US must prevent a security vacuum in Central Asia

US must prevent a security vacuum in Central Asia

The recent terrorist bombing in Kabul that killed 85 schoolgirls demonstrates that Afghanistan will experience increasing turbulence in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal. The escalation of fighting between government and Taliban forces can also create a security vacuum throughout Central Asia and encourage Moscow and Beijing to push for regional dominance. To reduce the security risks following the military drawdown, Washington needs to expand its political and economic engagement with the Central Asian states by promoting their peace-making potential and boosting economic development and regional integration.

Central Asian countries can play a valuable role in the Afghan peace process between the Kabul government and the Taliban. Kazakhstan, the largest country in the region by GDP and territory, has offered its capital as a neutral venue and has substantial experience as a regional convenor. Under the leadership of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, it facilitated several international mediation efforts, including negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition and over Iran’s nuclear program. 

Following Kazakhstan’s independence in 1992, Nazarbayev initiated an international forum to promote regional security. The Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was launched in 1999 and today counts 27 full members and 8 observers. Israel and Iran are active members and participate in the forum and its committees. CICA can play an active role in bringing together regional powers to mediate a political agreement in Afghanistan.

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Central Asia and Afghanistan have long historic ties and hosted important segments of the Silk Road connecting different parts of Asia. Over the last two decades, Central Asian states provided access for NATO troops and supplies to Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network. Today they supply humanitarian assistance, technical know-how, affordable energy resources and market access for Kabul to the outside world.  

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan can become key economic partners for Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is expanding its supply of electricity, which will increase production capacity and create jobs. Kazakhstan’s flagship Bolashak education program has trained more than 1,000 Afghan students in Kazakh universities and provided over $80 million of assistance through its foreign aid agency KazAID, with an emphasis on infrastructure, humanitarian aid and gender equality initiatives.

The U.S. can play a vital supportive role in these endeavors through the State Department’s C5+1 initiative, launched in 2015 with the Central Asian states. This regional framework must also involve Afghanistan in expanding the region’s economic and infrastructural integration and developing Afghanistan’s transit potential. Its Economic Working Group focuses on crucial areas such as public health, agriculture, tourism, transport and information technology. It can attract private sector investment to strengthen cooperation in energy and the environment, including introduction of renewable energy technologies.

The U.S. initiative can also promote secure borders to enable the free flow of goods and combat the trafficking of persons and illicit goods. The C5+1 Security Working Group is focused on curtailing online recruitment by terrorist networks and holds joint and regional counterterrorism training. And in the energy field, unblocking the construction of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI) would also help promote Afghanistan’s development. A stable Afghanistan would serve as a vital bridge between Central Asia and the enormous markets of South Asia.

With U.S. engagement, all of these initiatives will help balance the involvement of Russia, China and Iran in the region. Moscow’s primary goal is to maintain Central Asia in its sphere of influence and keep the West at a distance. It uses the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and its control of oil and gas pipelines connecting Central Asia to Europe to assert itself as the regional hegemon. Russia’s approach is resented by countries that value their independence and Western connections.

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China is becoming increasingly involved in Central Asia through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which builds east-west transit routes for Chinese exports. Although Chinese investments are welcomed, no country wants to be ensnared in debt traps, pressured into military agreements, or become subordinate to Beijing’s strategic objectives. Iran is also expanding its presence in the region and seeking membership in the Moscow-directed Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which it hopes to turn into an anti-American initiative in Central Asia.

In such a challenging strategic environment, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries are reaching out for American support to provide greater regional equilibrium and preclude the dominance of any single outside power. Nazarbayev’s multi-vector policy, continued by his successor, President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, underscores the importance of U.S. and EU involvement in supporting regional initiatives such as energy corridors, transportation routes and infrastructure projects. Despite its military disengagement, Washington can become a facilitator for Afghanistan’s stability and development by helping to integrate the country in a broader Central Asian framework.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is entitled “Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.”