The US State Department recently shared the country’s new policy vision for Central Asia. Senior diplomats Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Richard E. Hoagland laid out the new policy of the US in speeches in Washington, D.C. The new policy presents four high priority areas for the US regarding cooperation and focus in Central Asia, namely security cooperation, economic ties, promoting human rights and good governance, and efforts to bolster each country’s sovereignty and independence.
In terms of security cooperation, the top issue for the United States is Afghanistan. The five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have been helpful in supporting the United States’ efforts in Afghanistan, and the US has financially supported them as well. There has been an uncertainty in the Central Asian countries about what would happen when the US withdraws all its troops from Afghanistan. US President Barack Obama announced during Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s official visit to Washington that he would keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through the end of the year, delaying the pace of the former withdrawal plan. This means the US will be physically present in the region for longer and would seek the support of Central Asian countries.
Moreover, US officials declared that Central Asian states will continue to hold Washington’s interest even after the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan. Deputy Secretary of State Blinken emphasized in his speech that “there are those who look at the drawdown of our forces from Afghanistan and see through that a region of declining importance to the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. … Our commitment to enduring partnerships that advance our interests and values in the region has not [changed].”
On the other hand, Hoagland underlined that even though the US and its international allies are committed to a secure and stable Afghanistan, eventually and inevitably, the Afghans will have to stand on their own feet. That said, Hoagland also stressed that it would only be possible if “Afghanistan can connect its economy to the countries of Central Asia and South Asia, to China and to Europe, serving as a hub for regional energy markets and with reliable trade and transport links, benefitting the entire region.” This also shows that the US will continue to collaborate with Central Asian states and encourage them to support the economic and political development of Afghanistan.
Another hot topic with regards to security in Central Asia is the existence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In a recent statement, Uzbek National Security Service analyst Bakhtiyor Sharafov said Uzbekistan is quite concerned over the presence and advancement of ISIL in Afghanistan. It has been months now since high-ranking Afghan officials confirmed ISIL’s existence in Afghanistan, though acknowledged as non-operative at the time. However, a group of militants claiming to be from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have settled in northern Afghanistan and pledged allegiance to ISIL a few days ago.
Last week, Afghan President Ghani, in a joint meeting of the US Senate and House of Representatives, said ISIL had already sent militants to different parts of Afghanistan to search for vulnerabilities and that they pose a great threat to Central Asia as well. Afghanistan, in the northern part of the country, neighbors three Central Asian countries, namely Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Being at the gate of Central Asia, the presence of ISIL in northern Afghanistan and the possibility of them becoming operative by joining forces with the IMU and other affiliated networks could destabilize the region, including neighboring Central Asian countries.
In terms of relations with Central Asian countries and security-related matters, it seems that Afghanistan is at the heart of the national security policy of the United States. Central Asian countries have served as vital partners for the United States and NATO forces since 2001 in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The US needs further cooperation with Central Asian countries in the coming years while Afghanistan undertakes full security responsibility. Meanwhile, Central Asian countries are aware of their critical role in the future of Afghanistan and the region, and draw attention to potential threats in northern Afghanistan. At the end of the day, the US-Central Asia cooperation could create a win-win situation for all parties since the future of Central Asian countries consist of a secure, stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.(Today)