Wednesday, May 23, 2012

NATO and Central Asia: Talk with, not at, each other


After almost a month of not writing due to final exams, I am alas returning to the blogosphere. 

I will update readers on my summer plans. In mid-June, I will leave for Vladimir, Russia, where I will be living with a host family and studying Russian at KORA for two months. While I am somewhat saddened that I will not be able to return to Central Asia, I am extremely excited to spend the summer in such a historic center of Muscovite and Soviet culture. Vladimir is located some 200 kilometers east of Moscow, in the historic "Golden Ring." The city is known for its historic cathedrals and I look forward to observing the Soviet transformation of Vladimir's urban landscape. Stay tuned, as I will regularly update this blog on my adventures!

And now a comment on the NATO summit in Chicago…

I agree with Stephen M. Walt who argues in his blog on Foreign Policy that the NATO summit was essentially useless. The Summit reaffirmed ISAF’s plan to drawdown troops by 2014, after which the international community would work to promote the country’s economic and political development and regional stability.

The major issue at the summit was the Pakistani supply route.  After being invited at the last minute, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari attended the conference and staunchly affirmed his country’s opposition to reopening the southern corridor. To Pakistan, controlling the NATO supply route is a primary policy lever it twists and turns when it wants to influence the course of events in Afghanistan. The route has been closed since November 2011, when an airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and prompted officials to close the route. This story is nothing new (see NYT article). To no one’s surprise, Presidents Obama and Zardari were unable to negotiate a transit fee for NATO cargo-bearing vehicles transiting the country from the port of Karachi to and from Afghanistan.

Fortunately, logisticians previously organized the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), transiting Russia and Central Asia, to deliver critical supplies to Afghanistan. Transporting shipments via the NDN is considerably more expensive than through the southern Pakistani route. Considering the Afghan war and withdrawal is expected to cost NATO $4 billion between now and 2014 (and millions more in the future), cost cutting is high on the list of priorities. Transporting goods via the southern corridor through Pakistan, would certainly help.  

Given the NDN’s importance in transporting goods to Afghanistan, it is fascinating that the Central Asian regimes did not take a strong interest in participating in the NATO summit.

The only substantial acknowledgment of Central Asia at the NATO summit was by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who “expressed his deep appreciation for their support of the Northern Distribution Network, which is key to supplying ISAF forces in Afghanistan.”

While all of the Central Asian leaders were invited to Chicago, not one head of state attended, sending their foreign ministers instead. What were they doing? What any rational leader seeking regime preservation would do – engaging in profit-seeking opportunities.

President Karimov snubbed the invitation, allegedly due the fact that President Obama would not meet with him privately. In Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev was busy schmoozing international investors at the Astana Economic Forum. Meanwhile, President of Turkmenistan Berdimuhamedov devoted his attention to ensuring the signing of the TAPI agreement. And Tajik President Rahmon has been working with his Pakistani counterpart Zardari on the CASA-1000 Energy Project. Discussed in today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor by The Jamestown Foundation, the CASA-1000 energy project would construct 750 kilometers of electrical transmission lines between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This would be a much-needed source of electricity that would benefit Afghanistan's development (especially considering some 7% of the country is currently electrified according to the World Bank).

What is so fascinating about the economic developments in Central Asia and the diplomatic jargon coming from the NATO Summit in Chicago is how different the two narratives are. It is as if NATO and the Central Asian states are talking at each other, not with each other.

ISAF members and the Central Asian regimes, at least on paper, pursue ideologically compatible policy goals. In an Op-ed, Kazakhstan Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov recognizes that the strategic partnership agreement signed between the U.S. and Afghanistan that guarantees assistance through 2024 is a symbol of Washington’s commitment to peace and stability in the region. Kazykhanov notes the need for increased regional cooperation in critical areas such as counter-narcotics, education, agriculture and regional transport. On the NDN, Kazykhanov argues for “the further expansion of this route, including new interconnections and the harmonization of a regional transportation network for future trade of civilian goods.”

It is the implementation of policies such as the New Silk Road that exposes the differences in corporate practices, commitment to transparency and regime-sponsored corruption.  Alexander Cooley writes how the development of the NDN has encouraged more rent-seeking behavior by the region’s regimes as western states pour money into the region.

So while Central Asian leaders are doing what any rational leader would do – pursue profit opportunities to enhance their governing capacity – NATO members are neglecting a critical region. Engaging with the Central Asian regimes is essential to ensure regional development is transparent, sustainable and does not contribute to the conflict in Afghanistan. What do I mean? Well, some of the ruling families in the region (notably in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) are suspected of profiting from the trade of Afghan opium.

Central Asian regimes are hustling and bustling and if NATO members want a secure Afghanistan and region post-2014, they need to make a serious attempt to develop constructive relationships with the leaders of Eurasia’s heartland.

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