Friday, February 1, 2013

US-Central Asia Relations post-2014


January flew by! Since returning from Kazakhstan, I have been consumed with research, school and overcoming jetlag.

I've also been translating some of the documents I found in the Academy of Sciences in Almaty, which has been a tedious but incredibly rewarding task. One book, "Semipalatinsk svoyimii glazamii" or "Semipalatinsk through my eyes" is the memoirs of a Kazakh scientist who worked at Semipalatinsk. He describes his interactions with the Russians and experiences conducting nuclear tests. Really deep stuff. At one point, he shares an anecdote when a Soviet minister of health visits from Moscow and tells the officials to note report any information to the local inhabitants about the damaging effects of nuclear testing.

Research on Kazakhstan aside, I want to comment about an article that appeared in the New York Times today by Andrew Kramer titled "As NATO Prepares for Afghan Withdrawal, Uzbeks Seek War's Leftovers."

The article explains how the Government of Uzbekistan is interested in purchasing excess surplus military equipment left over from ISAF operations in Afghanistan. While Islam Karimov, who just celebrated his 75th birthday on Wednesday, is an authoritarian ruler and Uzbekistan does have a deplorable human rights record, the U.S. should not dismiss this opportunity to engage with Uzbekistan. 

The article notes that over the next two years, NATO will pull out 70,000 vehicles and 120,000 shipping containers. The U.S. already spends billions of dollars in Afghanistan and sustaining the NDN to supply our troops. It would be interesting for the US government or an academic to conduct a study comparing the costs of moving all of the equipment Uzbekistan is requesting back to the U.S. The amount of time and effort required to move night goggles, drones, armored vehicles, among other things, is exhaustive. Firs the government must evaluate all of the leftover items, then determine where in the U.S. reusable items can be stored. Some items might also be in need of repair. Transporting all of these items via overland trucking routes, ships and airplanes, is also a massive logistical effort and not at all cheap. Given the limited capacity of any organization  including the U.S. military, which is one of the most capable organizations in the world, wouldn't it make more sense to channel efforts into modernizing the military, bringing our troops home and wrapping up our war in Afghanistan? It is probably a lot cheaper to buy new weapons.

Plus, Kramer misses the political argument made by a lot of Central Asian regimes in that a post-2014 Afghanistan without American troop presence threatens regional stability. Naturally, predicting a spillover of violence, the regimes want to strengthen their borders and military. How Central Asian regimes use the supplies upon acquisition is another issue, and is a conversation worth having. However, policymakers and strategic planners should not entirely dismiss the arguments made by Central Asian regimes about the security of the region after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. Central Asia will undoubtedly be affected by the withdrawal and there is historical precedence, with the most recent example being the movement of Tajiks, Afghans and Uzbeks across borders during the Civil War in Tajikistan between 1992 and 1997.

Plus, it is not like there is not a black market for ISAF military items in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. There is a huge black market of items stolen from American containers in transit by Afghans and Pakistanis. From a strategic perspective, it is almost better to be sure that the goods will end up in the hands of a tightly-controlled regime than in the armies of Pakistan or Afghanistan. This would be a lesser of two evils, but at least the U.S. knows the weapons and items will be secure under Karimov's regime.

Finally, this is an opportunity for the U.S. to at least work with Uzbekistan. When I hear arguments by political commentators that the U.S. should end relations with a country, I just think of a middle school cafeteria during lunchtime: Person A is mad at Person B for falling through on plans to see a movie together so they stop talking? Like get real. Cutting off diplomatic relations and all forms of communication -- including defense cooperation -- is not the way to influence policy. What tools does the U.S. have? At least we are talking and we will have members of the U.S. government on the ground.

U.S.-Uzbekistan relations have been strained since the Andijan massacre of 2005 when all NGOs left the country and the U.S. lost our base at K2. 

Yet, now more than ever, the U.S. must engage with the Uzbeks. Islam Karimov is 75 and has been in power since the Soviet times. He has not yet designated a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of executive power. President Karimov is mortal and therefore needs to institutionalize a mechanism to transfer power or name an heir apparent. The unanswered succession question is a source for instability. While the issue of transferring military weapons is not directly related to the succession question, the reality is that we need to at least improve relations and maintain some level of engagement, dialogue and communication with the Uzbeks. 

The bottom line is that U.S. engagement in Central Asia during the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and in the post-2014 era must be based on our interests as well as the interests of the Central Asian states. Regime transitions will occur in Uzbekistan, as well as in neighboring Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, over the next five, ten or fifteen years, and the U.S. must engage with these states and establish a productive relationship in order to prevent leadership succession from destabilizing the region. If bilateral relations start at the military level, then so be it. 

As always, I appreciate any feedback. Thanks for reading!

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