As the United States prepares to deploy an additional 17,000 troops to the troubled Afghan theater, Kyrgyzstan to the north vows to close the U.S. air base at Manas, considered vital for continued operations in Afghanistan.
Manas was opened in the American rush to the region after September 2001. Eight years later, the failure to engage the countries of Central Asia has only made efforts in Afghanistan all the more difficult. In view of the Obama administration’s goals for a “regional” Afghanistan strategy, White House decision-makers would do well to take into account the entire region, not just Pakistan and Iran.
Afghanistan borders Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to its north. The Tajik-Afghan border has been manned by Russian troops for years, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan conduct their own border patrols. All three operations are under-resourced and badly managed, which partly explains the organized crime problem Central Asia faces and the notorious buildup of contraband and smuggling in the region’s central Fergana Valley. Weak borders between Central Asia and Afghanistan are a recipe for long-term failure for the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan. We see today how terrorists and other criminals move unbothered through the porous border with Pakistan. Why should it be any different on the Central Asian side?
As the White House conducts a comprehensive review of operations in Afghanistan – to be ready this month – it would do well to emphasize the country’s porous northern borders, which also intersect with the main supply routes for U.S. and NATO forces. Huge potential exists to cooperate with regional countries through know-how transfer and institutional capacity enhancements for customs and border security. In 2010, regional leader Kazakhstan will take over the chairmanship of the Organization for Stability and Cooperation in Europe, and Astana has already shown an interest in working with the United States and its allies on stabilizing Afghanistan and the region.
For Kazakhstan, proliferation across the Afghan border presents a major security problem. Organized crime and other elements passing through are not only injecting instability into the region’s politics, but are corrupting and undermining the real economy and trade.
At the same time, there is a great deal of concern in Washington and European capitals about the future of the OSCE. The region’s broadest security structure is suffering from a post-Cold War “What-do-we-do-next?” syndrome. This is coupled with questions about its legitimacy. Many of its members do not meet most of the fundamental tenants that underpin the organization – namely democracy, human rights and media freedoms.
Since the August 2008 war in Georgia, Russia has sought to replace the OSCE with a security architecture that would exclude the United States in Central Asia. While there have not been many takers in Europe so far, this does suggest that the OSCE needs to actively engage in a purposeful mission if its members wish to prolong its existence. Kazakhstan’s leadership is right to pinpoint border security as such a mission, and the United States and NATO forces stand to gain from this in Afghanistan.
The Obama team should make a visit to Kazakhstan a priority to institutionalize cooperation. But Russia can and must be part of a regional effort. Afghanistan’s porous borders enable organized crime, terrorist cells and drug trafficking across Russia’s vast expanse. Russian troops in Tajikistan are literally on the front line of this struggle. In President Obama’s efforts to find common ground with Moscow, border security should top the list.
Regional cooperation also makes sense from a trans-Atlantic perspective. NATO is already engaged in Afghanistan, but the European Union recently launched a Central Asia initiative under the umbrella of its Neighborhood Policy. Part of its focus is on border security, but not much has been achieved since the launch. A U.S.-Kazakhstan push to get a major border security program for Afghanistan and Central Asia up and running would surely stimulate enough interest to get the European Union onboard.
The extra U.S. troops to surge in Afghanistan will mostly be supplied by goods purchased in Kazakhstan and transported across Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But the instability they are there to combat is partly fueled by the more nefarious trade headed in the opposite direction. Efforts within Afghanistan will only succeed if complemented by efforts outside the country, including increased border security through regional engagement.
Stability in Afghanistan is an objective in the interest of the often squabbling OSCE, European Union, Russia, NATO, the United States and the region. Mr. Obama should not miss the opportunity to take advantage of such convergence on his foremost national security initiative.
This article was previously published as “A Strategy for Central Asia” in the Washington Times. Borut Grgic is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Brussels. Alexandros Petersen is Dinu Patriciu Fellow for Transatlantic Energy Security and associate director of the Eurasia Energy Center at the Atlantic Council.