U.S. Diplomat: Top Priority in Central Asia What They Do For Afghanistan
The "most important" interest for the U.S. in Central Asia is the support of those countries for the war in Afghanistan, a top U.S. diplomat said yesterday. Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, testified before a Congressional committee, and in his written testimony (pdf) highlighted the Afghanistan connection:
The President’s Fiscal 2012 budget request includes a 6% decrease in funding for the region compared to budgeted levels for Central Asia in FY 2010. This decrease reflects our commitment to a lean, strategically targeted budget that will advance our interests in Central Asia. The most important of these is the support of Central Asian states for international efforts in Afghanistan.
Blake highlighted what the various Central Asian countries are doing to help the effort in Afghanistan, including Kazakhstan's scholarships for Afghan students, Uzbekistan's and Turkmenistan's provision of electricity to northern Afghanistan, and of course the Northern Distribution Network and Manas air base.
I suspect that Blake's highlighting of Afghanistan reflects the politics of Congress as much as the reality on the ground in Central Asia. State Department officials have been saying similar things, though perhaps not quite as categorically, for a while. Now, though, the U.S. budget is under heavy scrutiny, and the Republicans who control the House are looking especially at the foreign aid budget. (Dan Burton, the Indiana congressman who chaired the hearing, said as much in his statement (also pdf).) Funding for the military, though, is nearly sacred, so tying Central Asian aid to Afghanistan is smart politics, whether or not it reflects the reality of aid programs there. Kazakhstan's scholarships, for example, have little to do with U.S. aid.
But in the current constrained budget and political situation, we can probably expect the State Department to more clearly orient its aid for Central Asia toward the war effort in Afghanistan. It's worth, then, remembering this, from a story from two years ago:
So closely tying aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the mission in Afghanistan also risks making the United States look like a fair-weather friend, said Sean Roberts, a Central Asia expert at George Washington University. He noted that aid to the post-Soviet Central Asian states spiked immediately after the September 11 attacks, when Washington began its military involvement in Afghanistan, but then declined in subsequent years.
"I fear the same may happen this time. If it does, it will only send a message to the Central Asian states that the United States makes these decisions on the basis of short-term policy objectives, such as the surge in Afghanistan, not on the basis of well-thought out ways to help the region develop over the long term," he said.
That's even more true today.