Maria Merkulova's Blog

Issues of United States strategy in Central Asia

February 12, 2013

The concept of Central Asia being a geographical pivot of history was first introduced to public in 1904 by sir Halford John Mackinder. Nowadays geopolitical schemes are still based on the “geographical” part of that idea.


We can argue a lot about the “pivotal” part of Mackinder’s concept, but the “geographical” part is too strong to overthrow – Central Asia is, indeed, in the center of habitable land of the Old World.  This exceptional location made Central Asia a place for what is now called a “New Great Game”, in which US, UK and NATO are playing against Russia, China (and SCO) for influence and profits.


If we look closer to the game which is being played we can find that there are in fact only two ways to use CA states to get profits  - as a transit territory and as a minerals source. The latter is true only for Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, for they have what to sell, but the former is more important. One can find evidence for transit using of CA countries - new pipelines, roads and railways are build by mostly China, for it needs to find a way to get energy resources in more secure way than by sea and cheaper than through Russian railroads. US is helping dozens of projects, its help goes through different initiatives  for economic, infrastructural and political developments defined by mindset of “New Silk Road”. Meanwhile Russia is coping with new outbursts of CA governments, bargaining about military bases rent and amounts of aid, trying to preserve its influence in the region. We will examine Russia’s and China’s strategies in following articles, focusing on US strategy in this one.


The main question about “New Silk Road” and CA countries is “what is the role of CA countries in this strategy?”. It may sound strange, but knowing that among all countries of the region US cares mostly for Afghanistan it’s a reasonable one.


Main goal of “New Silk Road” initiative is making Afghanistan secure and stable, transforming it to an international hub. From the historical perspective it’s a reference to Silk Road times, when transit hubs of the caravan paths were rich and prospered. This derives from the idea, that economic prosperity makes a state more stable and liberal - the same idea, on which the SCO was founded. The logic behind that is simple - if you make people less poor, they will be less radical so they won’t destabilize the state. As we can see, SCO changed the main paradigm from purely economical to more militarized one, having rated security issues higher than economical. As for the US strategy in the Central Asia which was militarized from the beginning, it faces more complex problem of how to deal with the region without military forces. This brings us to the special glasses through which US observe the regional dynamics.


First one is that Washington sees CA as Afghanistan, Pakistan and other “-stans”. It’s basically a division on important countries and less important ones, it is also dating back to the old “Great game” in which Afghanistan was in United Kingdom’s area of interest, and other CA countries were under Russian protectorate. This division remained in the “New Great Game” - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan still are under strong Russian influence and too corrupt “weak states” to deal to. Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and cutting Pakistanis programs should mean that “-stans” may become the outpost for ideas- and drug-trafficking. Thus if US wants the region to be secure - it should pay more attention to other CA countries and help them to fight with security threats. And it does: US military were visiting Uzbekistan in the summer of 2012 discussing something secret. Only the thing is that US doesn’t have money for being the world’s hegemon any more, which means, that subsidizing Afghanistan after 2014 is a question that should be resolved soon. And in this particular case it’s not only the money  but also the Afghanistan inner dynamics - US not only has to have this subsidies but also has to be able to deliver them. Now, if the Afghanistan is prior to other subsidizing projects, who is going to get this money: Afghanistan or other CA countries?


Second, no matter how many times it is said by political analysts that Central Asia can only be called a “region” not treated like one, CA is still considered to be a proper region, that’s why the approach to it is regional. Returning to the first point - if some CA country wants to get American help after 2014 it should demonstrate its difference from others, to “stand out from the region”. Kazakhstan, recognizing this, has been really active in that field in the autumn of 2012, bringing exhibitions and holding workshops on Kazakh culture to Washington, DC, building the image of a distinct state, which you would recognize among the “-stans”. One more consequence of this regional approach is that US sees CA countries as cooperating, whereas they see themselves competing. Tension between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on who is the leading country in the region, conflicts between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over water resources of Sir Darya river and borders demarcation are getting more frequent. These constraints are the consequences of two major trends - migration and nationalism - the latter being tight up to nation building in CA states, so the ground to have serious concerns about CA future and stability is now prepared.


The third, but the most delicate thing that forms US view on the region is a belief that America can straighten things up in any country in a moment. This one rooted in US exceptionalism - the idea that United States is a shining “City on the Hill”  which is loved by God, and is the only one who really knows what nation-building is and how to apply this notion to other countries. This reliance leads to the following issue - the future of US project in CA is percepted as its present.


We can not say, that Washington is completely delusional about CA, because in facts it’s purely rational in terms of their needs in the region, but those three components of US vision of its own role and policy in the region can create a misconception that could lead to a mischief in US policy in the region after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, therefore the ground for new strategy need to be cultivated now.  US is moving back to diplomacy, which was it leading practice in Clinton times, and leaving out interventions. President Obama’s new strategy is to become a peacemaker, and peace in Central Asia is one of the priorities. Thus we have to wait for the new mindset, even maybe a strategy, for the CA strand of foreign policy - the Central Asia is still in the middle of Old World, so its geographical importance will not go anywhere.

Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
For business
For researchers
For students