According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, as of June this year, the war in Afghanistan had cost the United States more than $440 billion and more than 1,500 American servicemen’s lives. And for what? “A decade after the conference in Bonn that created the framework for the current Afghan government, the regime has lost virtually all credibility,” Dreyfuss writes. “Its usefulness is long since gone, and if anything it is an obstacle to progress going forward…For too long the United States has failed to engage in a robust regional diplomatic effort, and it has held fast to the ever more discredited notion that military forces can weaken the Taliban and force it to the table.”
It’s a bleak outlook after a decade of conflict in this most troubled of Central Asia’s “stans.” But as Joshua Kucera notes in his overview of the future of Central Asia, Afghanistan is far from alone in its troubles.
“Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the promise that the five Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – once showed has dimmed significantly,” Kucera opens.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
With so much attention focused on the bloodshed in Afghanistan, it’s perhaps inevitable that international attention and commentary has focused largely on the U.S.-led operation against the Taliban. And when Central Asia has featured, it has frequently been as a pawn in a so-called new Great Game of influence being fought between the United States, Russia and China. Indeed The Diplomat has run such stories itself.
There is, of course, far more to the region than that. Yet while part of Afghanistan’s current plight stems from a weak and ineffectual leader, in Central Asia, presidents rule absolutely, with opposition political parties either toothless or banned.
“Parliaments are rubber stamps, while independent media and civil society groups are small and weak if they are allowed to exist at all,” Kucera writes. “Such an environment means that no institutional means exist for transferring power upon the death or departure of a ruler, with the only options then being backroom dealing by elites to choose a new leader – or violent struggle as outsiders try to seize the reins of power.”
And the upshot of this? Stagnation and corruption. In Uzbekistan, for example, Islam Karimov has ruled the country for two decades with brutal discipline. The result has been a nation that is consistently rated among the worst in the world in terms of political freedom and civil liberties. There’s little to speak of in terms of political opposition or civil society groups, and what Kucera describes as the greatest potential institutional threat to state power – Islam – has been “thoroughly co-opted by the state. Karimov, thus, has left no political space for any challenger or potential heir to his power.”
But Karimov isn’t alone in eliminating potential opposition. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has also led his country since 1990, has managed to do virtually the same. But unlike Karimov, he has done so to a large extent with carrots rather than sticks. Per capita GDP there has climbed to $11,800, placing it on par with Eastern European countries, not Central Asian nations. This in turn has brought with it widespread satisfaction with how Nazarbayev rules. Indeed, in a poll taken by a U.S. body last year, 91 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of Nazarbayev – and less than half thought that democracy was the right form of government for Kazakhstan. These are numbers that any world leader would be delighted with, and which none others manage to achieve. Except, of course, North Korea’s late “Dear Leader.”
In the country’s most recent parliamentary election, Kim Jong-il secured almost 100 percent support in what the election committee claimed was a 99.98 percent turnout. No one believes the numbers, but the real figure is anyone’s guess. There are few places in the world where the international media has to rely on the recollections of a former sushi chef to garner some sort of understanding about the leadership succession. And there are few biographers of a world leader who would admit to me that about the only thing we know about the inner workings of that country’s politics is that we know nothing at all.
All this would be of little consequence, indeed could be seen as mildly amusing, if the country involved wasn’t nuclear-armed. But its Pyongyang’s membership of this exclusive global club that means it’s essential that policymakers at least try to get to grips with North Korea – and where it might head under the youthful Kim Jong-un.