The September 11 terrorist attacks have altered the geopolitical dynamics in Central Asia. The United States has emerged as the preeminent power in the region, causing other countries with interests in Central Asia to adjust to radically changed circumstances.
The war on terrorism and increasing instability in South and Southwest Asia call for a long-term U.S. military presence in Central Asia. Such a presence could also complement ongoing U.S. diplomatic relationships in the region.
In the long run, U.S. influence in the region will have to contend with the residual advantages that Russia, China, and Iran have by virtue of their geographic proximity, cultural ties, and trading patterns. The American ability to promote the security and stability of Central Asia will depend on the cooperation of and perhaps partnership with one or more of these states.
Central Asia will have to contend with poor governance, widespread corruption, and authoritarian regimes, with all the ensuing consequences for U.S. efforts to promote economic and political modernization. Balancing short-term stability against considerations of long-term political and economic reform will further complicate these efforts. The roles of partner, security manager, and advocate of reform are not easily reconciled in Central Asia. Still, the events of September 11 have left the United States with no alternative but to address these issues.
The terrorist attacks of September 11 swept away much of the uncertainty about Central Asia's importance to the international system and its relationship with the major powers, especially the United States. Indeed, the five states of the region--Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan--have become among the most important frontline states in America's war on terrorism. But the war did not alter many basic long-term trends in the region that will complicate U.S. activities as well as color Central Asian perceptions of the United States. Beyond the immediate demands of the war on terrorism, many fundamental questions remain unanswered: How important is Central Asia to the United States? What is the nature of U.S. interest in the region? What role should the United States play in Central Asia: security manager, hegemon, limited partner?
Defining the right role for the United States in Central Asia is no easy task. The region is geographically remote, unknown to much of the American public, and not easily accessible. It has few evident connections to the United States. U.S. interests in Central Asia--beyond the most basic ones such as peace, stability, and alleviation of human suffering, as well as those associated with terrorism--are not easy to identify in ways that the American people and their leaders would readily embrace. Moreover, the early record of U.S. engagement in Central Asia immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union and through the 1990s was not a positive one, resulting in mutual disappointments in Washington and the Central Asian capitals. That record offers important lessons that will be considered below.
A History of Ambivalence
The events of September 11 and the onset of the U.S. campaign against terrorism have produced new winners and losers in and around Central Asia. The region itself has been the big winner; the world has focused attention on it to a degree unimaginable in the 1990s. The reason the world cares is different now than in the early 1990s, when Central Asia had nuclear weapons left over from the Soviet Union, or in the mid-1990s, when oil and gas were of great interest, or in the late 1990s, when nongovernmental organizations were campaigning for human rights. The world cares about Central Asia now for two reasons: its proximity to the South Asian tinderbox and the belated realization by Western political establishments that state failure anywhere in post-Soviet Central Asia carries significant risks for the West in its efforts to root out al Qaeda-style terrorist networks. …