The U.S. intelligence community believes that the greatest threat facing Central Asia is internal, rather than emanating from Afghanistan, in contrast to recent statements by State Department, members of Congress and Pentagon officials who have lately been emphasizing Afghanistan-based Islamist threats to the region.
In an annual ritual, the U.S. director of national intelligence delivers the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community to the Senate, and the current director, James Clapper, did so Tuesday morning. Obviously such a report can make the world sound like a very dangerous place (Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, calls it the "World Cup of threat inflation"). But the section of the report dealing with The Bug Pit's beat is remarkably sober. While last year's report emphasized the threat to Central Asia from Afghanistan, this year's makes no such mention, instead focusing on the region's internal dynamics:
The threat of instability remains in the states of Central Asia. Central Asian leaders have prioritized regime stability over political and economic reforms that could improve long-term governance and legitimacy. Most fear any signs of Arab Spring-type uprisings and repress even small signs of discontent. The Central Asian states have not built constructive relationships with each other; personal rivalries and longstanding disputes over borders, water, and energy create bilateral frictions between neighbors and potential flashpoints for conflict. Ethnic conflicts are also possible and could emerge with little warning. Clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in southern Kyrgyzstan following the 2010 overthrow of the government resulted in the deaths of more than 400 people, and in the absence of government efforts to lead reconciliation, tensions between these ethnic groups remain high.
And while last year's report highlighted the possibility of Russia-Georgia conflict, that seems to have dissipated:
Recent developments in Georgia, following the victory of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, offer new hope for easing bilateral Russian-Georgian tensions. Prime Minister Ivanishvili has expressed interest in normalizing relations with Russia and has sought to improve the tone of the dialogue with Moscow. However, after nearly a decade of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party rule, Georgia faces a challenging political transition and an increased risk of domestic political instability.
The section on Armenia and Azerbaijan is repeated nearly verbatim from last year:
The standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region remains a potential flashpoint. Heightened rhetoric, distrust on both sides, and recurring violence along the Line of Contact increase the risk of miscalculations that could escalate the situation with little warning.
For the first time, the role of Russia in U.S. military transport networks to and from Afghanistan gets a mention as a means of reducing tension, albeit a temporary one:
Despite disagreements over missile defense and the problems of Iran’s nuclear program and Syria, Moscow supports US-led NATO military operations in Afghanistan. It sees its support of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) as a pillar of US-Russia relations that also helps stabilize Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Russia is suspicious of US intentions in Afghanistan and wary of any US efforts to maintain a residual military presence after 2014 without a UN mandate, which could put Moscow’s cooperation beyond this period in doubt.
And, as last year, the report notes that Russia's military is increasingly being oriented toward control of its near abroad, like the Caucasus and Central Asia, rather than toward a superpower conflict:
The reform and modernization programs will yield improvements that will allow the Russian military to more rapidly defeat its smaller neighbors and remain the dominant military force in the post-Soviet space, but they will not—and are not intended to—enable Moscow to conduct sustained offensive operations against NATO collectively.
All in all, there's little to quibble with here. The most remarkable element is the downplaying of any threat from Afghanistan. Uzbekistan government officials visiting Washington today are undoubtedly giving their interlocutors a very different picture.