OPINION | U.S. Policy in Central Asia
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OPINION | U.S. Policy in Central Asia

By Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland

US policy immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of 16 new independent states was colored by a bit of irrational exuberance that assumed that the peoples of the former Soviet Union were naturally yearning to breathe free and, with the appropriate assistance, would quickly become free-market democrats. 

OPINION | U.S. Policy in Central Asia

Using the authorities of the FREEDOM Support Act of 1992 — in which “FREEDOM” is one of those quirky Congressional acronyms that stands for “Freedom for Russia and Emerging Eurasian Democracies and Open Markets” — Washington dedicated considerable resources to support the former Soviet states as they transitioned — over a relatively short time, as at least the ideologues expected — from communism and central planning to the Western ideals of democracy and free markets. As time has shown, it did not turn out to be as simple as transitioning from one ideology to another.

Of course, there were other reasons to pay attention to the new Central Asian states. Perhaps most important is Kazakhstan’s historic commitment to nuclear nonproliferation. And the region is awash in natural resources. Turkmenistan has the fourth-largest natural-gas reserves in the world. Kazakhstan has the second-largest oil reserves of the former Soviet Union, second only to Russia, and in the early years of its independence, US and European international oil companies made major investments there, which continue to this day. Uzbekistan is a major producer of uranium, as is Kazakhstan, and has large natural-gas reserves, as does, quite likely, Tajikistan. Both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan hold significant gold deposits. And Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have world-class hydropower potential, as demonstrated by the current CASA-1000 project to deliver their summer-excess hydroelectricity across Afghanistan to electricity-starved Pakistan.

The economies of Central Asia are more than the sum of their natural resources and energy-generating potential. Kazakhstan’s early commitment to macro-economic reform has made it, 20 years later, a financial-services hub for the region. Uzbekistan’s educated population of 30 million has a real potential to provide entrepreneurial and innovative economic growth. Kyrgyzstan, from the beginning, made a fundamental commitment to democratic structures of government and is an ongoing test case for democracy in Central Asia. And Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s stunning natural beauty could well attract throngs of tourists from Boise to Beijing, powering a thriving tourism sector, as could Uzbekistan’s great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

To focus a bit more tightly, US core policy interests in Central Asia are to support independent, sovereign states that uphold regional security, increase their economic integration with regional and global markets, and demonstrate respect for human rights and democratic governance, while not becoming sources of transnational threats to the United States or to any other nation. To implement these policy goals, Washington has four critical areas of cooperation and concentration in Central Asia: security cooperation, economic ties, promotion of human rights and good governance, and efforts to bolster each country’s sovereignty and independence.

Over time, Washington has learned to take each country as it is. The early days of talking about “the ’stans” is long past. Policy makers in Washington recognize that the countries of Central Asia have differentiated their own paths and sometimes jostle each other along the way. The interests of one sometimes conflict with the interests of another: Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have mostly been at loggerheads since the Tajikistan civil war of the mid-1990s. Upstream and downstream countries are still working to sort out what they see as nearly existential water rights.6 At the beginning of independence, borders were ill defined, especially with the unusual system of enclaves and exclaves in the sensitive Ferghana Valley, which the Soviets carved up among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in a classic “divide and conquer” cartographic and ethnographic exercise in the 1920s and 1930s. Independence also meant that supply chains for essentials such as food and electricity were suddenly split among separate sovereign entities that had no desire to cooperate, at least at first. Nevertheless, the passage of time and a healthy dose of strategic patience suggest that regional cooperation in Central Asia might possibly be more than a schematic and idealistic gleam in Western eyes. During the most recent UN General Assembly in New York City, US Secretary of State John Kerry met in a collective setting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states — an historic first — in a format called the “C5+1.” To the surprise of many, and without any sharp elbows, the five foreign ministers discussed with Kerry potentials for regional cooperation and wider responsibilities, including countering violent extremism in responsible ways.

The implementation of US policy in Central Asia, as in other parts of the world, is not always readily visible and is almost never front-page news. Moreover, it is based on a long-term commitment. Attention, Central Asian leaders:

No, the United States is not going to cut and run after Afghanistan! It has often been said before to them but it bears repeating.

Russia is still the primary security partner for the Central Asian states. But where it is welcome, the United States works with Central Asian militaries and other security structures, especially the border guards, to modernize militaries and to ensure that border guards are increasingly capable of preventing the flow across borders of contraband, including narcotics and the components of weapons of mass destruction, while facilitating the passage of legitimate travelers and enhancing trade and commerce. In Kazakhstan, especially, Washington has been working with its Kazakhstani partners to build a battalion that can serve with United Nations peace keepers, further embedding that country in the family of responsible and outward-looking world nations.

To implement its broadest policy goals in Central Asia, Washington focuses its assistance, as it does elsewhere in the world, on improving and modernizing health care and education and on alleviating the worst forms of poverty. Further, Washington supports human-rights organizations, rule-of-law reforms, civil society and the mass media, including, increasingly, social media. Through a variety of long-running and well-established educational and cultural exchange programs, US foreign policy also directly supports the people of Central Asia. Note to Moscow: this kind of “soft diplomacy” does not aim to foment color revolutions or covertly support political opposition, as the autocrats/kleptocrats fear; rather, it is to support the people of Central Asia in creating better lives for their children and grandchildren, a universal pursuit.

In sum, the goal of US assistance in Central Asia is to expand understanding of Washington’s policies, values and principles — which are congruent with the Western Renaissance, consonant with the Islamic Renaissance and largely in the humanist tradition of individual responsibility and toleration. Is this too soft to matter? Time will tell. But it is interesting to note that over the last 23 years, more than 24,000 citizens of Central Asia have visited the United States on exchange programs funded by the State Department. Many have gone on to become high-ranking government officials, effective and creative community leaders, and successful business pioneers, including female entrepreneurs. That matters.

About The Author:

Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland was US principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs from October 2013 to August 2015. Before returning to Washington, DC, in September 2013, Richard spent a decade in South and Central Asia. He was US deputy ambassador to Pakistan (2011–2013), US ambassador to Kazakhstan (2008–2011) and US ambassador to Tajikistan (2003–2006). He also served as US charge d’affaires to Turkmenistan (2007–2008). Prior to his diplomatic assignments in Central Asia, he was director of the Office of Caucasus and Central Asian Affairs in the Bureau of Europe and Eurasian Affairs, Department of State (2001–2003). In that position, he wrote and negotiated four of the key bilateral documents defining the Central Asian states’ enhanced relationship with the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. His earlier foreign assignments included Russia where he was press spokesman for the US embassy (1995–1998). During the course of his career, he has received multiple presidential performance awards, as well as State Department Meritorious and Superior Honor Awards and its Distinguished Honor Award.

Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Richard completed his graduate degrees at the University of Virginia and earned a certificate in French from the University of Grenoble, France. Before joining the Foreign Service in 1985, he taught English as a foreign language in the then Zaire (1974–1976) and African literature at the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies.

This work is an extract from a report titled - 
"CIGI PAPERS NO. 87 — JANUARY 2016 Central Asia Not In Our Backyard, Not a Hot Spot, Strategically Important" published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation 

Download the Paper - LINK