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Central Asia Celebrates Independence

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
September 4, 2011

A general view of the Kalyan ensemble in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, which dates as far back as 1127. Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov.

With Central Asian countries celebrating the 20th anniversary of their independence, it seemed like a good time to repost a comprehensive report on U.S.-Central Asia relations.

Issued in February by the bipartisan Central Asia Study Group and published by the Project 2049 Institute, the report, Strengthening Fragile Partnerships, was premised, in part, on a concern that U.S. policy toward the region had become swamped by the war in Afghanistan.  Put simply, our group sought to articulate a vision of U.S. policy in Central Asia that was, (1) not derivative of the war, (2) premised on some enduring U.S. interests that date back at least to independence in 1991, and (3) will outlast 2014, when the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan begins to wind down in earnest.

Now, U.S. interests and policies in Central Asia obviously predate the war.  But for the past decade, since U.S. attention became trained on continental Asia in the wake of September 11, 2001, the war has tended to determine the scope and level of attention Washington pays to Central Asia.  It has helped to bolster aid budgets.  It has provided a rationale for other forms of assistance.  It explains why high-level U.S. military officers have tended to visit Central Asian capitals more often than do their civilian counterparts.  And, more recently, it has yielded a considerable effort to assure a Northern Distribution Network—the logistics supply pipeline to Afghanistan that runs via Russia and Central Asia, in particular, rather than via vulnerable Pakistan.

But if the Afghan war is the horse the U.S. has ridden into many of its recent activities in Central Asia, the war will also be a horse that the U.S. rides back out.  And that means that American “staying power” and credibility in Central Asia require a more encompassing vision.

Our report hardly provided all of the answers.  But it aimed to provide a few ideas.  And it sought to contribute to this debate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even echoed some of its themes in a recent speech in Chennai, India.

With the 20th anniversary of independence for Central Asia’s new states upon us, I hope readers will give the report another look.

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