WASHINGTON, February 9 (CentralAsiaNewswire) -- During the past year, the Obama administration developed its first comprehensive strategy for Central Asia. The strategy is still closely tied to Afghanistan, but the intent is to construct a more benign regional environment in which the U.S. and its NATO allies can transfer leadership responsibilities to the Kabul government and its security forces as well as the supporting regional actors.
If implemented, the U.S. would remain vigorously engaged in Central Asia in order to promote its security, good governance, and socioeconomic development while these governments partner to support Afghanistan. Yet, the strategy faces several major impediments that must be overcome in 2012.
BACKGROUND: The Obama administration’s strategy for Central Asia consists of three main initiatives. The first has been to develop and expand the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to convey large quantities of non-lethal supplies from Europe to the NATO troops in Afghanistan through Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. These deliveries complement the supplies provided by direct airlift and by truck through Pakistan.
The NDN has decreased the volume of food, fuel, and equipment shipped through Pakistan, but these northern routes cost more, are less efficient, and present other challenges. Logistic bottlenecks prevent a rapid expansion of these alternative routes, while many of the NDN transit countries exclude the transportation of weapons, ammunition, or other combat supplies through their territory.
The second main effort of the Obama administration is to promote a “New Silk Road” (NSR) initiative that aims to deepen and broaden regional economic integration between Afghanistan and its Central and South Asian neighbors. The intent is to transform recent battlefield wins into enduring victories through more investment, jobs, and government revenue. These benefits would both decrease support for the extremists and enhance the capabilities of the local governments.
Some of the proposed NSR projects include completing the Afghan Ring Road; establishing rail links between Afghanistan and Pakistan; completing the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline; and creating a regional electricity market by establishing a transmission line between Central Asia and South Asia (CASA-1000).
Rather than finance a new Marshall Plan, the NSR aims to secure support from other foreign donors, multilateral development banks, and private sector actors. But drawing in the latter will require reducing the political risks, legal uncertainties, logistical challenges, and poor business climates to investors of investing in these potentially lucrative markets.
The Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative (CACI) represents the third main element of the Obama administration’s strategy to build local capacity and stimulate regional cooperation. Launched in June 2011 as a new $4.1 million State Department initiative, the CACI would establish counternarcotics task forces in all five Central Asian countries.
These would collaborate with the existing anti-drug task forces in Afghanistan and Russia. The seven groups would share sensitive information about drug production, interdiction operations, and law enforcement efforts against traffickers in Afghanistan. They would also help improve coordination on cross-border or multinational operations, perhaps leading to joint operations across the entire illicit drug supply chain.
Russian officials have thus far generally opposed the CACI. Russian counternarcotics officials have traditionally not thought highly of programs to interdict drug transportation and instead have favored concentrating resources on fighting opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan itself.
Other Russian officials oppose the initiative for geopolitical reasons: they aim to minimize the U.S. presence in Central Asia, a region they consider as falling within Moscow’s sphere of influence. They want the U.S. to focus its counternarcotics efforts exclusively inside Afghanistan rather than take the lead in constructing region-wide networks independent of Russia.
IMPLICATIONS: The administration needs to undertake several important steps to realize its strategy.
In light of the current deterioration in U.S.-Pakistani relations and instability along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the U.S.-NATO forces rely more than ever on the NDN. U.S. officials should seek to expand its use.
The next goals should be for the U.S. and other NATO countries to seek permission to transport lethal supplies along the NDN. In addition, they should try to secure the right of two-way transit, being able to move goods from as well as to Afghanistan.
It is also necessary to reduce the costs of using the NDN. It currently costs NATO about $10,000 or more to transport a twenty-foot container via the NDN instead of through Pakistan. Finally, NATO should try to make greater use of NDN South, which suffers from fewer political risks than the Northern route.
The success of the NSR projects depends on providing adequate public and private sector resources but also sufficient recipient country support. The local authorities must enact comprehensive economic and political reforms in order to attract large-scale private sector investment.
For instance, the World Bank’s latest Doing Business report finds that it takes 71 days to export an item from Uzbekistan and 92 days to import one. The average for all Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries is 10 and 11 days, respectively.
Reducing barriers among these countries is also essential for taking advantage of regional synergies and economies of scale. Central Asian states need better access to the markets, energy, and transportation infrastructure of neighboring countries.
Furthermore, it is also imperative that these states create more favorable private business and foreign investment climates through enhanced transparency, improved governance, and more effective political, economic, and social institutions.
Although some Central Asian countries have made progress, most continue to lag significantly behind other emerging market economies in such areas as accountability, rule of law, or corruption reduction. Georgia’s success shows that determined governments can reduce even entrenched levels of national corruption.
The U.S. and other partners can aid this effort through capacity-building programs and technical assistance. The administration should aim to achieve a few quick-impact NSR projects that demonstrate results and build momentum, while focusing most efforts on enduring projects that yield sustainable achievements in pursuit of the long-term vision underpinning the NSR.
U.S. officials should also devote attention to reducing both physical and non-physical barriers to Eurasian transport and trade, including customs and legal reforms, trade facilitation, and border management. The administration should also think creatively about how to use the enhanced regional transportation and other infrastructure developed under the NDN to support civilian economic exchanges within the NSR framework.
The Obama administration’s CACI is a welcome multilateral effort in an area where region-wide cooperation is essential but currently insufficient. Most programs are bilateral or are limited in scope.
For example, the Northern Route Working Group (NRWG) was established in 2010 to coordinate joint counternarcotics investigations in northern Afghanistan. The NRWG is composed of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, Tajikistan Drug Control Service, Kyrgyzstan Drug Control Service, and DEA Country Offices in Dushanbe, Kabul, and Moscow.
Existing political and bureaucratic obstacles to sharing information and coordinating operations mean that it will take the administration some time to establish the network of task forces. The administration should roll them out on a pilot basis, one at a time, working with the most cooperative partner governments.
If they begin to demonstrate some good results, then others will be more likely to support the network. The number of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency personnel in Central Asia should increase to meet the anticipated expanding requirements of the program.
The strategic communications strategy for the CACI should emphasize cooperation with Russia to counter a mutual threat. Russian opposition could be reduced by stressing how the CACI would cooperate with the Kanal drug interdiction campaigns conducted in Central Asia by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia and the U.S. could also partner on special projects such as constructing better barriers to narcotics smuggling across Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan.
CONCLUSIONS: The Obama administration’s Central Asian strategy cannot work without adequate resources, but non-military funding for the region was only $186.2 million in FY2010 and is likely to decline further. Military assistance to the five Central Asian countries is somewhat higher but also looks set to decrease in coming years. The U.S. government must also gain greater backing for the strategy from China, Pakistan, and Russia—countries that have reasons to support policy outcomes that differ from U.S. preferences.