U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just wrapped up her first official visit to Tajikistan, part of a trip that also took her to Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya. The Central Asian segment of her tour was aimed at securing these countries’ support for U.S. efforts to establish a benign environment for its troop drawdown in Afghanistan. It was a useful start, but there’s a long way to go.
Part of Clinton’s efforts were aimed at the renewal of the Obama administration’s sometimes lagging attempts to encourage Afghanistan’s neighbors to make a greater effort toward integrating that country into the regional economy, as well as reduce barriers to trade between them.
Tajikistan is perhaps better positioned than most to benefit from such integration. About a quarter of Afghanistan’s population consists of ethnic Tajiks, and the two countries share a 1,330-kilometre border. The two countries are seeking financing and other support to develop road, railroad, communications, and other connections between the two sides of their joint border. Tajikistan also lies between Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean, and would become a natural commercial conduit for the land-based segment of Afghanistan’s maritime trade.
Another objective of Clinton’s visit was to expand the flow of Western military supplies entering Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which involves Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and other former Soviet republics. Although the United States has traditionally relied on delivering most supplies through Pakistan, tensions between Washington and Islamabad threaten to disrupt that distribution network at any time. Pakistani authorities, for their part, have closed the border crossings in the past in response to U.S actions they found objectionable.
The volume of goods flowing through the NDN has steadily increased, and the administration is trying to raise this volume still further. U.S. officials are also seeking permission for the transit to flow in reverse, which will allow the United States and NATO to withdraw their military forces through the former Soviet republics rather than through Pakistan, where they would be more vulnerable to retaliation by the Taliban and its Pakistani allies.
But Clinton also sought to curb a revival of Islamist extremism in Tajikistan, which experienced a vicious sectarian war in the 1990s, by pressing its government to show greater tolerance towards moderate expressions of religion, women’s rights, and other long suppressed freedoms. "We understand completely the concerns by both the Government and citizens here in Tajikistan to avoid the scourge of violent extremism," Clinton said at a news conference. "So we would hope that there would be a re-thinking of any restrictions going forward because we think they can increase sympathy for extremist views, which would in turn threaten the stability and security of the country."
Clinton’s messages to Tajikistan was welcome, but the Obama administration needs to make a more sustained effort to promote regional economic and security integration as U.S. and NATO troops withdraw from the region in order to avoid leaving a terrible mess behind. The crises in the Middle East and North Africa, preceded by last year’s wave of civil strife in Kyrgyzstan, have intensified international concern about Central Asia’s security at a time when the region has become an increasingly important transit route through which NATO supplies reach the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
Central Asian countries allow NATO members to send supplies through their territories, which lie along the NDN, to support their military forces in Afghanistan. This route is an essential complement to the larger flow of supplies to ISAF through Pakistan, which is vulnerable to disruption by Islamist extremists and tensions between the governments of Pakistan and the United States. Kyrgyzstan hosts the Manas transit center, which facilitates troop transport and supports refueling missions for coalition forces in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, which has the most central rail networks in Central Asia, is also deepening its cooperation with NATO following years of tension over the Uzbek government’s repressive human rights policies. The governments of China and Russia, though unenthusiastic about the large Western military forces operating in Central Asia, aren’t currently seeking to displace NATO from the region. Rather, the immediate danger is that the Central Asia’s autocracies are potentially vulnerable to a similar wave of popular upheavals that are sweeping through the Middle East.
Only Kyrgyzstan, the most impoverished of the five Central Asian countries, has now developed a competitive multi-party system, and this weekend’s contested presidential ballot isn’t exactly reassuring to those hoping that democracy will take root in the region. The charges of vote fraud may be false, but the fact that they are being made at all is weakening that country’s potential to serve as a democratic model for its neighbors.
Central Asian political parties are either weak or tools of the regime, depriving voters of an opportunity to use their ballots to make meaningful policy choices. The fact is that they tend to be parties of power or patronage or personalities rather than parties of principle organized around core ideological tenets and concrete programs. All Central Asian countries suffer from pervasive corruption, acute income inequalities, political succession problems, and transnational criminal groups that cooperate more effectively across national borders than the frequently feuding governments of the region. Although other factors make the Arab scenario less plausible in Central Asia, that outcome can’t be excluded.
Unsurprisingly, the war in Afghanistan has inevitably focused Washington’s attention on the security challenges in Central Asia. But the main concern should be the fragile economic foundations that help sustain regional stability as well as improve peoples’ lives.
The World Bank has found that Central Asia, along with Eastern Europe, suffered more from the 2009 global financial crisis than any other world region. Many people lost jobs and other sources of income, while their governments had fewer resources available to buffer their populations from the effects. The Bank’s president, Robert Zoellick, has warned that new problems, namely soaring food prices in Central Asia and declining remittances from Central Asians working outside the region, could lead to further economic hardships as well as political instability in the region. Although Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian countries have resumed their rapid growth, much of the recent progress is simply recovering from earlier losses and correlates with surging world oil and gas prices. These growth rates could easily slow following the next energy price slump or other external shock, such as proposals in Russia to limit employment and remittance opportunities for Central Asian workers in Russia.
Earlier this year, the International Crisis Group highlighted Central Asia’s decaying education, transportation, energy, medical, and other public infrastructure as a long-term constraint on the region’s economic and social development. These countries have yet to fully recover from the disintegration of the integrated Soviet infrastructure networks and need to introduce urgent domestic and region-wide measures in these areas since persistent interdependencies increases the risks of transnational threats. In addition, deteriorating public services contributed to the overthrow of the government of Kyrgyzstan last April and can lead alienated citizens to support Islamist terrorists and other extremists promising revolutionary improvements in living conditions.
Despite recurring efforts, longstanding commercial barriers continue to impede economic cooperation between Central Asian states as well as their integration into global markets. The most important barriers include the countries’ landlocked location and remoteness from major world markets; their small domestic markets due to limited populations; disagreements over resource endowments, especially water and energy; and regional infrastructure problems.
Beijing has, for its part, been making limited progress in developing physical transportation infrastructure connecting China with Central Asia and neighboring regions. The Chinese effort has focused on building railroads and energy pipelines designed to transport Eurasian raw materials into China. But Chinese policy makers have proven unable to achieve major reductions in the non-physical barriers, such as petty bureaucratic regulations and inter-regional feuds. The United States and local governments, meanwhile, also don’t want to replace the region’s traditional economic subordination to Moscow with a new status of being Beijing’s economic satellite.
On top of this, the absence of clear political succession plans in many Eurasian Asian countries remains of concern to potential foreign investors. The best way for Central Asian countries to avoid the fate of several of the Middle East’s authoritarian leaders is to develop their country’s political institutions through greater pluralism and civil liberties, which makes it easier for governments to identify and respond to their citizens’ needs. And citizens who can help shape their country’s public policies through elections and other legal political activities are less likely to resort to extra-constitutional actions.
Security considerations also hinder Central Asians’ economic integration and development. These governments will resist further opening their borders to foreign investors, traders, and tourists unless they accept becoming at least partly economically dependent on them. Reducing border barriers to increased economic activity simultaneously weakens front-line defenses to transnational threats such as narcotics trafficking, terrorism, and diseases. Greater foreign economic ties also expose leaders to criticism when the loss of domestic jobs is blamed on cheap foreign imports, or if foreign investors are perceived as exploiting the national wealth to enrich foreigners.
Yet, the relationship between national security and economic integration is synergistic. The economic benefits of regional and global integration would improve living standards and reduce other economic causes of political instability and violence. And improved security would decrease inter-regional tensions and promote deeper economic integration, making these countries more attractive to foreign investors and enhance their collective leverage with external actors.
Central Asian countries need advanced technologies to exploit some of their most promising oil and natural gas reserves, which are located in challenging geophysical conditions. Thanks to massive Western investment, the International Energy Agency forecasts that Kazakhstan’s annual oil production will reach approximately 140 million tons by 2020, 190 million tons by 2025, and slightly less than 200 million tons by 2030. If this oil flows westward to Europe, it will go far toward reassuring Western energy security concerns.
Conversely, foreign donors should exercise greater oversight and conditionality in their regional aid flows as well as ensure that these support programs are better integrated than in the past. Although China’s increased assistance to Central Asian countries is welcome in many respects, the aid frequently supports Beijing’s priorities while offering insufficient guarantees against corruption and misappropriation. Too often, the region’s leaders will use Chinese help as a means to evade implementing necessary domestic reforms.
The Obama administration needs to make greater progress in promoting economic integration within Central Asia and between these countries and the rest of Eurasia, especially Afghanistan. The NDN has been improving transnational commerce through the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan for military goods, but it should be expanded in three ways: by volume, geography (to encompass more countries), and function (to include more non-military supplies).
It would also be helpful to accelerate plans to initiate concrete projects under the U.S.-Central Asia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). For example, China’s curtailing the export of rare earth metals creates new opportunities for Central Asian suppliers of these key components of many modern high-technology products. The TIFA process is valuable because of its multilateral basis and economic focus. It has promoted the sovereignty and independence of Central Asian countries by supporting regional cooperation in such sectors as electricity, transportation, aviation, telecommunications and trade. The New Silk Road concept is helpful as a vision but needs to be enhanced by U.S. support for concrete economic integration projects.
At the same time, the United States should avoid relying so heavily on the Annual Bilateral Consultations the Obama administration has launched with each of the five countries as they detract from collective U.S. engagement efforts with all the Central Asian states. Multinational cooperation will normally be needed to achieve the full benefits of any bilateral projects, and will ultimately better serve those looking for stability and security not just in Afghanistan, but the whole of Central Asia.