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Central Asia: Report Calls On U.S. To Rethink Its Regional Approach

  • Antoine Blua

A new report by a U.S. think tank dissects the key political and military factors at play in the U.S. relationship with the states of Central Asia and lays out a comprehensive approach for long-term U.S. involvement in the region. In an interview with RFE/RL, a co-author of the report explains the study's main findings and recommendations.

Prague, 10 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Washington has intensified its relations with a number of Central Asian states in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 to support the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began in October 2001 and succeeded in ousting the Taliban and dealing significant blow to the infrastructure of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. But since a U.S. military presence would appear to be required for the long term, the Bush administration should reconsider its approach to involvement in the region.

Michael Sweeney is the co-author of a new report on U.S. strategy in Central Asia by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, a U.S. think tank. He says, "Over the past two years, the U.S. approach to Central Asia has been somewhat ad hoc as we sought to respond to the shocking attacks of September 11. And what we were trying to articulate in our study was a more long-term approach that would be less tied to direct antiterrorism concerns."

The report notes that while Washington has focused on the Caspian Sea's abundant hydrocarbon reserves, economic hardship and political repression in Central Asia has helped fuel Islamic extremism.

In order to ensure regional stability, the report argues, the U.S. should emphasize civil society development. Washington has so far engaged in quiet diplomacy to persuade Central Asian leaders to implement reforms. But the report notes that this effort has largely been ignored, particularly by Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Sweeney stresses that the strategic alliance with Uzbekistan is undermining U.S. regional security interests.

"Karimov has shown little inclination to pursue true economic and political reform, as he pledged himself [to do] in the March 2002 five-point strategic partnership agreement," Sweeney says. "There are long-term dangers in terms of the U.S. image and in terms of inciting anti-Americanism if we cling too tightly to a relationship with Uzbekistan when Karimov remains reluctant to change."

The report recommends that Washington give Karimov until January 2006 to show real progress in economic and political reforms. If insufficient progress is made, Sweeney says, Washington should withdraw its forces and curtail its links with Uzbekistan.

Sweeney says Washington should therefore consider diversifying its military presence in Central Asia, seeking to boost strategic cooperation with neighboring countries.

"We discussed options for diversifying U.S. relationships, including possibly establishing small bases in other Central Asia states such as Kazakhstan as one way of providing alternative options for the United States if Uzbekistan doesn't enact true reforms," Sweeney said.

Uzbekistan has allowed U.S.-led coalition forces to use its southern air base at Karshi-Khanabad and Kyrgyzstan the Ganci air base at the Manas airport, near Bishkek, to support operations in Afghanistan.
"Over the past two years, the U.S. approach to Central Asia has been somewhat ad hoc as we sought to respond to the shocking attacks of September 11."

The report also calls on the Bush administration to commit more resources to contain the drug trade throughout Central Asia, an important factor in regional instability.

"The opiate trade plays an important role in the funding of extremist terrorist organizations. It also is an important factor in
corruption, which is another destabilizing element," Sweeney says. "We also are concerned that the smuggling routes
that are used in the opiate trade could have an applicability to transfers of weapons of mass destruction."

The report also urges the Bush administration to explore the possible diplomatic benefits to engaging Russia and China more actively in Central Asia.

"The United States should not allow itself to sort of get baited into a Cold War or a Great Game perspective on its relationships with China and Russia," Sweeney says. "Those states have legitimate interests in seeing Central Asia stabilized and in defeating Islamic extremism. So as long as their actions don't conflict with our core objectives in the war on terrorism, we don't need to be overly suspicious or reactionary to Russian or Chinese moves in Central Asia."

Last October, Russia opened an air base at Kant in Kyrgyzstan to provide an air component for a rapid deployment force that will operate under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The CSTO is a partnership among Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Last year, members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- which groups China, Russia, and four Central Asian republics -- held joint military exercises in Kazakhstan and China.

In 2002, China and Kyrgyzstan conducted a joint military exercise on the border areas of the two countries.