The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 10 May 2010

Realpolitik in Central Asia

The so-called regional dimension to the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan is largely taken to refer primarily to Pakistan and, by extension, India. This is understandable but Central Asia deserves more attention (beyond practical matters such as lines of communication and air bases) so I was interested to come across this report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (dating from March this year).

Few strategic thinkers would argue with the assertion that "Washington’s AfPak policy needs to expand its field of vision to include Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan" but the question is how and for what purpose. We should be extremely cautious of seeking to support the COIN effort in Afghanistan without seriously considering potential repercussions.

Although very specific in its focus - namely the evolving threat of Central Asian jihadists - this report is coherent with much of the editorial commentary on the region in that it views the question through the AfPak prism, a prism which could very easily become a trap.
"We argue that the U.S. strategy to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda” in Afghanistan and Pakistan should be expanded to include Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Our thesis rests on the judgment that Central Asia’s jihadists pose a potentially grave threat to regional stability and international security. They operate in a geographically contiguous and increasingly interlinked environment that stretches from Pakistan’s safe havens up through the Ferghana Valley. Ongoing hostilities and deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan could transform what has been a relatively minor problem into a potent destabilizing factor in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The time to address this issue is now, before it metastasizes."
Instead of worrying that the Afghan conflict might spill over into Central Asia, we should perhaps be more concerned with severe unrest and growing militancy developing organically in that region and all as a result of the west turning a blind eye to government repression there just to secure some air bases - such as Manas and Termes - and supply routes for the campaign in Afghanistan.

These warnings are not new. For example, the scathing report of Craig Murray, formerly British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, on the Karimov regime - and US support for it - has been well-documented. In the words of Tahulbat Yuldashev, former Uzbek government official turned dissident: "Democracy in Uzbekistan has no financial support any more from the United States. It only cares about Afghanistan."

The following extract of the CSIS report shows just how problems may emerge organically in Central Asia, no matter the outcome in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
"The return of these [jihadist] fighters does not pose an existential threat to Central Asian stability — they lack popular support. But a militant influx could set off a destabilizing cycle of terrorist action and government overreaction amid deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan."
Incidentally, I find that extract to contain a glaring contradiction. If a destabilising cycle of terrorism, government repression and deteriorating socio-economic conditions - not to mention human rights violations - does not qualify as an existential threat then I'd be keen to know what does.

Today it is often said - rightly - that Pakistan is facing an existential threat. We should never forget that this threat began during the 1980s when the west supported a dictatorial regime in order to further its own interests in Afghanistan. There are some differences - the west was supporting Afghan insurgents then, not fighting them, and Pakistan was funding and arming jihadists, not clamping down on them - but the point remains that short-term expediency can unleash even worse consequences in the future.

In that vein, I find it especially disconcerting that the CSIS report outlines a number of key recommendations, all of which target the existing Islamist groups in Central Asia but none of which address the conditions which produce incubators of militant jihadists in places like the Ferghana valley.

Measure such as enhancing U.S. intelligence capacity on Central Asian target sets, launching a border interdiction initiative and focusing more attention on travel documents may address the symptoms of militant islamism in Central Asia but not the root causes.

The one exception is the recommendation to push to bring the counterterrorism legislation of Central Asian countries in line with EU directives and human rights laws. The EU reference is interesting and I'll return to that shortly.

The key question would appear to be to what extent should we balance short-term realpolitik against medium- to long-term consequences?

The fact is we should avoid that distinction as far as possible. Granted, this is not easy in practice but the war in Afghanistan is being fought, ostensibly, because the repressive regime in that country destabilised the region and harboured international terrorists. So what is the point if the measures we take produce the same effect elsewhere?

The international community must surely have the necessary mechanisms at its disposal to find a balance. For example, the European Union has an opportunity to - at last - play a meaningful role in western foreign policy. By encouraging, as far as possible, reform of institutions (police, judiciary) and promoting democracy and human rights through legislative reform (as mentioned above), the much-vaunted soft-power capacities of the EU would be a useful counterweight to the Afghan-based realpolitik of the US and other ISAF nations.

Thus the member nations of ISAF would, with one hand, do what is necessary for the campaign in Afghanistan and, with the other hand, seek to bring about a degree of positive influence in the same region.

The goal is simple - to prevent the storing up in Central Asia of similar and equally serious problems as those which continue to beset Afghanistan.

Even if that specific suggestion requires closer and more in-depth examination, the Central Asian question indisputably requires immediate attention and some kind of workable solution.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that you mention Craig Murray's book. I read it and the first half - when he discusses the Karimov regime - is an interesting read. But after that he gets side-tracked and spends the second half attacking the Foreign Office - it gets pretty monotonous.

    That said, he did highlight some real concerns, particularly with incidents like Andijan. A major worry has to be Hizb-ut-Tahrir turning more violent in Uzbekistan. From what I've read HUT seem to have quite a large following, even though much of it is driven underground and difficult to assess (due to suppression which, as you rightly point out, is the root of the problem alongside socio-economic factors).