Can Central Asia Seize the Initiative?
The meetings by heads of state in Issyk-Kul and Tashkent earlier this summer showed clearly that America’s abrupt departure from Afghanistan last year and its long-term neglect of Central Asia did not mark the end of history. Quite the contrary.
This has important implications for all the major powers. China appears ready to accept the emergence of a more self-confident new region on its border and that region’s vigorous approach to Afghanistan. Russia, however, is still far from overcoming the imperial hangover that dates to the collapse of the USSR. For Washington and Brussels, this calls for a greater focus on the region as a whole, and on the region’s own stated priorities, which happen to mesh neatly with those of the West. Central Asia now presents a realistic venue for America, Europe, and like-thinking states to balance the influence of Russia and China with benign activity involving neighbors of those superpowers. Any such support should be focused on the emerging regional institutions announced at Issyk-Kul, on the Central Asians’ own efforts to strengthen market-based economic development in their countries, and on those countries’ initiatives to stabilize Afghanistan and open transport corridors through that country. However, America and its friends in Europe and Asia need not rush to recognize the Taliban government, for the Central Asians’ own efforts will provide a sober and reliable index of developments in Kabul.
During the years 2001–2019 the United States made the mistake of viewing Central Asia through the lens of its Afghan project. Now it can correct that by viewing Afghanistan, in part at least, in the broader context of America’s strategic interests in Central Asia. This will not be easy, for both China and Russia harbor long-term designs on the entire region. Chinese investors have already returned to the vast copper deposits at Aynak south of Kabul, are planning to mine iron and coal in Bamayan, and are using drones to prospect for minerals near Bagram. The war in Ukraine has stalled Russia’s aspirations in Afghanistan, but has not diminished Moscow’s interest in building its own transport corridor to South Asia and expanding its economic and security footprint regionally.
The alternative to such engagement is clear: Central Asia and Afghanistan will increasingly be absorbed into the Sino-Russo orbit. This will leave those two powers in control of the entire heart of Eurasia, creating a single band of dependent states stretching from the Pacific to the Middle East and from the White Sea to the Arabian Sea. This would be the price the West would pay for further neglect of Central Asia and Afghanistan.
The meetings in Issyk-Kul and Tashkent showed clearly that America’s abrupt departure from Afghanistan last summer and its long-term neglect of Central Asia did not mark the end of history. Quite the contrary. A sound path forward requires new thinking about this entire region, a challenge that cannot be met by gazing endlessly at the rear-view mirror.
S. Frederick Starr was Founding Chairman of the Kennan Institute and is currently Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council.