For all of the United States’ focus on defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), countering Russia, and balancing against a rising China, it has neglected a region critical to all of these issues: Central Asia. Through forced reprioritization and willful neglect, the United States has slowly become a second-rate power in Central Asia, allowing Russia and China to compete to serve as the prime economic and security guarantor in this geopolitically-significant region connecting East Asia, South Asia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.
The United States must readjust its foreign policy and work to make itself relevant in Central Asia once again. Security cooperation should be a fundamental cornerstone of US engagement in Central Asia. Building up these regimes’ abilities to defend themselves will give the United States credibility in the region, while refuting propaganda alleging that the United States seeks to overthrow their governments via “color revolutions.” Only then will the United States be able to create even stronger security and economic relationships in the region.
Why is security cooperation important for the United States and Central Asia? The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) Peace Mission 2016 revealed that the nations of Central Asia are either incapable of responding to an ISIL-like threat, or they lack the motivation to do so. These nations are instead choosing to rely on security provided by Russia and China as a result of their budding competition for regional influence. These two superpowers are certainly not making strong efforts to build up the Central Asian nations’ abilities to counter threats independently; they welcome the dependence. In fact, they often encourage and enable the corruption and graft that has prevented regional militaries from building up their own capacity.
Peace Mission 2016 also showed that many Central Asian nations lack the equipment and force structure to rapidly respond to a large-scale terrorist attack or insurgent movement. Russia and China appeared to be the only countries in the exercise that possessed the rapid reaction forces needed to quickly counter rapidly evolving threats. Meanwhile, the Central Asian forces, whose militaries are all descended from the Soviet military, consisted of heavy tanks and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). The military equipment Central Asian nations possess is better suited for fighting a conventional conflict more than countering a quickly evolving extremist or separatist threat. The nations of the region appear to be more concerned with fighting each other than countering a more realistic threat to their existence.
The United States can and should provide these nations with the equipment and training to overcome legitimate extremist uprisings that could lead to scenarios like ISIL’s capture of Mosul in 2014. With this enhanced capacity, Central Asian states would be better positioned to defend themselves and deny Russia and China overbearing influence.
Critics may cite the potential costs of additional foreign military aid around the world; however, vehicles for mountain warfare and security forces training are a low-cost option compared to many resources the United States has provided to countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Another point of criticism may be the human rights implications of US reengagement, but meaningful and effective security assistance will help the United States acquire the capital necessary to positively influence human rights situations in these countries. Furthermore, with the increased capability to respond to threats, Central Asian nations may no longer feel the need to over utilize the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) mechanism, which, as a means to identify and detain terrorist suspects, have long been a human rights concern. Russia and China are the greatest proponents of RATS, but the individuals being targeted are often from Central Asia, causing great local discontent.
The United States cannot ignore Central Asia any longer. The absence of the United States in the region has allowed Russia and China to grow bolder and exploit the worldwide threat of terrorism, rather than solve it. An increased US presence in the region, centered on security, will benefit both the United States and all of Central Asia for decades to come.
Daniel Urchick is a Research Analyst at Aviation Week. He earned his MA in Political Science from Central Michigan University in 2015 and expects to receive his MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University in 2018. Daniel is an incoming 2017 Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).
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