In his State of the Union speech on February 12, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that by the end of 2014 "our war in Afghanistan will be over." This step, long expected, will decrease security in neighboring Central Asia. Flows northward from Afghanistan of terrorists and narcotics will put at greater risk a region already weakened by corruption, despotism, and ethnic and water tensions. The West should do more to enhance security in Central Asia, comprised of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
U.S. policy is predicated on the expectation that the 350,000-strong Afghan National Army, with assistance from U.S. advisers, will be able to keep the Taliban at bay. It is more likely that after 2014, barring a political agreement, the Taliban will remain in the field with control in most Pashtun areas and perhaps beyond. A bloodied but still standing Taliban would also pose a danger beyond its borders.
In the 1990s, Taliban control in Afghanistan spurred extremists in Central Asia. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and carried out bombings in Uzbekistan and kidnappings in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In 2004 a splinter group, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), claimed suicide bombings in Uzbekistan and targeted the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent. Both groups are now holed up in ungoverned areas of Pakistan, but as NATO leaves Afghanistan they will probably carry the fight back to Central Asian homelands.
More Afghans will turn for sustenance to the opium industry, perhaps one-third of their country's gross domestic product. Trafficking northward will exacerbate staggering addiction problems in Central Asia and Russia. Afghanistan and nearby areas provide over four-fifths of Europe's heroin.
Central Asia faces other sources of insecurity. Dams that may be built in impoverished Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would boost their economies but choke off much downstream water for agriculture in Uzbekistan. Its ruler, Islam Karimov, recently warned of "water wars." The lush Ferghana Valley -- shared by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- is a swirl of peoples and oppression, and a recruiting ground for Islamic jihadists. In 2005, a large number of protesters died at the hands of Uzbek security forces in Andijon, Uzbekistan, and in 2010 several hundred Uzbeks and a much smaller number of Kyrgyz died in ethnic clashes in the Kyrgyz city of Osh and nearby areas. A cesspool of corruption in Central Asia undermines governance. On Transparency International's index of corruption perceptions of 174 countries, Central Asian states rank poorly, averaging 157th place.
Caught Between Great Powers
Central Asia lies between ambitious regional and great powers. In December 2012, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned against Russia's manipulation of a customs union it dominates in order to "re-Sovietize" Eurasia. Despite popular objections at home, Kazakhstan has joined the union but resists its becoming a political body. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may have no choice but to sign up since one-third to one-half of their economies depend on migrant-labor remittances from Russia. If after NATO draws down in Afghanistan fighting spreads northward, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- both of which host Russian military bases -- might seek added protection from Moscow even as they try to maintain wiggle room to protect their own interests.
China looms large in Central Asian economies, enriching opportunities for trade and inward investment. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan now ship energy long distances to China, helping shield them from Russian control of export pipelines as a political and financial lever. China employs the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to boost its Central Asian interests, for now mainly economic and energy. It does not publicly challenge Russia's geopolitical role there, but economic dynamism increases China's sway and Central Asia's room for maneuver.
Troop reductions in Afghanistan will lessen NATO's need for logistical support via the northern distribution network through Central Asia. Frictions within the region could heighten transport impediments. Wary of a NATO pullback that would leave them more exposed, Central Asians want continued Western support to forestall IMU and IJU subversion, counter narcotics smuggling, and help them balance Russian and Chinese power.
For the West to augment security in Central Asia will not be easy. After September 11, 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin sanctioned a U.S. and coalition presence there to support operations in Afghanistan, but no longer. Russia urges the United States' ouster from its transit base in Kyrgyzstan and opposes a Western presence even to address narcotics and terrorism threats.
Another constraint is authoritarian governance and human rights abuse in Central Asia. The West should offer pragmatic aid but be wary of providing security tools that might be turned against domestic protesters.
Third, the West will want to take account of Russian and Chinese sensitivities. The West does not seek to enhance its position in Central Asia at their expense, but rather to bolster common security. For example, stronger borders that stem the flow of terrorists and narcotics should serve Moscow and Beijing's interests.
Beyond NATO forces leaving behind in Central Asia some of the equipment they withdraw from Afghanistan, there are two broad areas for security cooperation: information exchanges and border security. The West ought to seek arrangements with willing Central Asian governments on more robust sharing of information about terrorism, narcotics, and criminal threats, while protecting sources and methods. Building on solid, low-key work by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union, the West should examine how it could provide better practices and technology to tighten security along borders with Afghanistan, especially in the badlands areas. This would impede terrorist strikes into Central Asia and help its governments suppress infiltration. Western security dialogues with China and Russia could spur wider cooperative efforts and improve understanding.
After 2014, Central Asia ought not to become the focal point of a new "Great Game," a battleground in which outside contestants seek to impose their writ. Central Asia will need help in securing its people against external dangers, but autocratic rule and weak governance are just as serious a threat. Frankly, Western interest in helping Central Asia will increasingly depend on whether freedoms expand and human dignity is respected.
John Herbst was U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan and Ukraine, and consul general in Jerusalem. He is currently the director of the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. The views expressed here are the authors' own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.