The U.S. military needs to help the governments of Central Asia protect themselves against violent extremist organizations, says the likely next commander of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd J. Austin, III. Austin faced a confirmation hearing on February 14, and while it seems that the question of U.S. relations with Central Asia didn't come up, Austin was asked about the region in written questions before the hearing. His responses (pdf) were notable for the emphasis that they put on maintaining military relations with the region even after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan starting next year, and for the credence that he gave to the threat of extremism in the region.
In response to a broad question about relations with Central Asian states, Austin said that cooperation with U.S. partners in the region will gain importance after 2014:
As we transition in Afghanistan, securing access to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) for logistical resupply and retrograde operations is of particular importance as we seek to promote stability and assure our partners of our continued commitment to the region. The development of the NDN has been a critical area of investment to that end and cooperation with our Central Asian partners will gain additional importance post-2014.
Relations with Uzbekistan are to be based on "mutual benefit":
Our relationship with Uzbekistan continues to improve in a deliberate, balanced way driven by regional security considerations, expansion of the NDN and mutual benefit.
Interestingly, Austin seems to take a bit of a defeatist attitude to Kyrgyzstan's stated desire for the U.S. to vacate the Manas airbase next year:
The NDN network routes and the Transit Center at Manas remain key factors in successful operations in the region. However, the Kyrgyz government has consistently stated there will be no foreign military at Manas after the current lease expires in July 2014.
Is this a bargaining position, designed to show Bishkek that the U.S. is willing to walk away from Manas (possibly to Shymkent, Aktau or Navoi)? Or is the U.S. really giving up on Manas?
Most striking, though, is the assertion that the U.S. has an interest in preventing extremism from spreading in the region:
Tajikistan’s ability to build and maintain counterterrorism, border security, and counter narcotics capabilities is paramount in protecting our mutual interests from the threat of violent extremist organizations...
There are several violent extremist organizations (VEOs), to include Al Qaeda and other Afghanistan- or Pakistan-based groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that have expressed interest or intent to operate from and within Central Asia. The VEOs benefit from narcotics, arms trafficking, and smuggling which are pervasive threats in the region. These activities threaten legitimate commerce and the flow of strategic resources.
Now, undoubtedly Austin has access to better intelligence than do the rest of us, but all indications are that extremist groups in fact have shown little interest in expanding into Central Asia.
The U.S. is currently figuring out what sort of leftover military equipment to leave behind to countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. While the U.S. State Department is publicly insisting that it is only going to give non-lethal equipment, like desks, the Central Asians are making it clear that their wish lists are more ambitious, like armored vehicles and helicopters. The CENTCOM commander will obviously have a large say in this process, and with such a threat-focused view of the region, it would be easy to understand him pushing for a more lethal aid package. We shall see.