The Central Asian Region has remained in Washington’s focus during the two decades of war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US needed a second option of connectivity to Afghanistan in case an anti-US groundswell in Pakistan proved forbidding.
The Taliban are in control of Afghanistan, and the US war machine in Kabul was ignominiously wound up on August 5, 2021.
The Central Asian States remained within the Russian Federation’s sphere of influence even after the demise of the Soviet Union. Central Asia’s political, economic, and cultural links are deeply rooted in the region’s history.
The largest and most significant Central Asian State of Kazakhstan was initially reluctant to exit the Russian Federation.
After the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the US showed no extraordinary interest in what was happening in Central Asia. With the implosion of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the declaration of independence by the Central Asian States, China turned westward and speedily registered its presence in Central Asia, particularly in two hydrocarbon-rich states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
Rail and road links were swiftly established, and Beijing began investing in various projects. By and large, China’s long arm could be felt in all five Central Asian States.
Even then, the US did not take Chinese intrusion as a threat to its interests in the region because Washington knew that it would not be easy for China to overrun the Russian influence in the region.
Perhaps this languid situation would have continued for some more time but was interrupted by the Russian action against Ukraine. That scenario bestirred Washington.
In the first week of March this year, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visited two important Central Asian States — Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. He signaled that Washington was contemplating new parameters for its Central Asian policy in the post-Afghan war period.
Blinken explained that under the renewed policy, the US would focus on helping these countries achieve balance in their relations with each other and the outside world, particularly in an era of great power competition.
The veiled warning contained in these otherwise harmless words of Blinken is that if the five Central Asian States continued their long-standing inter-state bickering and hostility, there was every possibility that both China and Russia would exploit a situation of disunity.
In Astana, Blinken met with Central Asian foreign ministers and attended the first ministerial-level engagement of the C5+1 Diplomatic Platform — representing US engagement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
This platform came into existence in 2015 but has received high-level attention only now that Washington no longer needs Central Asian supply routes for the Afghan war front. Sensing the mood of the foreign ministers at the C5+1 deliberations, the Secretary of State announced that the United States would compensate the local companies impacted by Western sanctions on Russia.
Compensating the impacted Central Asian companies owing to losses they may have suffered because of sanctions imposed on Russia is a reasonable attitude depicting a sense of responsibility.
But political commentators will also attribute it to a sophisticated attempt to ween away these companies and their many associates from a long-time allegiance to Russia. The Central Asian states must understand that Russia and China are their immediate neighbors. Good statesmanship means maintaining good relations with the neighbors as far as possible.
Central Asian Republics have traditionally depended on Russia regarding security and peace in the region. This concern is reflected in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance in Eurasia consisting of six post-Soviet states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan.
The new policy parameters to which Blinken alluded during his visit to Central Asia are fundamentally instructive rather than intrusive. Washington would want the Central Asian States to consider their geographical location. China and Russia both are their closest neighbors. They still bear the imprints of Russian relations even though China is actively trying to make its presence felt in the Central Asian region.
The highlights of the US’ revised policy for the Central Asian Republics are mostly idealistic. A call for unity among the five Central Asian states is something that Russia had tried during the Soviet period as well as in the post-Soviet period.
The problem is that the vast region of Central Asia is home to a large number of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and social groups. Homogeneity is a misnomer for the Central Asian populace. Also, the vast region has marked differences in geography, topography, natural resources, water resources, and climatic conditions.
For thousands of years, Central Asian societies remained tribal societies engaged in long-time mutual feuds and rivalries and entrenched acrimony for control of fertile patches of land and waters that irrigated their fields until the times the rivers dried up and left vast stretches of desert lands.
It is tough to bulldoze these angularities in the hope of finding a politically and culturally cohesive region.
The C5+1 (Five CARs plus USA) concept of cohesive Central Asia appears like a utopia. Who would not wish for a harmonious and prosperous Central Asia as the guarantor of peace and stability in the region?
Then the US talks of support for cross-border community confidence and resource sharing in the region, especially around the disputed enclaves. Of course, supporting cross-border community confidence is a good step in the process of people-to-people interaction. This activity was briskly pursued during the Soviet period.
Hundreds of thousands of workers from almost all CARs had moved to Moscow and other Russian towns in search of work. Their interaction was quick enough to help their assimilation into the Russian social milieu. No ethnic clashes were ever reported within the migrated groups.
Therefore, the policy planners in Washington will have to take note of the harsh reality that unemployment is the root cause of inter-state mistrust and animosity.
Secretary Blinken has not indicated Washington’s plan to assist Central Asia’s mega industrial projects, like harnessing the available water resources for hydroelectric power generation in Tajikistan’s Badakhshan region or modernization of agricultural industries across the country the fertile areas like Ferghana and Gorno-Badakhshan.
The movement of the labor force across the Central Asian States is becoming more and more difficult owing to strict traveling rules by these states.
Washington policy planners also suggest increased economic integration and connectivity through the Caucasus. Undoubtedly, increased economic integration would be facilitated by easy and viable connectivity.
But perhaps the Caucasus would not be the right geographical region for connectivity to the world outside. On the map, it will look good, but the ground situations need to be considered. Many Caucasian states like Georgia, Chechnya, and some Balkan States are in political uncertainty.
Their position has become somewhat uncertain owing to the Ukrainian war. They are keenly watching how this war would end and the nature of post-war Eurasia.
We believe the post-Afghan era should not be the determining factor in Washington’s revised Central Asian policy. The post-Ukrainian war will lay down the criteria for the revised policy of Washington in the crucial region of Eurasia.
Washington may have to shift its policy from advisory to benign intrusive mode. Central Asia could be the litmus test for the US to adopt a non-partisan type of positive and constructive role in Central Asia. India’s handling of Taliban Afghanistan is an excellent example to be emulated.