The Bush Administration's strategic approach in Central Asia has come under criticism from regional experts. At a recent conference in Washington, DC, some scholars said the US unilateralist approach was fueling the great power rivalry in Central Asia.
In the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy, adopted in 2002, the United States claimed the right to engage in preemptive action. Such rhetoric raised concerns in Central Asia about US unilateralism. The Bush administration sought to assuage those concerns by stating in its strategic blueprint that Washington would seek to "preserve peace by building good relationships among the great powers."
Some participants at the September 23 conference, sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Kennan Institute, maintained that US moves in Central Asia undermined the National Security Strategy's stated goal of keeping great power rivalries in check. The general perception that the United States has acted solely out of self-interest since the September 11 terrorist tragedy has prompted other regional powers in Central Asia, namely Russia, to take countermeasures, creating an unsettling dynamic.
Perhaps the starkest evidence of the US-Russian rivalry in Central Asia is in Kyrgyzstan, where both Washington and Moscow have established military bases outside Bishkek. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The United States has "made a significant contribution to the intensification of that rivalry," said Mehrdad Haghayeghi, a political scientist at Southwest Missouri State University. "Basically you have Russia on the offensive [in Central Asia] partly because of the US pursuit of unilateralism."
Participants at the conference, "Security Dilemmas in Central Asia: Competition for Influence," focused on the potential consequences of the new great power rivalry. The general consensus was that US actions are driven by a need to support ongoing military operations in Afghanistan. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Nikolai Zlobin, a Russian academic who is the director of Russian and Asian programs at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, contended that while the United States went to Central Asia only to "solve the Afghan problem," Russia has more immediate regional interests that compel Moscow to maintain a long-term presence. Russia has moved to cement its Central Asian position in recent months by promoting multilateral organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The Kremlin is very seriously concerned about its ability to control its entire territory, especially on the southern borders," Zlobin said. "If the United States is leaving Central Asia and it looks like it is leaving Russia will take its place, because it can."
Zlobin said that although Russia's security treaties with Central Asian nations focus on the use of military bases, they are just as much a political statement. "The statement is: America won't be there forever, but Russia will be there forever."
A sweeping analysis article, published September 29 in the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta said the United States and NATO want to expand their influence in Central Asia because of the "worsening situation in Afghanistan."
"Through NATO, the Americans would like in the future to gradually take control of the entire military structure in the majority of CIS countries," the newspaper analysis said. "However, it will require significant investment for this."
The newspaper went on to say it would be easy for Russia to blunt US efforts to expand its strategic influence. To do so, Russia should work to boost arms sales to Central Asian states and expand officer training programs. "The new pragmatic Russia views the arms business not only as a means of making a profit, but also of gaining political influence," the newspaper said. It added that the costs for CIS states in the Caucasus and Central Asia to switch their militaries to NATO standards are most likely prohibitive.
The newspaper article suggested that the United States was perhaps overreaching in Central Asia, and thus long-term Russian security interests in the region were not threatened. "We should not be too fearful," the newspaper said.
At the conference, Haghayeghi expressed particular concern about the near-term impact of US strategic cooperation with Uzbekistan. He argued that the US military presence in Uzbekistan, which both Haghayeghi and Pentagon officials in the audience believed would continue for some time, has emboldened Uzbek President Islam Karimov. "The American strategic partnership with Uzbekistan has led Uzbekistan to pursue its own interests, without concern for others," Haghayeghi said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Peter Sinnott, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, argued that regional governments also share the blame for existing regional instability. He noted that some of the conditions that rendered Afghanistan a failed state now exist in the five Central Asian republics. "The capitals are disconnected from the rural areas. State legitimacy hardly reaches rural areas, especially in Uzbekistan," Sinnott said. "Local militias extract goods from the public without providing security."
Central Asian leaders have exploited the great power jockeying to solidify their own holds on power, and dim hopes for civil society development in the region. Zlobin said President Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan was astute to agree to host both a US and Russian military base. "Akayev is playing both sides, which is great for him," Zlobin said. "With bases from both countries in Kyrgyzstan, who is going to accuse him of human rights abuses?"
Todd Diamond is a Washington-based writer.