The number one topic of conversation among Washington's small band of Central Asia watchers -- and the much larger band of Central Asian Washington watchers -- is about what will happen to U.S. policy in the region after the U.S. pulls its forces out of Afghanistan. U.S. policy in Central Asia over the last decade has been so dominated by the war in Afghanistan that's it's hard to imagine any more what the U.S. interest in the region might be absent that. And a couple of recent discussions in Washington provide a view both of the public and the behind-the-scenes conversations that are going on about this -- and highlighted the huge divide between what the U.S. says officially about its future policies toward Central Asia and what it is really thinking about.
One discussion, at the think tank New America Foundation, featured newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar discussing "Regional Connectivity in South-Central Asia." As that title implies, it was all about the U.S.'s New Silk Road Initiative. The U.S.'s New Silk Road has taken enough beatings in this blog and elsewhere that there is little need to kick it when it's down. (Still, another takedown piece was published recently by Eugene Imas in The Diplomat, "The New Silk Road to Nowhere.") But one part of Sumar's presentation stood out:
"When you look at the New Silk Road vision, what's really telling is that there have been a lot of changes in the last few years. Initially this was something that the United States very much kicked off and to me, what's been very striking ... is how much the region has come to own this vision themselves, and they are now driving the agenda in many ways, with the international community alongside as a partner to help shape, structure, and fund those efforts."
As evidence of how the region is driving efforts, she named the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation program (an Asian Development Bank initiative) and the Istanbul Process (nominally led by Afghanistan, but with strong behind-the-scenes efforts from Washington). But what's interesting here is a shift in the State Department rhetoric on the New Silk Road: whereas U.S. officials used to talk about spending no money and working on "software" (e.g.. easing border crossings) rather than "hardware" (e.g. roads and other infrastructure) they have now begun to try to emphasize the concrete accomplishments of the New Silk Road Initiative. When you look carefully at the U.S. claims of accomplishment, they are vague: language like "the U.S. has supported" and "the U.S. is working closely with" is the norm. Still, they seem to have taken to heart the widespread criticism that their signature policy was in fact a mirage and are trying to address it (albeit not particularly successfully).
The second event was of a very different sort: the National Committee on American Foreign Policy brought together experts and former policymakers from the U.S. and Central Asian countries. None of the names of the participants were released, but reading between the lines of the report issued by the group they seemed to be experts of the close-to-government variety like former ambassadors. And the report (pdf) is an interesting read. The participants were clearly worried about a U.S. departure from Central Asia as the war in Afghanistan winds down:
There has been a growing concern that, in light of the major U.S. policy decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, U.S. interests and foreign policy in the region have been in danger of falling between the stools through a combination of shifting priorities, diminishing resources and Central Asia “fatigue...”
But why should the U.S. be interested in Central Asia in the absence of Afghanistan? It's a fascinating answer: "The current reality of viewing Central Asia as an area of secondary importance to the U.S. is
shortsighted, given that both Russia and China (countries of primary importance to U.S.) see the
region as being of primary importance to each of them." (Even more fascinating: That was presented as an assumption which was taken for granted before the discussion even began.) And the top recommendation was similar: "U.S. policy makers should focus on the importance of Central Asia to Russia, the growing importance of the region to China, and the consequent importance of the region to U.S. interests." One is reminded of mom's old question: "If the other kids at school jumped off a bridge, would you do that too?"
Still, the participants did identify some fundamental problems:
There was a sense that, in general, Washington has relied too much on military means, which despite the performance of the U.S. military could not replace long-term diplomatic solutions. Questions were raised about the basis of decision making in Washington on Afghanistan and Central Asian affairs and the adequacy of on the ground factual information in particular, something we could hardly judge from the outside. Possible problems with linguistic competence, familiarity with the region, knowledge of local cultures, traditions and history were mentioned. The fact that our interests in the region appear excessively self-serving (energy and raw materials, buffer zone) were discussed. Without assigning blame for policy errors, American mistakes were mentioned, especially in the U.S. way of promoting Western style democracy in areas where social, cultural, and political tradition is not congenial. This reflected the perception of Central Asian regimes that American promotion of human rights can undermine local socio-political stability and security and is ultimately aimed at regime change.
That last point could be rephrased to say that the promotion of democracy and human rights while simultaneously trying to win the cooperation of authoritarian governments is bound to fail, whether or not the " social, cultural, and political tradition" is congenial. But otherwise few watchers of U.S. policy in Central Asia will have any dispute with those points.
But in general what is interesting about this discussion is how frankly geopolitical it is. Before September 11, the U.S. wasn't heavily involved in the region, but the policies and goals it did have were of the long-term, geopolitical variety, as exemplified by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and the wresting away of Russia's monopoly on Caspian energy. These experts seem to be advocating a return to that policy framework -- though now with the addition of China as as opponent.
Anyway, what of the New Silk Road? Trade and transit? Economic connectivity? These insiders barely mentioned it -- except in the context of China's active economic investments in Central Asia. They apparently aren't buying the New Silk Road rhetoric, either.