Great Game in Central Asia After Afghanistan

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Great Game in Central Asia After Afghanistan

Could efforts by Russia and America in Central Asia exacerbate tensions and make matters worse?

As the U.S. and coalition forces prepare to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, with all combat forces out by the end of 2014, the governments of Central Asia are bracing for a possible spillover of instability from their south. Ostensibly to help Central Asian countries protect themselves against the Islamist radicals that may gain strength in post-2014 Afghanistan, the U.S. and Russia are both offering military aid programs to the region’s governments. Their rival efforts, though, carry with them possible unintended consequence of exacerbating tensions between Central Asian countries.

Russia has been building up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security bloc made up of ex-Soviet states. The organization has promised to take on a variety of security missions in the ex-Soviet space, from cybersecurity and counternarcotics to preventing “Arab Spring”-type revolutions. But more than anything, Russia has promoted the group as a means of bolstering security in Central Asia as a bulwark against Islamist extremists in Afghanistan who may set their sights on Central Asia.

Last year, under the auspices of the CSTO, Russia offered a massive $1.1 billion military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, and another $200 million in assistance for Tajikistan. The aid to Kyrgyzstan will reportedly include armored vehicles, artillery and portable surface-to-air missiles, while Tajikistan is slated to get air defense upgrades and repairs to their current equipment. In the last six months, Russia also renegotiated leases for military bases it operates in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, solidifying its position in those countries.

Meanwhile, neighboring Uzbekistan has been the America’s key partner among the ex-Soviet states in its Afghanistan campaign. A large percentage of U.S. military cargo going to Afghanistan passes through Uzbekistan, which has acted as a critical strategic hedge against the volatility of relations with Pakistan. In late 2011, after a NATO incursion from Afghanistan into Pakistan killed several Pakistani soldiers, Islamabad closed its border to Afghanistan for Western military transit, and the supply route through Uzbekistan played a crucial role in ensuring uninterrupted shipments of U.S. troops and materials.

Uzbekistan has seized this opportunity to build closer military ties with the U.S. The country’s president, Islam Karimov, has told American officials that he wants to remake his military, replacing its legacy Russian gear with entirely American equipment. In late 2011 the White House loosened restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan that had been in place for nearly a decade due to human rights concerns, and so far the U.S. has agreed to supply Uzbekistan with “non-lethal” military equipment including night-vision goggles, global positioning systems (GPS) gear and small surveillance drones. And as the U.S. draws down in Afghanistan, it has promised to leave some of its gear behind in Central Asia; Karimov reportedly has expressed interest in heavier equipment, like helicopters and mine-resistant armored vehicles.

While military aid to Uzbekistan is controversial in the U.S. because of Uzbekistan’s terrible record of repressing its own people, there are also concerns that aid could upset the balance of power in a region full of mutual mistrust. Uzbekistan is the largest country in the region and during the Soviet era played a leading role in Central Asia. For a variety of reasons, Uzbekistan’s neighbors mistrust them. Kazakhstan sees it as a rival for regional dominance, while smaller Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan fear its bullying. Uzbekistan is virtually the only transportation outlet to the world for remote Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan has wielded that power aggressively, repeatedly cutting off rail traffic to and from Tajikistan when Tajikistan acts in a way that displeases Tashkent.

Uzbekistan also has sharp disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over water. Rivers in the two countries flow downstream into Uzbekistan and irrigate its thirsty cotton fields, but Tajikistan in particular has staked its future on hydropower projects that would interfere with that supply. Uzbekistan has repeatedly said that it would use military force against both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to assure control of the water there. Uzbekistan’s neighbors have expressed alarm over the America’s growing ties with the country, though for the most part privately.

This regional tension has sharpened in recent years, and the added element of superpower rivalry raises the stakes and could possibly bring unpredictable consequences. Karimov has long mistrusted Russia and sees his partnership with the U.S. as a means of gaining superpower backing as he tries to extricate his country from its Soviet-legacy connections to Russia. In the summer of 2012, Uzbekistan formally left the CSTO after years of effectively refusing to participate in its activities.

Russia has looked with alarm at America’s growing closeness with Uzbekistan, and has framed its moves in the region as a response. “Aware of America’s efforts to settle in Uzbekistan, Russia is strengthening and advancing military-technical cooperation with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” wrote Russian newspaper Kommersant in November. “Moscow hopes to prevent the Americans from strengthening their positions in Central Asia,” an unnamed Russian government source told the newspaper. “It was only recently after all that Bishkek and Dushanbe flirted with Washington in the hope to lay hands on the weapons and military hardware withdrawn from Afghanistan. It would have meant American instructors and technicians. American influence with the region would have grown.” Russia has also recently revived interest in establishing some sort of military base in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan, aimed in part at keeping an eye on nearby Uzbekistan.

The concern from Uzbekistan’s neighbors is real, but it is also being stoked by a Russia alarmed by Uzbekistan’s moves to distance itself from Moscow. In particular, Uzbekistan’s exit from the CSTO has Moscow panicked; it is a black eye to the nascent organization and calls into question its ability to carry out a region-wide security policy.

Russia also is motivated by a desire to weaken U.S. influence in the region. Moscow has genuine security interests in Central Asia: it legitimately fears the flow of drugs and Islamist extremism northward from Afghanistan through Central Asia into Russia. But its actions via CSTO have an ulterior motive, as well, in reestablishing the control of Central Asia that Moscow once held – at the expense of Washington’s influence. That mix of motives leads to at times contradictory approaches toward the America’s policy in the region: Russia generally supports the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, allows NATO and U.S. cargo to transit its territory, and agreed to establish a NATO logistics center in the city of Ulyanovsk in support of the mission in Afghanistan. But it opposes the U.S. military presence in Central Asia itself, consistently maneuvering to remove the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, and more recently trying to counter Washington’s growing ties with Tashkent.

Although Uzbekistan is throwing its lot in entirely with the U.S., Washington’s position in the region is more balanced: while its ties with Uzbekistan are strengthening, it still maintains strong security-based relationships with other countries in the region too. In addition to the air base in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. also trains and equips Kyrgyzstani and Tajikistani Special Forces. It has said that not only Uzbekistan will benefit from the leftover equipment from Afghanistan, but Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well.

Nevertheless, the U.S., too, has an ulterior motive in its security assistance. For Washington, its expanded military aid is in part a payment for the Central Asian states’ cooperation in Afghanistan, in particular with regard to allowing military cargo to transit their territories. That has necessarily focused Washington’s attention on Uzbekistan, the key to that transit. But the attention the U.S. has paid to Uzbekistan has alarmed its neighbors, who may feel the need to arm themselves in response, or to seek closer protection from Moscow.

Meanwhile, the threat from Afghanistan is likely not as dire as Central Asian leaders believe. Islamist groups in Afghanistan have shown little interest in moving their operations northward. And, at least in the case of Uzbekistan, the security services have already proven themselves quite capable of dealing with the small Islamist threats the country faces. And while there is genuine concern about what may happen after 2014, the leaders of Central Asia also know that claiming a threat of terrorism is a guaranteed way to get assistance from the international community, and to deflect criticism of repressive governance. It would be sadly ironic if, in the name of countering an illusory threat of Islamist extremism, Russia and the U.S. contributed to a real threat of regional conflict.