More Engagement, Not Less, Needed in Central Asia after Troop Withdrawal, Say Atlantic Council Experts

ASTANA – The Atlantic community’s engagement with Central Asia must be deepened and expanded, said Frederick Kempe and John Herbst of the Washington, DC-based think tank, the Atlantic Council, following their meeting with Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov and Foreign Minster Erlan Idrissov on June 9. As coalition troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan this year, the United States and its partners must find more avenues of non-military cooperation in the crucial region, they say.

The Atlantic Council promotes international engagement with the hope of fostering global security and prosperity. Engagement with Central Asia has been insufficient, Herbst and Kempe said, but the council is hoping to help rectify this by considering a presence in Kazakhstan as the region heads into a period of both potential growth and turbulence following the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

American engagement in Central Asia has been primarily focused on Afghanistan for too long, said Kempe, Atlantic Council president and CEO. “Energy rich, historically crucial, between China and Russia – we have to start engaging and studying this area of the world in its own right,” he said. The U.S. has interests in stability, prosperity and progress in all of Central Asia, he says, and there is a need to build solid and meaningful relationships in the region.

Not enough is being done, particularly in light of the troop drawdown, said Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Centre and former U.S. ambassador to both Uzbekistan and Ukraine. “Yes, there’s always been serious Euro-Atlantic interest in energy development in Central Asia, because there are substantial hydrocarbons here. Beyond that, there’s not been constant engagement, and we think that’s a mistake.”

By having a presence in the region, the Atlantic Council hopes to foster interests that go beyond energy, he said. Those interests include security issues like terrorism and drug trafficking, but also larger issues of sovereignty and independence. “It’s in our interests that all these countries prosper politically and economically,” Herbst said, and in regional leader Kazakhstan’s interests as well.

Engagement in a fragmented region

Engaging with Central Asia as a whole, however, is complicated by the disjointed nature of the region, the experts say. “Central Asia is a region that doesn’t quite work,” said Herbst. Despite ties from the Soviet era and earlier, “the countries have not found a way to really cooperate on the core economic, and for that matter, political issues in which they have common interests.” These issues include resource sharing, in particular, the use of water – a difficult area, Herbst says, but one in which the Atlantic Council hopes to make a contribution.

Greater cooperation, common development and economic expansion would solve “a lot of issues,” said Kempe. “We do think … that it would be far better if you could have greater regional development, and so we’re hoping to play a role as the Atlantic Council in analysing that situation, figuring out why it’s not happening and perhaps from the outside proposing solutions that some of the regional players might find interesting.”

In the fragmented region, Kazakhstan stands out in terms of security, stability and economic growth development, both experts say. “Part of the reason we’re attracted to coming here is there is, – whether you’re looking at nuclear proliferation, whether you’re looking at the future of energy through EXPO 2017, whether you’re looking at the candidacy for the UN Security Council – this leadership that takes itself seriously and benchmarks itself and tries to do better in the world,” said Kempe. “So it’s an interesting country to watch in that respect.” Efforts in the region must take into account Kazakhstan’s economic success as well as the differing situations in other countries, said Herbst.

The impact of the EEU

The new Eurasian Economic Union, both say, has the potential to be a great boon for the region – provided it evolves as an inclusive entity. “[The EEU] was originally President Nazarbayev’s idea,” noted Herbst, “and it was his idea, rightfully, as a way to integrate economies that had just been fragmented by the fall of the Soviet Union.”

The impact of the new union, which Kempe calls “a natural evolution in a region that is trying to grow economically closer,” depends on whether it is executed as an exclusionary body or one that is open to inclusion and interaction with other economic bodies, he said. Both experts agreed that as an open structure that doesn’t hinder trade with outside countries, the EEU could be a great benefit. If instead it erects barriers to other trade, said Herbst, then the EEU’s future could be “interesting,” for those inside and outside the union.

The EEU is largely out of the Atlantic community’s hands, said Kempe, but its experts do have some influence on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and the EU now under negotiation. “We’re trying to create that as an open infrastructure, where it becomes a platform for the best trading and economic practices, where others can sign on to and become part of,” he said. “And I hope that would be true for Kazakhstan, I hope that would be true for Turkey, I hope that would be true for Russia over time. That’s really got to be the future of the global trading and investment system. If we build islands that become protectionist, that is contrary to the direction the world ought to be going.”

After Afghanistan

As for the coming withdrawal of troops, the U.S. and the Atlantic community need to find a way to help the region deal with the likely rise in terrorism and drug trafficking, said Herbst. But the news from Afghanistan isn’t all bad: “You have a transition going on in Afghanistan that’s going much better than anyone expected,” said Kempe. The election of either of the two current presidential candidates would be a good outcome, he said, and Afghan troops are taking on responsibilities faster than some expected.

However, the withdrawal of troops that have been bringing billions of dollars definitely has the potential to destabilise the country, he said, and that could affect the whole region. The transition will require a great deal of focus. “That gets to the work the Atlantic Council is doing, because we’re very much in favour of what we’ve been calling the New Silk Road Initiative, which is using the old Silk Road of trade routes and investment routes and really building it under new rules and new approaches, so that you’re actually not just leaving the region as a country, you’re staying in the region in a different form. That’s what we’re hoping for.”

The U.S., Kempe said, is a great technological, financial, creative and intellectual power, and must bring these to its partnerships in the region. “Our engagement in this region has been excessively military and not sufficiently otherwise, and so in this transition we shouldn’t just leave a vacuum – we should fill it with other engagement. And that’s what the Atlantic Council hopes to do.”

“The Atlantic Council has a way of concentrating attention in Washington among senior policy makers on core national security issues,” added Herbst. The council hopes to draw that attention, from both Washington and Europe, to Central Asia, he said. “We think there’s a good story to be told in Central Asia about what we can do to help and in Europe and the United States about developments in Central Asia over the past 20 years, especially in Kazakhstan.”

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