Bases of Debate: America in Central Asia: Steppes to Empire

Bases of Debate: America in Central Asia: Steppes to Empire

Mini Teaser: America's post-9/11 tryst with the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia should not be transformed into a longer-term "marriage of convenience." It would end badly.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

Since September 11, Americans have handed George W. Bush the equivalent of a blank check on matters pertaining to foreign policy. Prosecuting the war trumps all other considerations. Yet as operations move beyond the so-called first phase, it becomes increasingly clear that the Bush Administration has more in mind than simply eradicating terror. As phase two beckons (not to mention phases three and four), automatic deference to the administration's wishes should no longer be viewed as the ultimate badge of patriotism. A healthy, respectful skepticism should be the order of the day. Evolving U.S. policy toward Central Asia offers a case in point.

In truth, the enterprise that the White House has chosen to style as a war on terror has never been simply that. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, senior officials in the Bush Administration were quick to grasp that if Al-Qaeda's attack was an outrage that demanded retribution, it also constituted a significant strategic opportunity. To seize that opportunity, the administration has from the outset waged its war with one eye fixed on rooting out terrorists, and the other set on gauging the prospects for advancing a variety of other U.S. interests. Thus, through its conduct of the present conflict, the administration aims to reduce or eliminate security threats that the Clinton Administration allowed to fester-the notorious "axis of evil." It seeks to bolster regional stability and ratchet up efforts to reduce international drug trafficking. Its expansive Bush Doctrine proposes to legitimize "anticipatory self-defense" and "offensive deterrence" as the basis for using force. For its part, in addition to securing a big boost in defense spending, the Pentagon is using the war on terror as a pretext for deepening its relationship with various armies abroad, both to garner influence and to facilitate the future projection of U.S. military power. To state the matter baldly, through its conduct of the war against terror, the United States seeks to shore up and perhaps expand the Pax Americana.

Initiatives already launched in support of this ambitious project have entailed the deployment of U.S. military assets to places ranging from Latin America to the Horn of Africa and from the Caucasus to Southeast Asia. Inasmuch as the ongoing campaign is very much a work in progress, we can expect that such commitments will continue to proliferate. One region that appears likely to attract significant continuing U.S. attention is Central Asia, a vast, forbidding tract that most considered before September 11 to be a strategic backwater, but that since has become the subject of intense interest.

Thus far, the Bush Administration has refrained from spelling out its plans for Central Asia with any precision. But with Secretary of State Colin Powell hinting at a "continuing interest and presence" in the region "of a kind that we could not dream of before", it appears that the administration is thinking big. The available evidence suggests that the U.S. military will figure prominently in whatever strategy emerges; indeed, the Pentagon is already laying the groundwork for long-term U.S. involvement in the region.

Particularly noteworthy in that regard is the increasingly prominent U.S. military footprint visible in Pakistan, Afghanistan and two of the five Central Asian republics (Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan). Although initially justified as needed to support combat operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the establishment of bases by American forces has the effect of creating new facts on the ground, facts that have a way of becoming permanent. When U.S. troops arrive, they tend to stay. That axiom remains as true today as it was in 1945 or 1950 or in the 1990s, as the continuing presence of U.S. forces in Europe, Japan, Korea, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans amply attests. In Central Asia, that pattern may be repeating itself as U.S. Central Command gears up for a major program of what the Defense Department likes to call "engagement"-employing a panoply of military activities and initiatives as an instrument of statecraft.

Viewed in this light, the construction of an American base in Kyrgyzstan, just 19 miles from Bishkek, takes on a significance that goes well beyond the fact that the U.S. Air Force has acquired a convenient place to house 3,000 personnel and host nearly two dozen aircraft. Much the same can be said with regard to Uzbekistan, where 3,000 U.S. troops have taken control of the old Soviet air base at Khanabad and established a forward operating facility at Karze-Hanabad. These constitute an opening wedge; efforts to secure access to other bases in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, and already-announced plans for more ambitious training exercises and security assistance programs, suggest that the Pentagon intends to drive that wedge deeper.

Bases come with strings attached, and some are already evident. In return for access to Khanabad, for example, the United States has promised to triple the amount of aid it provides annually to Uzbekistan, boosting it to $160 million. The administration has also reportedly promised to guarantee Uzbekistan's security. Meanwhile, courting these ex-Soviet republics has obliged the administration to cozy up to unsavory autocrats hitherto known chiefly for economic mismanagement, a contempt for democracy and human rights, and a single-minded determination to retain their hold on power by whatever means necessary. Americans have already become accustomed to the grip-and-grin photos of their generals and diplomats making nice with the likes of Emomali Rahmonov, re-elected in 1999 as president of Tajikistan with 97 percent of the vote, and Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, who in a 1995 plebiscite did even better with 99.6 percent.

Apart from proximity to the Afghan war zone, what exactly does Central Asia have to offer? The region's five republics possess abundant mineral resources, including but not limited to large reserves of fossil fuels. Uzbekistan alone has oil and gas reserves with an estimated value of one trillion dollars. That said, prospects for translating these natural resources in anything resembling a peaceful and prosperous environment appear remote. The problems confronting Central Asia are daunting. Among them are chronic instability and extreme poverty; annual per capita GDP is an estimated $766. Drug smuggling is rampant, Central Asia serving as the transit point through which Afghan heroin makes its way to markets in Europe and Russia. (Turkmenistan's president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, is himself reputed to be a major trafficker.) As described in Ahmed Rashid's best-selling Jihad, the region is also a breeding ground for Islamic radicals eager to foment revolution, purge the region of infidels and enthrone sharia as the law of the land. Central Asian governments have responded to Islamist threats with an indiscriminate crackdown on any and all religious practice lacking government approval. Freedom of religion does not exist, but then neither do most other freedoms, as the State Department's own annual report on human rights demonstrates. As for the legacy bequeathed to Central Asia by the Soviet Union, it consists chiefly of ethnic division, depleted farmland, an obsolete industrial plant, widespread and perhaps irreversible environmental damage (epitomized by the notoriously devastated Aral Sea), and the ex-communist apparatchiks who continue to infest local politics.

In short, the neighborhood in which the United States is intent on pursuing expanded "engagement" is a singularly nasty one. That realization alone may not persuade policymakers in Washington that Central Asia merits the sort of calculated neglect that the United States habitually reserves for Africa. But it certainly ought to douse quixotic notions of securing "the integration of the newly independent states into Western economic, political and military institutions and practices"; in other words, of transforming the Central Asian republics into liberal democracies protected by professionalized armed forces.

Yet it hasn't. Some senior Bush Administration officials, at least, persist in pretending otherwise. After a trip through the region in February 2002-but sounding like she had just gotten off the plane from Saigon in 1962-Beth Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, described her expectations of what the United States was going to achieve in Central Asia. Jones expressed confidence that in return for an "enhanced mil-mil relationship", governments in the region would step up to meet U.S. expectations regarding "economic reform, democratic reform, and human rights." Already she detected signs that Central Asians were getting with the program. Jones found it especially heartening that at her urging President Karmiov had agreed to allow the UN Rapporteur on Torture to enter Uzbekistan and to permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect government detention centers.

The idea that, by entertaining the Rapporteur on Torture, President Karimov has somehow taken a crucial first step toward embracing liberal principles is risible. For the United States to have any hope of incorporating Uzbekistan and its four Central Asian neighbors into what is loosely referred to as the West would require a level of sustained and comprehensive involvement that exceeds by an order of magnitude anything that this administration (or its successors) is likely to support. Even if the United States were willing to undertake such a project-one that would dwarf the Marshall Plan in scope-success would likely be decades in the offing. In Europe after World War II, the task at hand was to assist in rebuilding what war had destroyed. In Central Asia, the equivalent task is immensely larger. It is to create institutions and inculcate values that have never existed-a worthy cause, no doubt, but one for which the American taxpayer may be unwilling to foot the bill.

If advancing the cause of democracy and human rights does not form a plausible rationale for U.S. policy, then what actually underlies the Bush Administration's sudden preoccupation with the region? If a new "Great Game" has commenced in Central Asia, what are its stakes?

One obvious answer, of course, is oil and natural gas. An "enhanced mil-mil relationship" between the Pentagon and local armies is unlikely to yield much in the way of transforming the region into a garden of liberalism. But it could reduce the chances of some hostile power hijacking the region's energy reserves. By converting Central Asia into a quasi-protectorate-much as it did the Persian Gulf after Great Britain departed-the United States could ensure that the exploitation of the region's energy reserves proceeds in such a way as to serve American purposes as opposed to those of Iran or Russia or China.

There is nothing inherently nefarious or even selfish about this. The U.S. interest in the world's energy resources is legitimate, real and-especially as long as Americans continue their love affair with gas guzzlers-even compelling. But before announcing that the imperatives of "global leadership" require incorporating Central Asia into the American imperium, policymakers ought to tote up some of the potential complications that lie in store. These include all of the following:
First, by inserting itself into Central Asian affairs, the United States runs the risk of becoming further identified with regimes that are corrupt and repressive. The charge will stick because it will be accurate: compared to the likes of Rahmonov, Karimov and Niyazov, even the shah of Iran in his later years was a model of probity and enlightened rule.

Second, as a corollary, by making itself the guarantor of regional stability-in effect, of the political status quo-the United States will likely fuel anti-American sentiment and exacerbate rather than alleviate Islamic radicalism, not just in Central Asia but throughout the Islamic world.

Third, as the embodiment of the U.S. presence (and as the ostensible purveyors of an alien and unwelcome culture), American soldiers and diplomats can expect to become targets of those who find that presence offensive. Costly and concerted efforts will be required to avert a recurrence of Beirut, Khobar Towers, or the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. If recent experience tells us anything, it is that a 100 percent success rate at force protection is unlikely.
Fourth, as a further consequence, a military establishment already complaining of being overstretched and overworked will find itself called upon to do even more. The problem will not be money but people. A widening imperial perimeter requires ever more sentries. But the recent surge of patriotic sentiment notwithstanding, young Americans are no more eager to risk their lives outposting the empire today than they were before September 11.

Fifth, however determined policymakers may be to limit the scope of the U.S. involvement, the imperative of satisfying (or at least placating) various constituencies at home will create temptations for counterproductive meddling. An administration engaged in Central Asia will find itself facing demands from earnest citizens that it "do something" on behalf of religious freedom or women's rights or the environment, demands likely to be all the more insistent because the conditions in the region are genuinely egregious. To disregard these advocates completely is to incur their wrath, expressed at the polls. But to make concession to their concerns is to be drawn further into the vortex of Central Asian affairs than actual U.S. interests, seen realistically, could possibly justify.
Other considerations that should affect calculations about U.S. policy in Central Asia lie in the realm of geopolitics. In that regard, two stand out.
Russia will view any long-term U.S. presence in the region as (yet another) American intrusion into its sphere of influence. As Charles Fairbanks himself has observed, "Russia is extremely frightened of us remaining there." Is it wise to frighten Russia? Over the past dozen years Moscow has endured a long list of slights, insults and humiliations, some real, others imagined. The United States ought to ask itself whether adding to that list constitutes sound policy-not because Russian power any longer commands special deference or respect, but because a wounded and resentful Russia poses a source of potential danger and diplomatic enervation.

For its part, China will surely interpret the American military presence in Central Asia as evidence that the United States is engaged in a concerted effort to encircle the People's Republic. If, indeed, policymakers in Washington have concluded that Beijing is bent on challenging the U.S. claim to regional hegemony-that following in the footsteps of Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, China is destined to be America's next arch-antagonist-then a policy of military encirclement may be justified. But if a Sino-American conflict, whether cold or hot, is not yet inevitable, then perhaps a certain circumspection on the part of the United States would be wiser.

These potential consequences are possibilities, not predictions. But they point to the conclusion that if the entry of the United States into Central Asia under the guise of fighting terror presents certain attractive opportunities, pursuing those opportunities raises certain perils. To venture into the steppes is to venture into a minefield. That does not mean that we shouldn't hazard the journey, but the decision is not one to be taken lightly.

Decisions made in the coming months regarding America's role in Central Asia could well constitute a watershed in the evolution of U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War. Rather than deferring matters to the Bush Administration and obligingly endorsing the results, Americans should insist on a public debate of the prospective implications of asserting U.S. power in that remote region. Only by promoting such a debate will they begin to unwrap the secret that members of the policy elite have long since divined: the pre-eminent challenge facing the United States in the 21st century is not eradicating terror but managing the informal American empire acquired during the course of the century just past.

Managing that empire successfully will require that American statesmen manifest any number of virtues, not least among them steadfastness and courage of the sort that George W. Bush has demonstrated since September 11. But imperial statecraft also requires a keen sense of priorities and an appreciation of limits. As Americans ponder the nature, purpose and extent of their imperium, Central Asia offers a crucial preliminary test of their ability to demonstrate those attributes. It will by no means be the last.

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