2014 is bound to be a year of pundits asking, ad nauseam, ‘What’s next for Afghanistan?” It’s an important question, especially with Iraq currently providing a harrowing harbinger of what can go wrong after a drawdown of US forces. However, in the din surrounding the pull-out from Afghanistan, questions about strategy for the larger Central Asian region are, for the most part, relegated to the backburner. Similarly, after the Olympics in Sochi, it seems likely that the conflicts of the Caucasus will again be reduced to a back-page story. Eurasia isn’t commanding the attention of the Foreign Policy elite, at the expense of the preservation of US interests and moral agendas in the region.
So why should the foreign policy community care? Here are only ten reasons, in no specific order. Is there something you think is more urgent? Use the hashtag #whyeurasia to let us know, or send us an e-mail at email@example.com.
1) The Modern Silk Road is being rebuilt – but not as the US envisioned in the New Silk Road Strategy (NSRS).
The ‘New Silk Road’ is being constructed from east-west and is China-centric. It is not north-south and Afghanistan-centric as envisioned in the US NSRS. China continues to build roads and pipelines to the west to tap new markets and oil and gas reserves. NSRS projects, with the potential longshot exception of CASA 1000, have been largely forgotten by the foreign policy community and US government. China, meanwhile, charges ahead. If the US continues to promote security through trade, it should account for and, if possible, work in concert with Chinese development and investment.
2) Eurasia will be a key mine for natural resources (energy, rare earth metals, gems, etc.) in the future.
It is crucial for US to understand the region’s natural resource value for neighboring China, India, Iran, Pakistan and other global markets. China already has pipelines crisscrossing the region to feed its steadily growing energy demands (see number 5). The region also holds vast reserves of important commodities, such as uranium, gold, coal, zinc, lead, copper, iron and manganese, all of which are highly unlikely to wane in importance.
3) The Eurasian Customs Union will impact US trade Agreements.
Set to come into force on Jan. 1, 2015, the Eurasian Union presents Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most salient attempt at consolidating Russian soft power in Moscow’s “near abroad.” As seen with threats and follow-through in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, Putin remains determined to see the EAU cap his foreign policy legacy – which extends, especially, through Central Asia. Putin has seen surprising success in recruiting member-states, and, in mimicking the European Union’s supra-national model, the EAU’s formation lays the groundwork for expanded soft power from Moscow – be it financial, resource-based, or militaristic.
4) Central Asian nations know how to play superpowers off of each other
Central Asian leaders know how to wield regional security concerns, human rights reforms, development projects, energy investments and the threat of terrorism as carrots and sticks. They have proven particularly brilliant at pitting the US, Russia and China against each other. It will remain important for US to see through manipulation and coordinate stability-enforcing efforts, rather than fueling regional tensions. Such efforts could save US foreign spending and better achieve regional objectives if the Central Asian leaders’ tactics are better understood.
5) Natural Gas Production = Good for China, Bad for Russia
Natural gas exporters are expected to ramp up production in coming years to supply growing East Asian economies with much-needed fuel. Pipelines have already eroded the price of Russian gas, significantly decreasing profits and tax revenue that the Kremlin grew accustomed to. While the US may not have a direct economic interest in Eurasian natural gas prices as long as it’s nascent LNG exports remain in regulatory shackles, the price impacts for Russia and China will surely prove consequential in geopolitical games to come.
6) The Afghanistan tea set: We broke it, we buy it
After 13 long years, the US seems committed to at least attempting to secure its long-term interests in the region. Specific interests include security against the return of global terrorist organizations, the establishment of a functioning economy, inhibiting nuclear proliferation from neighboring Pakistan, core US values such as human rights and the rights of women. Obviously, achieving any one of these goals will require continued military and aid personnel, investment, time and patience. Further, in order to remove existing forces from Afghanistan, the US will have to provide substantial concessions (see number 4) to transit nations.
7) Border porosity and Afghan extremism
While Northern Afghanistan is relatively peaceful, conventional wisdom cautions extremism easily migrates across borders. While this threat is more than likely largely overblown, the spectre of terrorism in the region looms too large in the national security community to be ignored. So to that end, it’s worth remembering the jump of extremist ‘safe havens’ from Afghanistan to Somalia to Mali – and we would have almost no substantial presence to counter it should a ‘safe haven’ move into one of the many restive areas throughout Eurasia.
8) If the US is committed to supporting budding democracies, we can’t ignore Georgia and Kyrgyzstan – the only democratic hopes in the region.
Democracy is not successful in this region, and in fact is seen as a weaker form of government than a centralized authority. The population sees democracy as a source of instability and have little incentive to buy in. If the United States is to continue to be seen as a global moral authority, working in this region means working with authoritarian governments. If the US continues to turn away from the region, it will erode the hope for democracy in favor of following in China and Russia’s shoes – countries known for tolerating human rights violations. The US weakens its global influence by ignoring the rights denied to citizens of Central Asia. How can the US credibly continue promoting the idea that America is a beacon of human rights for the rest of the world if we walk away from our core tenants in Central Asia?
9) Central Asia runs on poppies
As long as we treat supply as the principal target of the ‘War on Drugs’, counternarcotics programs in Central Asia are key to attaining those policy goals. The drug trade destabilizes the entire region, including undermining efforts towards a solution in Afghanistan. Increased security and viable economic alternatives to opium farming is more than likely the only sustainable path to curbing the drug trade. However, opium poppy cultivation reached a record high in 2013 and accounts for 75% of the global supply. This means drugs coming from Eurasia directly affect and kill American citizens, which means it is obviously a US concern. The future prognosis is similarly bleak – Russian officials have stated they fear a ‘tsunami’ of drugs when the US leaves.
10) A number of potential conflicts loom in the region.
Repeated threats to go to war over water conflicts such as the Rogun Dam; insurgencies in the North Caucasus; questions of imminent succession in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan; skirmishes in the restive east of Tajikistan; the ever-bubbling conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh…these are but a few of the ‘hot-button’ issues in this region. There are simply too many potential flashpoints in the region to ignore.
Central Asia is perhaps the greatest regional mystery for the US. Hidden from Western eyes for the better part of a century, its secrets and means are still blooming to our understanding. The ancient people groups commonly labeled as denizens of “The ‘stans” see the world in ways that our mere 23 years of contact can’t hope to cover. Beyond the immediacy of geopolitics listed above, Central Asians maintain unique national and ethnic histories of survival through challenges, schemes and cataclysms pre-dating the culture of most Western observers. Their stories are hard-won and deserve audiences endowed with the ability to impact their lives.