Surveying the Challenges and Opportunities of America's Foreign Policy Toward Central Asia

By Andreas Borgeas
Cornell International Affairs Review
2015, Vol. 8 No. 2 | pg. 3/3 |

Recommendations for U.S. Policy

In order to establish lasting stability in the regionthe US should remain engaged in Central Asia by continuing to promote economic development through regional and global integration, improving regional cooperation alongside evolving notions of sovereignty, andencouraging policies and reforms to undermine the appeal of Islamic extremism. In this context, the following recommendations are made to US policymakers:

Promoting Economic Development

Economic development is essential to improving stability in Central Asia and the means by which the “New Silk Road” strategy can be accomplished. The New Silk Road is a generic title for an organically unfolding strategy that is intending to further open the markets of Central Asia to the larger markets of South Asia. Building upon ancient precedent, the Silk Road strategy is a natural exchange system for Central Asia, and China has already established itself as a powerful trading partner with most of the Central Asian states. Furthermore, promoting the New Silk Road strategy will further encourage Chinese foreign investment in Central Asia that can be directed towards strengthening the inadequate and aging infrastructure in each state.

In order for this strategy to be successful for all of Central Asia, as opposed to primarily benefitting China, US policy should remain oriented toward creating more conducive environments for FDI. This would include decreasing government corruption and organized crime and reforming business and banking laws that promote private industry. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan all have significant oil and gas reserves, but inadequate infrastructure, inefficiencies, corruption, and general instability have inhibited the FDI necessary for their natural resource industries to reach their potential and promote diversification. If they can achieve the reforms necessary to attract FDI to better develop their respective resource industries, markets in Afghanistan, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and even Europe will serve to further integrate Central Asia into global markets.

Improving Regional Cooperation Alongside Evolving Notions of Sovereignty

US policy should remain oriented toward promoting economic development through regional cooperation. One of the largest causes of tension is the “water war” between Uzbekistan and both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over hydroelectric power plants in the upstream countries. While the global community has encouraged a “water for power” trade, which has so far been rejected by the parties, the US should more strongly encourage the countries to open discussions for a sustainable regional solution. Giving them the opportunity to resolve their regional differences on a global stage may allow them the prestige and respect they desire, and the opportunity to emerge as regional leadersapart from the ad hoc jockeying that currently exists with Russia and China. While the US may not have the political gravitas to insert itself directly into such discussions, it remains in a position to help facilitate discussions before any number of international forums. Success in this area may give these countries the credibility and confidence to undertake bolder reforms within Central Asia, including establishing the ever elusive Central Asian political block.

While the US should continue to promote economic cooperation in Central Asia, it should also simultaneously support respective notions of state and regional sovereignty. While these notions may appear initially to be in conflict they exist regularly in the dynamic tension of statecraft; encouraging policymakers to evaluate under which circumstances regional cooperation or political independence is more beneficial. Promoting sovereignty will help increase the maneuverability of each country to develop alliances with Russia, China, the West, as well as among themselves in order to advance their respective interests, thereby creating a balance of power that will favor no one country and maintain buffers with neighboring powers Russia and China. A multi-polar dynamic will serve to further increase stability in the region that would not be available from any one power alone.54

Undermining Religious Extremism

US policy should continue to encourage reforms and adjustments that undermine the allure of Islamic extremism by focusing on the political, economic, educational and religious challenges giving it rise as an opposition force. In particular, US policy should support the followingiii:

  1. Encourage the Republics to Legalize Political Parties Associated with the Islamic Faith. Circumstances indicate that political activism premised on the Islamic faith could achieve traction in Central Asia. While the republics are essentially secular, they need not deny registration to political parties associated with the Islamic faith. Already outlawed parties, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, are cultivating support in Central Asia.55 The continuation of these ultra-secular policies risk disenfranchising moderate forces from the political process. These current practices force political expression underground and increase the appeal of more extreme and often foreign-based strains of Islamic thought. If these Central Asian states were to grant limited recognition to faith-associated parties, which disavow revolutionary or Sharia ambitions, they could help marginalize the appeal of Hizb ut- Tahrir and similar political groups in favor of more moderate political activism, thus drawing more into an approved political outlet.56
  2. Encourage the Republics to Sponsor the Study of Islam by Financially Supporting Officially Sanctioned Islamic Educational Institutions. Central Asia is known for having a shortage of formal faith-based educational and community institutions. This has encouraged a significant amount of underground, study abroad and foreign-financed activities, the consequences of which remain questionable but predictably dangerous.57 As a practical matter, when faith-based institutions are highly dependent on foreign donors, from such places as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, foreign elements are brought into the equation that may bear on the type of instruction and curricula provided. In effort to maintain the moderate practice of Islam in Central Asia, to which its common religious traditions are already oriented, it would seem prudent for the CentralAsia republics tomoderate their policies and invite a more transparent religious infrastructure and endowment process to be created for which these republics could temporarily provide financial support.
  3. Encourage the Republics to Implement More Preventive Tactics in Effort to Combat Terrorism. Like those of Russia and China, Central Asian security practices are more suppressive than they are preventative, in contrast to those promoted by the US and NATO. Suppression policies are oriented toward eliminating the opportunity for terrorists to carry out attacks, while prevention is oriented toward mitigating the social, religious or economic factors that give rise to Islam as an opposition force. Strict suppressive countermeasures such as religious registration requirements and obtrusive monitoring compound the sentiments of extremism by exacerbating the underlying grievances. It is unlikely that terrorism will ever be eradicated by solely suppressive or preventative policies, but gains would likely be enhanced if a comprehensive approach were used that incorporates both types of policies. Repressive state tactics that target religious groups and freedom of expression often alienate moderate elements, which are the very segments that can effectively marginalize extremism. As such, Central Asian security policies should hone in on the underlying causes of radicalism, which are known to be unemployment, limited professional and educational opportunities, religious and social repression and an exclusionary political processiv.


Last year marked the beginning of a systematic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the declared advent of America’s recalibrated Asian orientation. As the US decreases its investment in the region, it remains vital for the US to restrain the mounting momentum for disengagement and for policymakers to more concretely identify America’s continued commitment to Central Asia. The US’ foreign policy agenda may not always be as concerned with the region in the decades to come, but there is a unique opportunity occurring for the US to be instrumental in building a more stable region as the aging strongmen of Central Asia transition out of power. This forthcoming leadership changeover is indeed a rare opportunity. If the US disengages too abruptly it risks forfeiting the opportunity today to help forge the Central Asia of tomorrow. Therefore, in order to assure its participation in and relevance to the region, the US should incorporate the republics as the western flank of America’s pivot policy toward Asia. In this way America’s reputed containment policy toward China engages and affects not just Eastern Asia but Western Asia as well.


  1. US Embassy, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Transit Center at Manas: Recent US Contributions to the Kyrgyz Government and Economy, October, 2014, cent_contributions.html; US Embassy, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Transit Center Jet Fuel Con tracts 2009-2011, October 27 2011,
  2. US Overseas Loans and Grants, aid_10000010100001_0111.xls.
  3. Ibid
  4. U.S Aid, Foreign Assistance Database (FADB)
  5. Ibid. (Data for 2012 indicates a significant increase in payments of US foreign aid to both Kyr- gyzstan and Uzbekistan, however, these fluctuations can be attributed to the pullout of US troops and materials from Central Asia) [2012 (in millions) – Kazakhstan: 75.97, Kyrgyzstan: 76.55, Tajikistan: 36.63, Turkmenistan: 11.87, Uzbekistan: 34.43]; see also Congressional Budget Justi- fication FY2013-2015 located at for trends that indicate substantial reductions in US foreign assistance (for example, aid to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan decreased 31% and 27% respectively from FY2013-15).
  6. China and Russia Reach 30-Year Gas Deal, by Jane Perlez, New York Times, May 21, 2014,
  7. US Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Foreign Trade: Country and Product Trade Data,
  8. US House of Representatives, US Policy in Central Asia: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, 112 Congress 2nd sess., 2012, 53.
  9. U.S Aid, Foreign Assistance Database (FADB)
  10. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Kazakhstan: Recent Developments and U.S. Interests, by Jim Nichol, CRS Report 97-1058, August 10, 2012.
  11. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Kyrgyzstan: Recent Developments and U.S Interests, by Jim Nichol, CRS Report 97-690, October 26, 2012. Also see U.S. Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations for FY2013, Annex: Regional Perspectives, April 3, 2012, organization/185015.pdf.
  12. U.S. Department of State, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Volume I: Drug and Chemical Control, March 2013.
  13. International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, March 7, 2012; Uzbekistan: Where Conscripts Are Eager to Serve, EurasiaNet,
  14. U.S. Ends Ban on Aid to Uzbekistan, by Nathan Hodge, Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2012. Also, As Uzbekistan’s Utility to U.S Drops, Military Aid Bolstered, by Joshua Kucera, Eurasianet, February 11, 2012,
  15. Ibid
  16. U.S. Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations for FY2013, Annex: Regional Perspectives, April 3, 2012, tions/185015.pdf.
  17. U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012: Kazakhstan,
  18. U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 19, 2012.
  19. Press Release: Agreement Reached with Republic of Kazakhstan on Karachaganak, BG Group, December 14, 2011, http://
  20. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Statement by President Obama on the Parliamen- tary Elections in Kyrgyzstan, October 11, 2010.
  21. U.S. Department of State, 2011 Human Rights Report Kyrgyz Republic, drl/rls/hrrpt/2011/sca/186468.htm.
  22. Central Intelligence Agency, World Fact Book: Kyrgyzstan, tions/the-world-factbook/geos/kg.html.
  23. OSCE, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Final Report on the 6 November 2006 Presidential Elections in Tajikistan, April 18, 2007, istan/24664.
  24. Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Emerging Force in Tajik Politics Arrested, by Abdumalik Kadirov, May 20, 2013,
  25. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2013,
  26. US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2012, by Leonard A. Leo, Dr. Don Argue, Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, et al., Washington D.C United States GPO, 2012.
  27. US Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom – Tajikistan, Washington D.C. United States GPO, July 30, 2012.
  28. Addicted: Heroin Stabilizes a Poor Country, The Economist, April 21, 2012,
  29. Freedom House, The Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies 2012, http:// ies#.U1rtNRXD9aT.
  30. European Union, Uzbekistan: EU Counsel Adopts Restrictive Measures, November 14, 2005,
  31. US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report, March 2012.
  32. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Uzbekistan: Recent Developments and U.S. Interests, by Jim Nichol, CRS Report RS21238, August 3, 2012.
  33. Freedom House, The Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies 2012, http:// ies#.U1rtNRXD9aT.
  34. US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011, May 24, 2012, id=186163#wrapper.
  35. US Department of State, Turkmenistan: 2012 Investment Climate Statement, February 16, 2012,
  36. Field Research in Osh, Kyrgyzstan and Andijon, Uzbekistan (notes and confidential interviews on file with author)(June 2014)
  37. UNHCR, Final Report on UNHCR Emergency Operations in the Republic of Uzbekistan, July 23, 2010,
  38. Fresh Border Incidents Underscore Unresolved Problems in Fergana Valley, by Igor Rotar, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume: 9, Issue: 172, September 21, 2012, link/231205/339664_en.html.
  39. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Kazakhstan: Recent Developments and U.S. Interests, by Jim Nichol, CRS Report 97-1058 (Washington, DC: Office of Congressional Information and Publishing, July 22, 2013).
  40. Stratfor Global Intelligence, The Tajikistan Attacks and Islamist Militancy in Central Asia, by Ben West, September 23, 2010, and_islamist_militancy_central_asia. Uzbek Security Services Accused of Explosions at Tajik Supreme Court, Fergana News, July 16, 2008,
  41. U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2011, July 31, 2012.
  42. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Tajikistan: Recent Developments and U.S. Interests, by Jim Nichol, CRS Report 98-594, August 31, 2012.
  43. Uyghur, by Irene Thompson, World Languages,
  44. Kyrgyzstan Says Kills 11 Uighur Militants Near Chinese Border, by Olga Dzyubenko, Reuters, January 24, 2014,
  45. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Regional Economic Integration in South and Central Asia, by Geoffrey Pratt, March 12, 2013.
  46. Kazakhstan’s WTO Accession, A Long Winding Road It May Be But Hope Remains Strong, by Sara Rajabova, AZERNEWS, February 26, 2015,
  47. Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus Form Eurasian Economic Union, by Abigail Hauslohmer, Wash- ington Post, May 29, 2014, larus-form-eurasian-economic-union/2014/05/29/de4a2c15-cb01-4c25-9bd6-7d5ac9e466fd_story. html.
  48. Kazakhstan Foreign Policy Concept for 2014, by Gulay Mutlu, Eurasia Review, ukraine-crisis-analysis/.
  49. U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Resource Service. Kyrgyzstan: Recent Developments and U.S. Interests, by Jim Nichol, CRS Report 97-690, October 26, 2012.
  50. U.S. Department of State, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control, March 2012.
  51. The United States and Central Asia after 2014, by Jeffrey Mankoff, Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2013.
  52. “President’s Welcoming Address,” Turkmenistan: The Golden Age, March 3, 2011, http://turk-
  53. Interview of First Secretary, Political Section Chief, U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (notes and confidential interviews on file with author) (June 2014)
  54. Political Islam in Central Asia: The Challenge of Hizb ut-Tahrir, by Emmanuel Karagiannis, Routlege 2010.
  55. Counterterrorism Policies in Central Asia, by Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Routledge 2011.
  56. Islam and Democracy: Can Islamic Institutions Promote Civil Liberties and Diminish Radicalism in Muslim Central Asia?, by Dilshod Achilov, IREX Research Report 2009.
  57. Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid, Yale University Press 2002.


[i] For purposes of this article Central Asia includes the Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

[ii] An earlier version of this article was originally published as America’s Managed (Dis)Engage- ment Policy Toward Central Asia in the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations (Vol. XV, Summer 2014).

[iii] Portions of this recommendation section were originally published in the following articles: Islamic Militancy and the Uighur of Kazakhstan, by Andreas Borgeas, Yale Journal of International Affairs, Winter 2013; Security Relations Between Kazakhstan and China: Assessments and Recommendations on the Transnational Uighur Question, by Andreas Borgeas, Columbia Journal of International Affairs, April 10, 2013

[iv] Proposing a “western flank” of America’s so-called pivot policy toward Asia is premised on the intuitive engagement agenda whereby the US endeavors to improve political, military and economic relations with those countries surrounding China and are foreseeably within its futuresphere of influence. See Obama Heads to India to Revive ‘Pivot to Asia Policy by Christi Parsons and Shashank Bengali, LA Times, January 24, 2015. While such a policy has had punctuated developments (i.e. normalizing relations with Myanmar, expanding the ASEAN Free Trade Area, efforts to curb the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and an assortment of new military policies), it remains unclear whether the proposed policy is more of a directional rebalancing as opposed to a formal policy of Chinese containment. See What Exactly Does it Mean that the U.S. is Pivoting to Asia? And Will it Last?, by Matt Schiavenza, The Atlantic, April 15, 2013; see also Why the US Effort to Curb the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank Will Fail, by Erik Voeten, Washington Post, March 19, 2015.The notion put forward in this article is that the Cen- tral Asia Republics would appear to be natural candidates under this pivot agenda for enhanced relations with the US.

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