What does the next CENTCOM commander think of Central Asia? Not much.
General James Mattis, the nominee to be next commander of U.S. Central Command, testified today at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services committee. Obviously the commander of CENTCOM has a lot on his plate -- Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, the Persian Gulf. But Central Asia is part of his area of operations, too. If his testimony is anything to go by, though, Central Asia is likely to be an afterthought. In a ten-page written statement (PDF), here is the sum total of what he says on our humble part of the world:
[I]n Central Asia, we have opened new and encouraging opportunities for engagement with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan by cooperating to establish the Northern Distribution Network as a supply route to Afghanistan, which will also serve to further future economic integration and stability. Strengthening our relationships greatly aids our cooperation on other issues, such as counterterrorism and counternarcotics. In similar fashion, we are reaching out to Turkmenistan, advancing our partnerships in Central Asia, and doing so transparently to avoid any misunderstanding of our motives.
The end of that first sentence suggests, again, that the notion of the "modern Silk Road" emerging from the Northern Distribution Network continues to gain traction. But otherwise, there's not too much there to sink your teeth into.
The committee also released Mattis's answers (PDF) to questions committee members put to him in writing before the hearing. Among 59 pages, here is what he says on Central Asia, in response to a question about security threats there:
Narcotics, arms trafficking, and smuggling are transnational threats in the region. These threaten legitimate commerce and the flow of strategic resources, damage societies, and often benefit terrorist networks. The proliferation of material for weapons of mass destruction, associated delivery systems and the spread of technical expertise is another concern in the region.
Following through on US commitments to sustaining and securing prosperous and capable governments in this region will contribute immensely to the security of the Central Asian countries, especially those immediately bordering Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and its associated violent extremist organizations are, of course, the highest-priority terrorist threats to the states in the region, as well as to the US and many of our allies around the world. There is considerable concern about the lack of sustainable economic development, which translates into a serious security concern, for without economic opportunity, poor and disenfranchised communities can serve as hotbeds for the spread of violent extremism. The countries of Central Asia offer abundant opportunities for building security and economic partnerships and for pursuing common interests.
Given that Central Asia just found its first al Qaeda member, Mattis is probably overstating the priority that that group holds in the region.Though of course, from a purely military perspective, what other threats could emanate from a poor, landlocked region thousands of miles from the U.S.'s borders? Still, given the outsized role that the Pentagon plays in U.S. foreign policy, this focus on terrorism will be a bit out of step with what is really going on in the region.