especially the political agenda promoting human rights and democracy. At the same time, they work to keep the parts of these relationships that benefit them, most importantly economic agreements and public support for the regimes.

Also, an “alliance” usually connotes some sort of reciprocal guarantee regarding security issues. None of these countries are US allies in this traditional sense, while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Russian Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the organization in June 2012). Yet they have all pursued some sort of security engagement with the US, which has focused on supporting the US and NATO military effort in Afghanistan. These countries have offered bases like the Karshi-Khanabad facility in Uzbekistan (from which the US was evicted in 2005) and the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan through which almost every US personnel is staged in and out of Afghanistan, as well as overflight rights, refueling arrangements, and since 2008, the opening of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which is a set of logistical routes comprised of road, rail, and air to transport supplies to Afghanistan via Eurasian routes. Logistically this is an extraordinary undertaking; these supplies begin their journey in Baltic ports, traverse rail routes through Russia and Kazakhstan, and finally funnel into Afghanistan through Uzbekistan. These supply networks were set up in 2008 to serve as an alternative to the troubled Pakistani routes.

So this security cooperation is specifically in reference to Afghanistan, and usually not directed to other types of security threats or issues that these countries might be facing.

Since 2008, the United States has paid Central Asian nations, particularly Uzbekistan, nearly $500 million to ship war materiel to Afghanistan. How have these governments received and used this money, that is, what has the United States directly or indirectly “funded” there?  

This is a very interesting question, but difficult to answer adequately. Part of the reason for this is the opaque nature of many of these transactions, as the details of the payments from many contractors and vendors remain classified or guarded. We do know the following: The primary companies used in the NDN are mostly international shippers with established reputations, but these vendors have to use subcontractors for transportation and storage. These subcontractors tend to be state-run companies or private entities otherwise affiliated with elites. So there is a strong suspicion that funds flow to these governments in these arrangements, but the exact details and payment structures remain murky.

There has been a formal US Congressional investigation conducted into the structure of the fuel contracts that support the air base at Manas. This investigation was carried out in 2010 after the toppling of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, following accusations that the US used the fuel contracts to funnel payments to the Bakiyev family. The contracts are worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and most of them were awarded as no-bid awards or extensions to offshore registered companies without substantial histories- Red Star and Mina Corp. What the investigation found was no smoking gun of corruption as yet, but it did find that representatives of Mina had colluded with Russian and Kyrgyz officials to falsify export certificates from refineries in Siberia, saying that the fuel was intended for civilian and not military use. That being said, the investigation did not employ forensic accounting, and the principals involved at Mina were unresponsive to the investigation for a number of months. Thus we still probably don’t have the full story on the fuel contracts, but the fuel procurement process was viewed with great suspicion by members of the Kyrgyz opposition and interim government.

Debates about regional actors with relation to the Afghanistan War often center on Pakistan’s enigmatic role. Yet do countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan play a similar role in shaping the Afghanistan conflict, that is, do the governments in these countries have interests at stake in Afghanistan?

There are different interests, and I would not put them on the same scale as Pakistan’s concerns. The various Central Asian nations’ commitments have varied. The Uzbeks are certainly concerned, and view a potential for a spillover of instability into Uzbekistan. They have also had the most stringent border controls of all the Eurasian nations. But they have been reluctant to engage in international fora aimed to facilitate regional consensus such as the Istanbul conference started last year. Instead, they continue to push for the international community to adopt their preferred dialogue format (the so-called “6 + 3”). The government in Tajikistan talks about the threat that emanates from Afghanistan and receives millions in border assistance from multiple donors. But certain parts of the state in Tajikistan benefit from what is going on in Afghanistan, particularly the narcotics smuggling route that takes Afghan opiates out through Tajik territory. Turkmenistan is an interesting case in that their initial dealings with the Taliban centered on keeping them at an arm’s length, but with recognition and tacit agreements to co-exist. After a real reluctance to publicly join any type of international effort, they recently seem more open to participating in international mechanisms discussing Afghanistan’s future.

How were Turkmenistan’s relations with the Taliban government perceived by Washington in 2001, and then subsequently as US policymakers have dealt with Turkmen leaders? 

Turkmenistan’s exact role post-2001 remains the subject of a great deal of intrigue. What emerges in the Wikileaks cables are attempts by US officials to get Turkmenistan more intensively involved in the NDN and prolonged Turkmen refusal. But there is also acknowledgement that much of the sourcing of Afghan fuel goes through Turkmenistan. There is one cable that recommends to US diplomats not to bring up the subject of fuel in a US principal’s meeting with the Turkmen president so as to not draw unnecessary attention to the matter. Some Russian sources have accused the US of operating an Afghanistan supply base out of the country; but this claim has not been confirmed in any other source. But the cables have confirmed US-Turkmen agreements on refueling on Turkmen soil, fly over rights and  an emergency access agreement to the Mary II airfield.

On the economic front, Turkmenistan has been viewed as a potential contributor to Afghanistan’s post-2014 development strategy. The US is especially supportive of the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, which is an attempt to take Turkmen gas into India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is a very high-level priority in Washington. Turkmen leaders are also very supportive of the project, since it will allow them to hedge their gas market, which at the moment is dependent on China. Afghanis will of course collect transit fees from this pipeline. The problem with that project is that, as of yet, there is no real private sector oil company that has been willing to take the risk of investing in the pipeline. It remains in negotiation, but that is the greatest economic relationship linking Washington, Kabul, and Ashgabat. Turkmenistan’s oil and gas fields remain of interest to western companies, but they are traditionally at a disadvantage to Chinese counterparts.

Afghanistan has posed a regional problem insofar as its instability has spilled into neighboring states. Yet it seems that Central Asian nations have not been faced with the same problems of Islamist extremism and violence that, say, Pakistan must overcome. Is this assessment valid, and what factors led to this difference?

This is a perceptive comparison. Central Asian governments talk a great deal about instability coming in from Afghanistan. They do this in order to both justify their own domestic crackdowns and to secure more assistance from the West, Russia and China. But in reality, there is simply nothing like the same level of externally-induced destabilization as in Pakistan. The recent major flare-ups of political violence in places like Western Kazakhstan in 2011 or in Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan earlier this year have very much been the results of domestic grievances. Although the governments have tried to forge some sort of a connection between this unrest and external forces from Afghanistan (or even Western meddling), they have not brought forth any convincing evidence. But the Afghan narrative is a very convenient frame for the governments and will remain so during the now upcoming period of troop withdrawal.

Your describe the “New Great Game” emerging in Central Asia, and its implications for the actors involved there. Did the US and NATO war in Afghanistan spark this new geopolitical contest, or did it develop independently from it? 

Afghanistan was certainly an important piece of this “great game,” but it is not the only one. The period between 1999 and 2001 witnessed a convergence of interests in Central Asia by the US, Russia, and China. The US part is familiar, the switch from the pre- and post-9/11 world, even though there had been some very limited US-Uzbek cooperation before the campaign in Afghanistan. In Russia, under Vladimir Putin, one of the foremost foreign policy priorities was bringing back the Central Asian states into Russia’s spheres of influence and integrating them under a common security umbrella to defend against the common threat of terrorism. Putin’s first trips into the region in 2000 were to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to bring these reluctant partners into the Russian security orbit. Certainly Russia was interested in reengaging in the region a little before the US arrived. Finally, China turned its attention to Central Asia at about the same time Russia did, in about 1999 and 2000. They worked to conclude border agreements within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and cooperatively crack down on the political activities of Uighur groups within its Western territory of Xinjiang. Also China has steadily and significantly revved up its economic activity in these areas– trade, investment, foreign assistance and pipeline construction– under the assumption developing the Central Asian border areas will help stabilize Xinjiang.

One last point about Afghanistan is crucial. Many people forget this, but Russia was initially quite supportive of the US military presence in Central Asia for the Afghanistan campaign. In 2001, Putin was the first world leader to offer his support to then-US President George W. Bush. He even ignored the contrary advice of his military counsels to allow US military bases to be placed on former Soviet territory in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on a temporary basis. Putin thought that he could mediate relations between the US and Central Asia, thereby enhancing Russia’s great power status on the world stage. Instead what happened, the US started dealing bilaterally with these countries and soon after US-Russian relations started spiraling downwards. By mid-2003, following the Iraq Campaign, Russia perceived the US presence on Eurasia in competitive terms, as a tool for promoting US hegemony in the region. So, there has been a great deal of fluidity within the great game; there have been periods of cooperation and competition throughout.

There has been a tendency in American diplomacy to ignore domestic politics in countries on which the US relies to achieve its broad strategic goals. Has this theme held true in US-Central Asian relations, that is, are US policymakers ignoring dubious regimes in order to further their goals in Afghanistan?

I do not think the US has ignored domestic politics, but rather that Afghanistan has become the dominant priority. US officials would say that there are a number of issues on which they engage with the Central Asian countries. But these states have figured out that when push comes to shove, security cooperation and access issues trump other considerations. The role that these countries have in the Afghanistan campaign has in many ways crowded out other areas of engagement.

On the values-front, what has happened in Central Asia is a steady decline in US soft power. The Central Asian countries accuse the US of promoting double standards on democratization and human rights. This has a good deal to do with the Russian media coverage of US involvement in the region, but also with the Abu Ghraib scandal or the extra-territorial status and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, as well as perceptions that the US is only interested in Central Asia for geostrategic reasons

Russia and China during this period have increased their range and scale of their regional activities. Levels of trade have grown almost exponentially over the last decade, as have scholarships, education, and cultural ties. There is also a common interest in avoiding the more destabilizing aspects of western influence, which they view as being responsible for democratic revolutions in places like Ukraine and Georgia. There has been a clampdown on western-style civil society NGOs, democracy monitors, and organizations allegedly associated with the western values agenda.

Also, the US would like to see all of these countries play a much greater economic role, be true trading partners with Afghanistan. The problem is, economically speaking, that this is one of the most trade-unfriendly regions in the world. Informal barriers to trade in these countries are some of the highest anywhere. This is a very tough neighborhood in which to develop a series of trading partners to promote Afghani development.

As the Afghanistan War’s proposed 2014 end-date approaches, regional and international actors are reassessing their roles in an area that has been defined by war and instability for nearly four decades. How are Central Asian nations reevaluating their position today, particularly as a decade of US- and NATO-led war is ending? 

There are a couple of issues at play. There is an attempt to figure out what the size of the remaining US commitment in Afghanistan will be after 2014. What implications will that have for developments over the last decade, like transit logistics agreements? Central Asian countries, looking for an answer to this and other questions, are facing the fact that the two main future power-players in the region will likely be China and Russia. Balancing relations between these two countries will be an essential part of the Eurasian strategies.  Russia has already shown signs, since this summer, of more aggressively supporting economically and militarily Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and has concluded new basing agreements with each.  China is an interesting wildcard here. It has changed its stance somewhat over the last few years about the US presence. Today there is talk in Beijing about the irresponsibility of the US pulling out prematurely from Afghanistan.

There is ultimately a good deal of uncertainty about what the extent of the American footprint will be in the region, and what that will mean for continued Central Asian cooperation there. There is a perception that the power-balance in the region will be altered, and that no one country will be in charge.


ALEXANDER COOLEY is the Tow Professor and Department Chair of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University.

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