A U.S. Army colonel has argued that the Ferghana Valley is at risk of becoming a stronghold of terrorists like the FATA region of Pakistan and advocates a strong U.S. security cooperation presence there. In a paper called "Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia," Colonel Ted Donnelly of the U.S. Army War College argues that U.S. military policy in Central Asia is currently too focused on maintaining access to Afghanistan:
The Central Asian States (CAS) region has played a critical supporting role in OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) since 2001. However, current U.S. military strategy addresses the region only in the context of its operational importance relative to OEF. Failure to view the CAS region through a broader, long-term strategic lens jeopardizes success in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, is detrimental to regional security and stability, and increases the likelihood that the U.S. will be drawn back on less than desirable terms.
Donnelly argues that extremist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are poised to take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and establish themselves in the Ferghana Valley, the conservative, densely populated region shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:
[T]he most likely post-2014 outcome is that the Fergana Valley will increasingly resemble the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region of Pakistan. Like the FATA, the future Fergana Valley will consist of significant ungoverned space which would serve as a safe haven, breeding ground, and staging area for VEOs [violent extremist organizations] and militants. The IMU and other VEOs would use this safe haven, as well as reconstituted rear areas in Afghanistan, to increase Islamist insurgent pressure on secular Central Asian governments.
To counter that, Donnelly proposes a more focused security cooperation effort centered around defeating militants in the Ferghana Valley. The recommendations aren't too specific, though:
Ultimately, the Fergana Valley, as the strategic center of gravity for the region, must be central to any future strategy. Stabilizing the Fergana Valley must be the primary U.S. objective, not the current “maintain our bases and supply routes” objective....
The military-led security cooperation component will be smaller, but must focus on building the capabilities required to secure and stabilize the Fergana Valley: border security and interdiction to isolate the valley from Afghanistan-based insurgents, counterterrorism focused on those units that fight insurgents in and around Fergana, counternarcotics to cut off VEO funding sources, and disaster response.
Donnelly argues that the U.S. should pursue this strategy in cooperation -- rhetorically, at least -- with Russia and China:
Russia and China are also part of the region, and the SCO and CSTO are well-regarded, if ineffectual, regional organizations. Therefore, the U.S. should advocate and promote Russian, Chinese, SCO, and CSTO participation in the regional strategy... It remains true that the U.S. should not expect substantive support from Russia or China, and may even face active opposition, not unlike the status quo. Rather, this approach is primarily for political, diplomatic, and informational purposes.
It should be emphasized that this is one colonel writing his master's thesis, and so should definitely not be taken as anything close to official U.S. government policy. Still, it is the product of research conducted within the army and so probably reflects at least some current thinking among the people formulating policy in the region.
Leaving aside the accuracy of Donnelly's assessments of the security situation in Central Asia and the U.S. role there in, or the desirability of the recommendations, do they have any chance of being implemented? Probably not. Donnelly argues that U.S. security cooperation programs have suffered because of the U.S. focus on maintaining access to Afghanistan; in my report on the same topic I argue the opposite, that the growth of those programs is a direct consequence of the need for Afghanistan access. And so when the need for access disappears, I suspect so will these security assistance programs. In general, the U.S. is losing its appetite for getting involved militarily in far-flung corners of the world.
However, the future security situation in the region is highly unpredictable. It does seem possible that there will be a rise of violent extremism in Ferghana after 2014, as the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan gives more space to militants there. And in the (unlikely) event those Central Asian extremists include Al Qaeda or other groups targeting the U.S., one can imagine the region seeing something analogous to the U.S. covert action/drone activity in Yemen -- or FATA. We shall see.