Crossroads Asia

A New Day for US-Central Asia Relations?

Washington needs to clarify how new C5+1 projects either build on or differ from previous endeavors.

A New Day for US-Central Asia Relations?
Credit: Public Domain

During the second meeting of the C5+1 (the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan plus the United States) a handful of projects were announced. While the projects point to real problems and real areas for potential cooperation, they also don’t present much new or different, and Washington’s pledge of $15 million for the effort is a drop in the bucket compared to Chinese funds directed toward revitalize the Silk Road region.

The five projects agreed to by the six ministers focus on counterterrorism, business, transportation, energy, and climate change. The projects have much in common with previous initiatives. Though the words “New Silk Road” are absent, the projects focused on business, energy and transportation, in particular, line up with that initiative.

There is ample room for criticism: Washington’s record in Central Asia is marred by flimsy statements and failed democratization initiatives. In the past 15 years, a significant portion of U.S. relations with Central Asian states was invariably tied to Afghanistan. Further, the Central Asian states do not seem tremendously interested in working with each other, making efforts to force them to somewhat misguided. Washington needs to clarify how these projects either build on or differ from previous endeavors.

To give the optimists a chance: the C5+1 and its projects, at the very least, outline the areas the group can agree on and set out ways Washington is willing (and able) to help. The United States–with limited regional interests–cannot aim to replace Russia or China (despite the conspiracy theories). But it can offer a significant base of knowledge and technical expertise.

Quite often, talk of terrorism in Central Asia is hyperbolic: governments often paint opposition, criminals, and terrorists with the same set of labels as “extremists” and treat them accordingly. Like the boy crying wolf, this makes it difficult to discern when the wolves are actually approaching the herd. One of the projects may help add some depth to the way regional governments think about counterterrorism.

The Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) Regional Dialogue, the U.S. State Department says, “will seek to counter the challenges of foreign terrorist fighters and radicalization to violence in Central Asia.” Beyond that boilerplate, State says, “The dialogue will also work to implement The Hague–Marrakech Memorandum on Good Practices for a More Effective Response to the Foreign Terrorist Fighter Phenomenon.” The Hague-Marrakech memorandum, despite such a bureaucratic title, encompasses a series of good practice recommendations which are, in many ways, a stark contrast to what Central Asian governments presently pursue. For example, one “good practice” in the memorandum is investing in the “long-term cultivation of trusted relationships with communities susceptible to recruitment.” Another recommends preventing the association of violent extremism with “any religion, culture, ethnic group, nationality, or race.” Many of the recommendations focus on information sharing.

There’s a real divide between statements and reality, but it’s worth noting the value of the direction Washington seems to be trying to take. Capacity building–whether in business operations, strategic energy planning or renewable energy–is an unsexy and somewhat amorphous term, but few can argue against the region benefiting from American expertise. This is perhaps the pitch Washington is trying to make: China can provide funds, but the United States can provide knowledge.

Then again, money talks.