A “Zero Problems” Policy for Europe in Eurasia

Europe should pursue a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors in Eurasia. It cannot be a global hegemon like China or the United States but it could be a global meeting place and facilitator between any number of powers in a globalized, increasingly multipolar world. That is the bold premise of a team of international relations students from Oxford University participating in a grand strategy competition with the geopolitical analysis community Wikistrat.

Their strategy would require forming long-term partnerships that “go with the flow” of capital, energy and security across the European Union’s closest neighborhood of northern Eurasia. Read more “A “Zero Problems” Policy for Europe in Eurasia”

Central Asian Battlefield 2027

Should revolution sweep Central Asia in a “Silk Road Awakening” next decade, its republics, rich in resources but impoverished in terms of infrastructure and institutions, could find themselves at the mercy of neighboring great powers descending upon the region like four “hungry hippos.”

This is the premise explored by a team of Georgetown University students participating in a grand strategy competition with the geopolitical analysis community Wikistrat. Their worst-case scenario? Continental Asia as a ticking time bomb.

Neighboring powers have been vying for influence in Central Asia since the demise of Soviet power there, inspiring some analysts to forecast a “New Great Game” in reminiscence of the Anglo-Russian power struggle during the nineteenth century.

As both the British and the Russians found out, Central Asia is a tar pit filled with confusing micro-nationalities, borders arbitrarily drawn without regard for ethnic divides and a geography that is bound to frustrate any attempt at military intervention. But it’s also rich in natural resources and could propel whichever country dominates it to the status of global power. China, Iran, Russia and Turkey each have a strong motive for building leverage in the region should an opportunity to do so present itself. Read more “Central Asian Battlefield 2027”

Region Reluctant to Commit to Afghan Security

After American and NATO forces pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, what role will other actors in the region play in the country? Greater powers as China, India and Russia have much more at stake in Afghanistan than the United States does while neighboring Central Asian republics and Pakistan are unlikely to be able to avoid being affected by renewed civil war there. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may be reluctant to interfere military but could boost development aid and political support for the civilian government in Kabul.

Last week in Astana, Kazakhstan, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan formally requested observer status for his country in the SCO. Both India and Pakistan, which previously filed membership applications, reiterated their desire to become part of the organization. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said that he expected his country to be “put on a fast track” to join.

In the clearest sign yet that the neighboring states may be willing to do more in Afghanistan, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev wrote in The Moscow Times that it “is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014.” He argued that extremism, separatism and terrorism are threats that all members of the SCO must cope with.

We believe that the prosperity of Central Asia and the surrounding states can only be achieved through a strong, independent and stable Afghanistan.

If that’s so, will the SCO step up the plate and take over from NATO? At The Enterprise Blog, Daniel Vajdic notes the similarities in purpose between the cooperation organization and the early Atlantic alliance which, in the words of its first secretary general, was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

The SCO conversely is an association of likeminded autocracies whose raison d’être, from Moscow’s perspective, is to keep the Americans out of Central Asia, the Russians in, and the Chinese down in terms of their overall regional influence.

The Diplomat‘s Richard Weitz is skeptical though as coordination in terms of policy among the various member states of the SCO is very limited. “By world standards, none of the SCO economic mechanisms could be considered ‘serious’ instruments, and so far at least, SCO members have allocated limited resources to them, further constraining their potential.” Furthermore, instead of admitting new member states, “the organization has resorted to proliferating new categories of external association, producing a confusing mixture of members, observers, guests and dialogue partners.”

The SCO governments argue that they need more time to establish the rules and procedures needed to govern new members. In reality, the existing SCO members have proved unable to overcome their differences over which countries should receive membership or observer status.

As Weitz sees it, the SCO is useful only in Central Asia as it provides China and Russia with an institutional arena in which to manage their disputes and smaller states with a platform that isn’t dominated by Russia such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization which also includes Armenia and Belarus. If Beijing and Moscow resume their historical rivalry for Eurasia however, the organization “will almost certainly be doomed to irrelevance.”

Greater power involvement in Afghanistan, particularly from India which stands only to lose from the resurgence of Pakistani affiliated Islamists in the Hindu Kush, could benefit the country as its isolation in the prewar years was part of what allowed extremism to flourish. Both India and Russia have invested in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan but an institutional regional approach still seems more wishful thinking than an imminent reality.

Especially when it comes to Chinese involvement, Afghanistan faces a conundrum — as long as great powers like China won’t commit to its security, America cannot leave without risking a return of the Taliban but great powers like China have very little reason to commit as long as the Americans are there to protect their enterprises. It’s a classic catch-22.

Either the SCO matures far more quickly than is likely as a regional security guarantor to ensure Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and the survival of its democratic government or the latter could succumb to the influence of just one of the interested parties, India for instance, and once again find its country the battleground of great power struggles.

Clinton Visits Tumultuous Central Asia

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited different countries in Central Asia to push for improved political freedoms in the former Soviet republics and affirm their role as security partners of the United States. As the war in Afghanistan drags on, these countries, many of which are battling internal disorder, remain significant as part of America’s supply routes.

Clinton attended a summit of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kazakhstan Wednesday where she also spoke with the country’s president and foreign minister. She thanked Kazakhstan for cooperating with the West in the realm of nonproliferation. Earlier this year, she pointed out during a press conference, along with the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan and the United States secured over ten metric tons of highly enriched uranium as well as three metric tons of weapons grade plutonium. “That is enough material to have made 775 nuclear weapons,” she said. “And now we are confident it will never fall into the wrong hands.” Read more “Clinton Visits Tumultuous Central Asia”

Radical Islamism on the Rise in Tatarstan?

Even if youngsters in Tatarstan are becoming islamic, the authorities in this Russian republic have little reason to fear a surge in religious extremism. Persecution of pious Muslims would in fact only spur violence, not prevent it.

I recently came across an article that argues that Tatarstan is facing an Islamization scenario akin to what has already occurred in Ingushetia and Dagestan. It reports on a talk given at a conference on ethnic and religious tolerance recently held in Kazan. Rais Suleimanov, the deputy director of the Center for Eurasian and International Studies at the Kazan Financial University, points out that youth comprise 40 percent of people who regularly attend mosque in the region. Yana Amelina, the head of the Caucasus department at the center and another conference participant, notes that radical Islam has over the last few years replaced ethnic separatism as the dominant anti-state ideology in the Caucasus and is now spreading into the Volga region.

When I was last in Kazan two years ago, I was struck by the sheer number of young women wearing “Islamic” clothing and young men with those beards that act as markers of Islamic identity in the former Soviet Union. This was in stark contrast to previous visits, when everyone (and especially young people) wore European style clothing and hair styles. The number of people with such Islamic markers was also much higher in Kazan two years ago than in my visit to Baku last week.

Of course, wearing traditional clothing or a beard is not a sign that one is a Wahhabi extremist (though it might be interpreted as such a sign by the local authorities). But I think there is no doubt that young people are more religious now than they were five to ten years ago and that the religion they are following is not the “traditional (Hanafi) Islam” of the area but less moderate imports from the Middle East.

But this does not mean that they are all ready to take up arms against the government or support some kind of Islamic Caliphate. The authorities would take that interpretation at their own peril — if they start repressing religious Tatars, they may end up promoting more violence than if the people were left alone to worship as they please.

The proposal in the article that the government should reject any attempts at dialog with the “Wahhabi lobby” in Russia and instead ban all “Wahhabi activity” seems to be particularly counterproductive in this regard. This is the kind of thing that was tried in places like Kabardino-Balkaria five, six years ago and only led to more people taking up arms against the authorities, because of a desire for revenge against the very people who humiliated them or repressed their relatives. Those who follow this topic may well remember the story about Russian Interior Ministry operatives going into mosques and forcibly shaving people or carving crosses into their hair. The net result of these actions was a rapid increase in anti-government attitudes, followed by Islamic radicalism, then a spike in violence in the region.

The regional authorities could shoot themselves in the foot by taking excessively harsh measures against nonviolent but pious Muslims who reject the traditional Islamic leadership in the region in favor of strands of Islam imported from the Middle East. In that case, one could see the formation of violent bands whose goal is revenge against those who humiliated or hurt them.

If, on the other hand, followers of Salafi Islam in Tatarstan are monitored but not persecuted, the chances for a significant surge of religiously based violence in the region is pretty remote.

Violence in the Caucasus is due to a combination of religious extremism, a hopeless economic situation, and a perception that the local authorities are all crooks. Tatarstan may have more religious extremists than it used to, but its economic situation is pretty good by Russian standards and its authorities are less blatantly corrupt than those in the North Caucasus. Unless we start seeing massive unemployment among young Muslim men in the Volga region, I don’t think we should worry about the kind of violence and instability that we see in Dagestan or Ingushetia spreading to Tatarstan.

There will be occasional disenchanted Tatar extremists who want to fight, but they will continue to do what they have been doing for the last decade — they’ll go off to the Caucasus, or to Afghanistan, and fight there. Tatarstan itself, as well as the entire Volga region, will become more religious, to be sure, but will nonetheless remain fairly stable and non-violent for the foreseeable future.

China Driving India, Russia Together

At the end of the Cold War, India had a choice either to remain isolated and strengthen the nonalignment movement or join hands with the United States to ultimately balance the growing influence of China. India opted for the latter in light of its own geopolitics.

As part of its strategy to keep South Asia clear of Chinese interference and extend its own influence into the greater part of the Asia-Pacific region, India began courting allies in Southeast Asia with a “Look East” policy. Now, if India has to be reckoned as a great power, it needs to look westward. It needs to spread its influence into Central Asia.

If that’s to happen, India has to find a stable and reliable partner to the north. Russia, an old friend of India’s from the days of the Cold War, will welcome India’s presence in Central Asia to counter China’s ambitions in the region. India’s booming economy moreover can act as a major attraction to Russian industry. Defense contracts serve India’s ambition to continue and improve relations with the Russian Bear.

For quite some time, India and Russia have been moving in that direction. For instance, the two powers have been conducting annual discussions on defense cooperation. This year’s talks centered on Russia’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft, a deal worth some $25 billion, and the leasing of the Akula submarine. India plans to get 250 of the fighter jets for its air force while the nuclear submarine will be leased by the Indian Navy for ten years to train personnel before the INS Arihant, the first submarine developed and built in India, joins the fleet. India and Russia have already had developed the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile together.

There has been something of a seesaw in the relation recently, at least when it comes to the procurement of arms with India actively turning to Uncle Sam for weapons. India’s defense spending is set to mount considerably over the next twenty to 25 years as the Indian military is modernizing its systems. New Delhi expects to spend nearly $120 billion over a period of five years starting in 2012. This represents a golden opportunity for Russia’s weakened economy to recover.

India would curse itself for allowing a golden opportunity to be missed. China has previously taken advantage of Russian experience and expertise when it recruited former Soviet defense specialist after the Wall came down. India has to make up for this Chinese advantage and speed up the process of cooperating with the Russians.

There are also important geostrategic reasons for improving relations with Russia from the Indian perspective. With the United States preparing to pull out of Afghanistan, there is already talk in the Moscow of expanding Russia’s role in Afghanistan. It’s likely that India will also get on board. India and Shia Iran used to be the main supporters of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance against the largely Sunni and Pashtun Taliban before the American led coalition toppled the regime in 2001.

Russia, which last year allowed the United States to ship weapons across its territory to Afghanistan, has been wary of the Taliban insurgency destabilizing Central Asian republics and spilling over into its Caucasus region. At the same time, Russia doesn’t believe in the doctrine of former foreign minister Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov anymore who once championed the forging of a strategic partnership among Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi to counter Washington’s presence in Eurasia. Instead, Moscow and Delhi are more likely to team up with the Americans to try to counter the extension of the Chinese sphere of interest.

It is against this background that Russian president Dmitri Medvedev is expected visit New Delhi in December for the annual India-Russia summit. Russia shares India’s concern over China’s rise. The last thing it wants is to have a Chinese hegemony spread around the Caucasus and Central Asia once American troops are out. Medvedev’s visit to New Delhi will be preceded by President Barack Obama’s own trip to India in November and there is no prize for guessing that there could be a revision of Primakov’s doctrine aimed at Beijing.

In conclusion, the wheel has come full circle from the time when India in its infancy as a nation newly independent after 1947 used to court the Soviet Union by following a socialist economy with national planning very much in line with the Stalinist model to Russia courting India for economic purposes today and in order to regain international influence and prestige.

America’s Shadow War on Terror

The heavy military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is driving terrorists to seek shelter elsewhere. In almost a dozen “failed states” in Africa and Asia, they find conditions to meet their needs, granting different terrorist networks fresh safe havens from where to launch attacks against the United States and its allies which are left with the nigh impossible task of nation building in countries too safe for terrorists but too violent for civil society to take shape.

America’s “shadow war” on terror around the world would seem to contrast sharply the administration’s imminent retreat from Iraq and its scheduled departure from Afghanistan starting less than a year from now. No matter hopes of another “surge”, this time against the Taliban but executed by the very general, David Petraeus, who successfully subdued the insurgency in Iraq in 2007, the United States are preparing for defeat in Afghanistan as the notion of allowing the Taliban a foothold in the south and southwest of the country gains widespread acceptance.

Shifting the focus of the counterterrorism campaign to Central Asia, West Africa, Pakistan and Yemen does make sense though. While terrorist networks, Al Qaeda included, operate in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq, they don’t operate from it. The mountainous and porous border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan represents an excellent stronghold for the insurgents to organize and coordinate their efforts from instead. Similar conditions — a terrain that is difficult for traditional armed forces to penetrate and the near or total absence of government — prevail in parts of Algeria, the Sudan, Somalia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The New York Times reports:

In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.

The stealth war that began during the Bush Administration has expanded considerably under President Barack Obama, without explicit congressional approval; indeed, often without being publicly acknowledged.

In West Africa, the administration has found an unlikely ally. Long opposed to the American war effort in Iraq, Paris declared “war” on Al Qaeda after a French aid worker was murdered by the terrorist network’s North Africa branch in July. President Nicolas Sarkozy promised that the perpetrators would “not go unpunished,” his rhetoric being matched with an attack upon a terrorist base camp in Mauritania.

France has long been discreet about its counterterrorism efforts in the region, quietly cooperating with former colonies as Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger to curb the growth and evermore violent campaign waged by what is now known as the Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. Formerly dedicated to overthrowing the government of Algeria, this coalition of Salafist militants has, in recent years, killed dozens of Algerian and Mauritanian soldiers and police officers and abducted and murdered European tourists and humanitarian aid workers.

In Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan, landlocked between Afghanistan and China, the United States are intensifying intelligence gathering missions and building up a military presence. Besides Tajikistan, the Pentagon is participating in strategic construction projects in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Each of these states is struggling with ethnic division and a specter of foreign interference as both China and Russia have an interest in extending their influence in the region.

Pakistan and Yemen are each plagued with resistance movements that are able to operate almost autonomously in remote parts of the countries. Pakistan’s hopeless predicament is perpetuated as long as Islamabad can’t decide whether to continue to act as an American ally, attempting to crush the insurgency along its western frontier at the risk of civil war, or seek some sort of peace agreement with the Taliban and its affiliates, which would leave it badly compromised in the unlikely event that the United States manage to impose a central authority in Afghanistan, ruled from Kabul, possibly by Hamid Karzai.

In Yemen, the Americans have been carrying out missile and fighter strikes against suspected terrorists camps and strongholds as they have in Pakistan. According to the Times, American officials believe that they are benefiting from “the Yemeni government’s new resolve to fight Al Qaeda” but it is difficult to tell whether they realize that there are two different wars going on in the country: one against Al Qaeda in the central south, another against a Shiite uprising in the north. The Yemeni government, no matter its “resolve,” is using foreign funds to quell the northern rebellion while negotiating with Al Qaeda about a ceasefire, pretending the two conflicts are intertwined.

Pakistan, too, has been taking American dollars and spending them simultaneously on fighting some militants and funding others. Mauritania, in 2005, urged the West to supply it with military equipment in order to combat “the terrorist surge in the African Sahel.” Other governments in Central Asia and West Africa may soon come to realize the rewards to be reaped from being designated a battleground in the War on Terror. The United States, in the process, risk becoming party to local power struggles, forced to pick sides that could further undermine its standing with radical Islamists who quarrel with their secular though often oppressive national leaders.

The risks, according to the reporters of The New York Times, are great indeed. They include:

the potential for botched operations that fuel anti-American rage; a blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies that could put troops at risk of being denied Geneva Convention protections; a weakening of the congressional oversight system put in place to prevent abuses by America’s secret operatives; and a reliance on authoritarian foreign leaders and surrogates with sometimes murky loyalties.

America is no stranger to the latter and should avoid making that mistake yet again, in part because it is exactly what fuels anti-Americanism. Having the American military regarded by local populations as an instrument of their own authoritarian government plays right into the rhetoric of extremists who like to portray the United States as an imperialist power, determined to conquer and subjugate the Muslim world.

Surgical strikes against individuals and organizations that threaten the United States are perfectly justifiable and preferable to full-scale wars that cost America dearly and put entire peoples in harm’s way. But time and again it has proven a mistake to enlist foreign governments in that endeavor. Any state pursues its own interest. It would be unrealistic to demand of countries which harbor terrorist that they imperil their own security and social order because it might serve the United States.

The Afghan Silk Route: A Pipe Dream?

Afghanistan, situated in the heart of Asia, has for centuries been pivotal to international transport and trade. The argument is made today that for Afghanistan to prosper, it has to reinvent itself as the hub of a modern day “Silk Route” connecting Europe, the Middle East, India and East Asia. The future of Afghanistan, once the military campaign draws to a close, depends on its ability to foster economic success independently.

The Silk Route strategy stems from a paper prepared by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May 2010 entitled “The Key to Success in Afghanistan” (PDF). The study is supposed to have received major input from the United States Central Command which was previously overseen by General David Petraeus before he took over from General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan last June. Petraeus is quoted as agreeing that “Afghanistan can regain economic vitality and thrive” as a regional transport hub.

The authors, S. Frederick Starr and Andrew C. Kuchins make a compelling case for refocusing ISAF’s mission to “removing the impediments to continental transport and trade across Afghanistan’s territory.” Afghanistan, they believe, could become “a natural hub and transit point for roads, railroads, pipelines, and electric lines” across Asia.

The notion that it is possible to pursue an economic strategy in Afghanistan along with the military effort, “in such a way that the two are mutually reinforcing,” is appealing. It entails more than job creation and proper government; two objectives so far hampered by the simultaneous influx of Western forces and continued drone attacks which leave the population increasingly skeptical about NATO’s ability to convert a deeply unpopular and corrupt regime into a unified, centralized state for the first time in the country’s history.

Fortunately, establishing Afghanistan as a transport hob is “not a herculean task waiting to be designed and launched from scratch. Many international financial institutions and nations have already been building and refurbishing the roads, pipelines, airports, railroads, and seaports that connect these regions with one another.” Overland commerce between China and Europe could soon be blossoming as railroads and highways are opened across the Caucasus and Central Asia. Similar development has yet to occur between Europe, India and Southeast Asia however. “Trucks and trains cannot travel from Almaty or Tashkent to Islamabad, let alone New Delhi.” Different infrastructure projects are undertaken by different international sponsors but what’s lacking is coordination. “Afghanistan,” notes the paper, “remains the cork in the bottle.”

“The most powerful drivers of the expansion of transcontinental Eurasian trade in the coming years will be the rapid growth of the Indian and Chinese economies.” The bulk of Chinese and Indian exports today are shipped by sea but the authors expect that their growth will increase demand for road and rail routes over land. “Afghanistan and its neighboring Central Asian countries stand to benefit immensely from this trade through the collection of tariffs and through the growing role of their own transit-related industries.”

Two obstacles stand to prevent Afghanistan’s ascendance as a Central Asian transport hub: first, the absence of security and second, its poor infrastructure. In spite of noble construction efforts, on the whole, “Afghanistan has been off the Eurasian transportation grid for centuries and remains so today.” According to the authors, neither obstacle is insurmountable however.

Although sustained combat in Afghanistan and surrounding regions inhibits economic activity and dampens private and public investment alike, “local populations have shown themselves ready to prioritize commerce over political violence.” The paper cites the continuing flow of Pakistani trucks ferrying NATO supplies from Karachi to Afghanistan through the epicenter of the Pashtun insurgency as proof that commercial activity can flourish amid instability. The evidence appears slim but that shouldn’t wholly discredit the assertion. Afghans, like all people, will seek to capitalize on opportunities when they see them, war or no war.

The state of the country’s infrastructure is dire but not hopeless. Though underdeveloped, it “can support greatly increased levels of trade.” Government bureaucracy and corruption are in fact greater problems. Excessive border duties and red tape are frustrating economic activity more than roadside bombs and neglected highways ever could and nearly 1,000 continental truck drivers from various countries who haul their goods across Afghanistan agree. 90 percent of them point to bureaucracy at the borders as the greatest impediment to trade.

“The standardization and professionalization of customs administration is essential to unlocking Eurasia’s trade potential” therefore; quite a challenge indeed if one considers rather more developed regions of the world like Latin America and the Middle East where similar predicaments obstruct the movement of goods and people still.

The United States and their allies should start pursuing the Silk Route strategy in Afghanistan with three concrete policies to be enacted immediately.

  • Promoting more efficient road transit and trade;
  • Building an Afghan rail system connected to those of bordering countries and regions;
  • Developing Afghanistan’s potential as an energy corridor sending Turkmen oil and gas to Pakistan and India and Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbek electricity to Pakistan.

David Ignatius, writing for The Washington Post, cites Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister, who liked to compare the Silk Route scenario with the development of the American frontier. “What secured our lawless Wild West frontier was the transcontinental railroad in 1869,” notes Ignatius. “With trade and economic growth came stability.” Thomas Barnett has made a similar argument for years.

Integrating Afghanistan successfully in a trans-Asian trade network will depend heavily on the nearby interested powers: particularly China and India and Russia to a lesser degree. The former are already embedded with billions of dollars in aid and investment flowing into the country. Fareed Zakaria urged officials to consider that India matters in December of last year already. He noted that as the Taliban were forced out of power, “the cuisine, movies, and money that flowed into the country were, naturally, Indian.” With $1,2 billion in aid, India is the world’s fifth contributor to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, investing much more than China is.

Both great powers have good reasons to be actively engaged in the country. India is mostly concerned about what it stands to lose should Afghanistan succumb to near anarchy once again: Pakistan might well collapse entirely while terrorism is likely to cross the border into India which already struggles with internal violence on an almost daily basis.

As for China, according to Robert Kaplan, writing in The New York Times last October, it has its eyes on some of the world’s last untapped deposits of copper, iron, gold, uranium and precious gems, and is willing to take big risks to secure them.

By exploiting Afghanistan’s metal and mineral reserves, China can provide thousands of Afghans with jobs, thus generating tax revenues to help stabilize a tottering Kabul government. Just as America has a vision of a modestly stable Afghanistan that will no longer be a haven for extremists, China has a vision of Afghanistan as a secure conduit for roads and energy pipelines that will bring natural resources from the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

In short, India’s objective is first and foremost to keep the dangers of the Afghan insurgency at bay while China wants to move resources out in order to secure its own economic growth. That same concern is making it promote free trade in Southeast Asia and has it scrambling for natural riches through Africa and the rest of Central Asia.

Neither has a definitive strategy. They are willing to invest billions and try different means, whether it means negotiating with a regime they might otherwise abhor or inadvertently fostering democratization in far reaches of the globe. Yet no matter India’s concerns and China’s designs, neither is willing to sacrifice its own interests, if only in part, or risk the lives of thousands of their own, like the Americans, to bring about a stable Afghan state that would, in the long run, benefit them immensely. If Afghanistan is to have a future of its own — and this Starr and Kuchins know only too well — it must be able to rely on a prolonged military commitment on the part of the United States.

Vying for Influence in Central Asia

The United States appear to be scheduling a greater involvement in Central Asia. They should think twice before immersing themselves in this unfortunate quagmire however, boxed in between the conflicting interests of two former Cold War rivals.

EurasiaNet reports that the Pentagon is preparing to embark on a small building boom in Central Asia. The military is seeking a role in strategic construction projects throughout Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the latter three of which all border on Afghanistan.

The largest project entails the construction of an anti-terrorism training facility in southern Kyrgyzstan. The US Army Corps of Engineers is anticipating two different projects in the small Central Asian state recently wrecked with ethnic violence, both estimated to be in the $5 to $10 million dollar range. The American embassy in Kyrgyzstan indicated that the facilities would be used for border security and counternarcotics operations.

The five former Soviet republics comprising the heart of Central Asia are caught between two great powers, each attempting to expand their spheres of influence in the region. In spite of Russia’s obsession with recapturing lost prestige, its foreign policy is not entirely focused on the West. Some Russian governors in the Far East occasionally raise the specter of the “yellow menace” and talk about the danger posed to the underpopulated region by unregulated Chinese migration. As Dmitri Gorenburg noted last February though, “this kind of talk rarely emanates from Moscow and certainly does not affect troop positioning.”

China is interested in this part of the world because it contains vast reserves of natural gas, oil, timber and gold. As Robert Kaplan warned in April, “Beijing is poised to conquer Mongolia again, albeit indirectly,” by buying up its resources.

The two powers may clash in the years ahead over influence and interests but violent confrontations are unlikely to occur. For one thing, both remain committed to promoting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an alternative to what they perceive to be a disproportionate Western stake in international affairs. Within the informal BRIC, they have the support of Brazil and India in this regard, two other prominent rising powers. Political infighting makes no sense for either country. They would only stand to lose from an all too obvious split.

What’s more, China is mainly concerned with ensuring its economic growth, not with territorial expansion. Russia maintains a strong position in Central Asia and has most of its military might turned southward. There is no reason for China to deny Moscow the illusion of still being a great power.

That illusion is powerful however and still has former satellite states worrying about Russian designs upon their newfound independence. For America to establish a permanent military presence in all of Central Asia sends a clear signal to Moscow that it won’t allow a repetition of the 2008 invasion of Georgia. Whether, if worst comes to worst, the United States will actually be willing to risk American lives to curb Russian expansionism is another matter.

It’s not so much because of the danger of great power conflict in Central Asia that the United States should take care not to thrust themselves all too powerfully into this seemingly irrelevant part of the world. Central Asia is like the Balkans, with a confusing array of micro-nationalities, borders arbitrarily drawn without regard for ethnic divides, and a geography that is bound to frustrate any attempt at military intervention.

Up to the early twentieth century, Central Asia had no real borders. Rather the region was one large frontier separating the Russian Empire from British colonial interests to the south. With the emergence of the Soviet Union however and its aggressive attempts at spreading communism worldwide, the former khanates of Central Asia were quickly absorbed and divided into neat little socialist republics. Neat, except that their borders were drawn with the express purpose of keeping the populations there divided lest they rise up against the Soviet usurpation.

The borders were redrawn several times during the 1920s and 30s, prompting violent demarcation disputes after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Separating the five newly independent states are Soviet borders; linking them are Soviet roads, pipelines and electricity grids.

Unlike its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has experimented with democracy in the recent past and the interim government that took control after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the capital last April has announced a referendum to determine the country’s political future. Kyrgyzstan however is desperately divided, with an Uzbek minority living in the west near the Uzbekistan border fearing oppression and north and south appearing like different countries altogether. The north, around the capital of Bishkek, is more developed, with some industry and a semblance of Russian culture. The south, largely agrarian and more Islamic, is separated from the north by a mountain range through which just two usable roads traverse.

Resources and a wish for stability so near the Middle East will lure the three interested powers — China, Russia and the United States — to Central Asia. Add to that the threat of Islamic extremism. America and Russia have both felt the effects of that while Beijing dreads nationalist uprisings in what was once East Turkestan and is now China’s volatile Xinjiang province. They will inevitably clash over influence and natural riches and possibly attempt to exploit ethnic disputes to serve their own interests. In the end, that would leave everyone worse off.

Kyrgyz Government Invites Russian Peacekeepers

Kyrgyzstan’s interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva has asked for Russian military support to suppress violence in the south of the country on Saturday. Dozens were reportedly killed in the city of Osh last week amid confrontations between native Kyrgyz and Uzbek youths.

Mass riots in Osh escalated into violence on Thursday night, resulting in hundreds of protesters being injured and, according to Russian and Chinese media, at least 62 deaths. Rioters set fire to government buildings amid widespread looting and vandalism. The unrest also spread to the capital, Bishkek, where armed mobs clashed with police and volunteer militias. Army and police reinforcements were quickly dispatched to quell the violence and a curfew has been imposed throughout southern Kyrgyzstan to last until June 20.

A spokesman for Roza Otunbayeva quoted the interim president as admitting that the situation “got out of control” and that Kyrgyzstan needs “outside military forces to solve the situation.” Read more “Kyrgyz Government Invites Russian Peacekeepers”