The Oil and the Glory

Does Central Asia matter? A response to Dan Drezner

In February 1989, Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan after a decade-long U.S.-backed rebellion in the country. But already the United States was greatly reducing spending in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the staging ground for the arming of mujahideen guerrillas. President George H.W. Bush ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to stop sending agents into Afghanistan. Even as ...

DOUGLAS E. CURRAN/AFP/Getty Images

In February 1989, Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan after a decade-long U.S.-backed rebellion in the country. But already the United States was greatly reducing spending in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the staging ground for the arming of mujahideen guerrillas. President George H.W. Bush ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to stop sending agents into Afghanistan. Even as the Taliban was born in 1994, taking power in Kabul two years later, the United States remained aloof. We know what happened next.

Today, my FP colleague Dan Drezner in effect suggests a similar U.S. path in former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus. Responding to an essay I wrote for the New Republic, Drezner argues that the region was perhaps once a U.S. strategic interest, but that those days are over. The United States should not fight for its place: “There are a lot of regions in the world where I think a robust U.S. presence is a good idea. Central Asia is no longer one of them,” he writes.

The back story is the long U.S. effort after the Soviet breakup to reduce Moscow’s footprint in the eight republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. In the early years after the Soviet collapse, the rationale was to help prevent Russia’s resurgence as an expansionist and mischievous great power once it got back on its feet. It found expression in the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, a non-Russian transport route that came online in 2006, and offered the region the potential for political autonomy, flowing from billions of economy-strengthening oil dollars.

One of Drezner’s points is that it’s all well and good to promote human rights and political autonomy, but that, even with U.S. aid, the region today has ended up with the same-old autocrats as it had two decades ago. A U.S. role isn’t going to enhance local sovereignty, and today Russia doesn’t even care about the United States — it is more concerned about China. Finally, this region is simply too distant from primary U.S. interests. “I can’t get too worked up about this,” Drezner writes. “First, Central Asia is about as far away from the United States as one can get — if there was any region in which a low U.S. profile was called for, this is the region.”  He tweets: “The U.S. is forfeiting the Great Game. Yay!”

Drezner might look at a map. Tashkent, for example, is 6,300 miles from New York. But it’s also just 57 miles from the Uzbek city of Termez to Mazar-i-Sharif, the northern capital of Afghanistan, and another 189 miles to Kabul. So Central Asia borders the most active U.S. strategic interest at the moment, which is why about a quarter to a third of non-lethal U.S. equipment travels just this overland route.

Or look at Baku, the Azeri capital, which is 338 miles from Tehran. Almaty, the Kazakh capital, is 537 miles from the western Chinese capital of Urumchi. These are all nations of primary U.S. interest.

The United States belongs in Central Asia. First, as a matter of shrewd policy, it’s a good idea to cultivate eight strong U.S. allies. In the context of realpolitik, just as big-brained officials in Washington decided prematurely back in 1988 that America’s interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan were exhausted, Central Asia and the Caucasus are also inherently important places. Drezner is correct to say that China is a potent new force on the ground. But any new China-Russia rivalry does not play the same counter-balancing role favoring the republics as does a U.S. presence.

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