Since 9/11, America’s priority in Central Asia has been to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. But as the United States and NATO pull out, there is a new danger: that the West could become entangled in regional rivalries, local strongman politics and competition with Russia and China.
Central Asian governments have sought for years to manipulate foreign powers’ interest in the region for their own benefit. In the summer of 2005, the United States military was evicted from its facility at Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan after American officials criticized the Uzbek government’s slaughter of hundreds of anti-government demonstrators in Andijon; Russia and China, which have both been expanding their footprints in the region, publicly backed the crackdown.
In 2009 Kyrgyzstan’s kleptocratic president, Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev, drummed up a bidding war between Washington and Moscow over the fate of the Manas air base, the main staging facility for American troops in Afghanistan. Following Mr. Bakiyev’s ouster in an April 2010 revolt, Kyrgyz officials claimed that many of these payments had been laundered through a complex network of offshore bank accounts controlled by the former first family.
As America begins withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Central Asian states are likely to increase their demands for tacit payoffs for cooperation. Currently, the United States pays the Kyrgyz government $60 million a year to lease Manas and funnels hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel contracts to local suppliers and intermediaries.
The United States also pays roughly $500 million annually in transit fees to ship equipment and material via the Northern Distribution Network, a set of road, sea, railway and air routes that traverse the Central Asian states, which was opened to provide an alternative to Pakistani supply routes.
In June, NATO reached agreements with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan for taking equipment out of Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, which effectively controls rail shipments out of northern Afghanistan, has already announced that it will charge up to 150 percent of the distribution network’s prevailing transit rates, and American officials expect to be further squeezed as neighboring states bargain hard during the West’s rush to the exits.
Most controversially of all, NATO and the Central Asian states are still negotiating over the potential transfer of military equipment, used by coalition forces in Afghanistan, to Central Asian governments’ security services, which have a bloody human rights record.
In January, the Obama administration lifted a ban on foreign military sales to Uzbekistan, on national security grounds, to allow for sales of counterterrorism equipment. American officials insist that such future transfers will include only nonlethal items, but the Uzbek government has long sought items like armored personnel carriers, helicopters and drones, which could be used to suppress protests.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan also elevates the risk that the United States, together with other external powers, will be drawn into a number of local disputes and escalating regional rivalries. Over the last decade, Central Asian leaders have consistently invoked the specter of insurgents’ spilling over from Afghanistan to justify their own counterterrorism efforts and the need for security cooperation with Russia, China and the United States. Western withdrawal will encourage local elites to stoke these fears, justifying domestic crackdowns, rendition of political opponents and escalation of border tensions with neighbors.
The Tajik government recently cracked down on local militias in the remote town of Khorog near the Afghan border. Though the government claimed that it captured Afghan-trained fighters in its crackdown, locals view the action as an attempt to take over lucrative smuggling routes along the Afghan border and finally bring the autonomous region under full state control.
Russia seems keen to reinforce this narrative to justify extending its military basing rights throughout the country, which, in all likelihood, Tajik officials will then use as leverage to demand more Western assistance.
Washington’s “new silk route” strategy, an attempt to promote sustainable development in Afghanistan by linking its infrastructure, energy transmission grids and pipelines to Central Asia, may lead to further corruption and enrichment of top officials. Promoting big-ticket projects and labeling them in grand terms has already provoked suspicion in Beijing and Moscow about the West’s long-term regional ambitions.
Moreover, Russia continues to push for the inclusion of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the new Moscow-led customs union, while China continues to build new infrastructure and energy pipelines. Far from promoting increased regional trade and commerce, the Central Asian states now seem to be using external economic initiatives to extract new revenue.
After 11 years of pressing the Afghan government to improve its governance and create democratic institutions, Washington has failed to effectively promote these same goals in neighboring countries. Now withdrawal from Afghanistan risks dragging the West even further into a hotbed of domestic power struggles and regional rivalries.
Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at Barnard College, is the author of “Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.