The Dangers of Neglecting Central Asia

John Kerry's verbal fumble reflects a historic and ongoing American lack of attention to the region.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Seoul military airport in Seongnam, South Korea, Friday, April 12, 2013.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the Arab League would play a "very important role."

Eric Hannis is Senior Fellow in Defense Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC

Secretary of State John Kerry made news recently by referring to the venue of the latest nuclear talks with Iran as the fictional country of "Kyrzakhstan." That off-the-cuff comment was a telling indicator of the general lack of concern for Central Asia that prevails in official Washington.

To be fair, it is easy for any Westerner to jumble the unfamiliar names of the five nations that make up Central Asia. But Kerry's verbal fumble reflects a historic and ongoing American lack of attention to that part of the world – one that we perpetuate at our peril.

Central Asia today stands at a crossroads. Since the Soviet era, the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have been aligned with, and dependent upon, Russia. All were part of the Soviet Union, and many still receive economic and military benefits from Russia.

But these countries know the price of relying too much on Moscow. As a result, several are looking to develop closer relations with other nations, including the U.S., as a counterbalance to Russian influence.

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Not that all the Central Asian states can completely sever ties with Moscow, of course. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example, are too poor and too dependent economically to leave the Russian fold. The former is close to becoming a failed narco-state whose economy is deeply dependent on remittances from Moscow. The latter, which served as an air transport hub for Coalition operations in Afghanistan, has drifted toward Russia now that our exit from Afghanistan has been set. (Reclusive Turkmenistan has tended to keep its own counsel, although the past half-decade has seen some halting strides toward the West.)

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the only Central Asian nations with enough military clout to challenge Russia's regional hegemony and the economic foundations to support themselves without dependence on Moscow. But Russia's economic and military power may still be too much for these countries to resist, unless America can become a real and viable balancer in the region.

Similarly, without a serious counterbalance, China's influence in the region will continue to grow. While NATO forces have been fighting in Afghanistan, resource-hungry China has broadened its business and economic interests in Central Asia – focusing in particular on countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, which have extensive energy extraction operations. As U.S. national security strategy pivots to Asia to counter Chinese influence and aggression, Central Asia – and Beijing's inroads there – cannot be excluded from our strategic considerations.

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Finally, radical Islam remains a real and serious threat to regional security. Once NATO forces leave Afghanistan in 2014, radical elements could push north from Afghanistan or home-grown radicals, like Uzbekistan's IMU, might be emboldened. With NATO out of the picture, many Central Asian states will feel the need to rely more on Russia's Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the Russian and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to fill the security void.

To provide an alternative and a balance to these structures, the U.S. and its allies in Europe must continue to bolster the independent counterterrorism capabilities of the Central Asian states.

To be sure, the U.S. cannot hope to become the most influential player in Central Asia; Russia and China are bound to be more politically relevant in the region, both because of their geographic proximity and their economic and military clout. But the U.S. can and should endeavor to be a viable balancing force there, helping to prevent Russia and China from becoming too influential and monopolistic, and providing much-needed assistance to the Central Asian states in their fight against transnational terrorism. Neglect toward the region shouldn't be an acceptable policy any longer.

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