A recent Sputnik article titled “Washington’s Pivot to Central Asia Aimed at Damaging Russian Interests” is a perfect example of how Moscow’s pet publications twist reality into a simplified narrative that plays into regional fears.
As Casey Michel wrote in April, “the Kremlin’s ability to broadcast its slant – to weaponize information, as the phrase goes – has been well covered over the past year.” And the messaging has largely worked in Central Asia, where suspicion of U.S. motives is high and question of Moscow’s wisdom low. But as attractive as the messaging is, and though it contains some tethers to reality, Sputnik’s narrative draws conclusions that simply aren’t supported by facts.
Without further ado, fact checking Sputnik:
It seems like just yesterday the U.S. practically left Central Asia, closed its bases and ended all missions there. Now, it seems like Washington is back in the game due to political reasons.
The U.S. has been rightfully accused of “leaving” Central Asia. The region still is nearly always mentioned in the same breath as Afghanistan–for logistical, political and economic reasons. While it is true that the U.S. left the Manas Transit Center in 2014 in conjunction with the planned drawdown of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. has hardly “ended all missions” in the region.
On the diplomatic front, the U.S. maintains embassies in all five states that each continue to carry out engagement programs. Part of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent trip to the region included announcing new programs addressing competitiveness and job training, regional trade, climate change, water management, professional and educational exchanges, and cultural preservation.
On the military front, while the U.S. may not have a base in the region, it continues with military-to-military engagement, particularly focused on training. The U.S. National Guard’s State Partnership Program pairs regional militaires with state national guards. In August, for example, members of the Arizona National Guard traveled to Kazakhstan–which is also the site of the annual Steppe Eagle training exercise. In March, members of the Uzbek air force traveled to Mississippi to learn about structuring pilot training programs.
One of the main purposes of US State Secretary John Kerry’s visit to Central Asian countries was to reaffirm that the region is ready to act in accordance with US interests.
The stated motivation of Kerry’s trip was to reassure regional states that the U.S. remains engaged–whether that was accomplished or not is a subject for debate. However, it’s a far cry from reassurance of U.S. interest in Central Asia to reaffirmation that the region “is ready to act in accordance with U.S. interests.” In the former, Washington is communicating to regional capitals that they are not being forgotten. The latter assumes that regional capitals are being asked, and agreeing, to do as Washington wishes.
Central Asian states are more than happy to work with the U.S. in areas of mutual interest–counterterrorism and border security, for example. But other U.S. interests–such as in human rights–are not taken seriously by the region’s leaders. There are solid criticisms of U.S. policy with regard to Central Asia, especially where human rights are concerned, but that’s precisely because the U.S. doesn’t push the issue as strongly as advocates feel it can and should.
Recently, the U.S. experienced a number of foreign policy failures, including in Syria and Afghanistan. The U.S.’ pivot to Central Asia may be the Obama administration’s last chance to make up for its losses in the international arena.
U.S. policies in Syria, as well as Afghanistan, have been sharply criticized, with many calling them both a failure (here, here, and here, for starters). But it’s an absurd claim to say the U.S. views “pivoting” to Central Asia as a viable opportunity to make up for those perceived policy failures.
As far as U.S. interests go, Central Asia ranks fairly low. Certainly irking China with a FONOP and crossing fingers that Myanmar’s impending election goes well are better opportunities for foreign policy successes. The Iran deal was a massive foreign policy success for the Obama administration, as is reopening relations with Cuba after 50 years.
Evidence of a “pivot” is also nonexistent in the article. The U.S. hasn’t markedly increased its involvement or investment in the region. While regional trips by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this year included a handful of cooperation agreements and business deals–tangible evidence of their interests–Kerry’s trip didn’t come with dollar signs.
Some say that Obama’s main goal in Afghanistan is to maintain instability to harm Russia’s interests. From this point of view, there is logic in Obama’s decision.
One of the most popular conspiracy theories in Central Asia is that the U.S. aims to generate instability, prompting a wave of color revolutions. Stretching that theory to cover Afghanistan is a simple leap. The core problem with this theory is there is seldom an explanation of why destabilizing Central Asia, or in this case Afghanistan, serves U.S. interests.
The U.S. has appropriated over $110 billion for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and many billions more on fighting the more than a decade-long war there. The U.S. has not engaged in this mission alone–every member of NATO contributed to ISAF and a number of non-NATO states contributed as well. In fact, one of the highlights of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia has been the war on terror. When the NATO transit route through Pakistan was under threat in 2009 the U.S. and Russia developed the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that carried western troops and supplies from Europe to Afghanistan, via Russia and Central Asia.
If the U.S. aimed to destabilize Afghanistan, surely there are cheaper ways–in terms of blood and treasure–to have gone about it.
Why Bother Fact Checking Propaganda?
Sputnik is as polished and click-baity as Buzzfeed, but despite its teasing titles and listicles, Buzzfeed’s reporters include the basics in their stories: sources. The Sputnik article discussed above includes phrases like “some say” and “according to some journalists and experts” for decidedly questionable claims, but never actually names or quotes any of them. Such stories are decided before they are written–the predetermined narrative drives the conclusion rather than the facts.
It is decidedly easier to shake our heads and retweet that parody Sputnik news account than try to reason with blatantly unreasonable claims. But it’s worth the headache to note every so often that much of this propaganda is disguised as legitimate journalism and is taken seriously by a great number of people, especially in Central Asia.