The United States and Central Asia after 2014
The war in Afghanistan has led the United States and its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) partners to pay unprecedented attention to Central Asia as a staging ground and strategic rear. With the impending drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan, Central Asia will cease being on the front lines of U.S. global strategy, particularly as Washington shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific region and reins in defense spending after more than a decade of war. These shifts threaten to undermine Central Asia’s precarious stability, which could in turn create new problems for the United States and the broader international community. As the United States transitions away from its decade-plus focus on the Afghan war, it will need to remain engaged not only in Afghanistan but also next door in Central Asia. U.S. engagement should focus on strengthening intraregional cooperation and bolstering the resiliency of Central Asia’s weak states.
In the short run, Central Asia will continue to matter to the United States because of its internal fragility and the potential for state breakdown, which could increase the dangers posed by conflict, refugee flows, crime, radicalization, and terrorism. Central Asia’s weak states are at odds among themselves and are incapable of addressing the threats of crime, drugs, and extremism coursing through the region. Central Asia is also at risk in the longer term of again becoming the focal point for great power rivalries involving the West, Russia, and increasingly China. A renewed geopolitical “Great Game” would, however, only distract these outside powers from the dangers that Central Asia’s fragility poses to all of them as transnational criminal groups and jihadists increasingly secure a toehold. Renewed strategic competition between the outside powers would further undermine stability within Central Asia. Uncertainty surrounding the future of Afghanistan and the role of the United States exacerbates the problem.