Battling Misperceptions: Challenges to U.S. Security Cooperation in Central Asia

Article excerpt

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The far northern region of U.S. Central Command's (USCENTCOM's) area of responsibility--the five states of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan--is removed from the current main centers of attention, Iraq and Afghanistan. Simply to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan thus overlooks the security reality in the rest of the command's area of responsibility. When issues concerning Central Asia are addressed, it is often in the context of the region being a crossroads or transit area. Whether one focuses on energy reserves and export routes or the stability of supply lines to forces in Afghanistan, there is a tendency to view Central Asia as a part of the world over which states compete.

It is in this context that nearly two decades of active U.S. engagement in the Eurasian region have been viewed. In American parlance, this territory has often been cast as "former Soviet colonies," the "Muslim south," the "Near Abroad" (borrowing from the Russian portrayal of the region), "the 'stans," or simply as conduits for engagement in Afghanistan. In each instance, the Central Asian states are defined in relation to Russia or to the Middle and Near East. Perhaps as fallout from this confusion, the United States has had to deal with misperceptions, suspicions, and fears that it desires to enter this area and dominate it, setting the terms for political, economic, and even cultural development.

Over the years, official statements and newspaper articles from these states have pointed to an increasingly negative perception of the United States and its role. For American officials, this trend ought to be viewed as an opportunity to present the United States in a more favorable light, given that any U.S. presence in the region could in theory be contrasted to Russian, Chinese, or Iranian "threats of regional hegemony," as well as with an abysmal Soviet legacy that has been cast as a period of "colonial occupation." (1) Yet this healthier portrayal of Washington and its interests has not been achieved. The current situation thus raises the question of how the United States found itself in a relatively weak position in the region. More important, how did the current perceptions come about?

U.S. Policy in Transition

Much has been written on U.S. policy toward Central Asia, with a few recent publications focusing on the important issue of security cooperation. (2) These works have carefully laid out the various programs, events, and funding levels since the U.S. Government began such engagement in the 1990s. Moreover, they note how specific security cooperation efforts have been part of a broader regional policy. Given that American policy has shifted over time and priorities have not been as clearly stated as the regional powers might have wanted, it is not surprising that there is uncertainty as to the intent and success of such programs. In this light, some basic trends can be noted.

First, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was not an immediate rush to recognize all of the successor states as independent entities. Would the Soviet Union reunite? Would these "states" end up as confederated appendages to the Russian government? When it was clear that Washington was looking at separate countries, it relied on a policy of "Russia first," which meant that U.S.-Russian relations were deemed more important than bilateral ties with other post-Soviet states. As relations changed, so did this policy, but for at least 5 years or so, Central Asia was considered part of Moscow's sphere of influence. The most significant consequence was the conduct of the civil war in Tajikistan. The United States supported Russia taking the lead on peace negotiations and conflict resolution in that country. Tajikistan was simply more important for Russia than for America.

Second, during most of the 1990s, nongovernmental organizations, supported with U. …

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